If you’re brand-new to homebrewing, the vocabulary and gear list can feel daunting. There are so many new terms and best practices to keep in your brain. Then you hop on Amazon to browse for supplies, and it is all so overwhelming.
We’ve all been there. When I started brewing ten years ago, I had no clue what to look for or what things are called. And in those days, web forums and books were often the best resources. Fortunately, now YouTube and blogs have taken off, so information is more accessible to access. But for the newer brewer, a cheat sheet is always handy. For that purpose, we developed this simple homebrew starter shopping list so you can get your brewventure started right now!
Here’s everything you need to jump into homebrewing your wines and meads:
We place this at the top of the list because it is the #1 tool for getting to know your brew. Learning how to read a hydrometer will allow you to see some clutch pieces of information: your potential alcohol content, the progress of your fermentation, and residual sweetness (if any). The hydrometer is crucial in homebrewing because it is like a gauge for diagnosing what’s happening in your brew. Think of it like a thermometer, barometer, or any other type of weather diagnostic tool. The more you know about the environment within your fermentation vessel, the better you can hone your brews – and your skills at brewing.
Speaking of vessels, you need something to brew in! Most common these days are glass jugs and carboys. You can most often find them in 1-, 3-, 5-, and 6-gallon volumes. New brewers typically start in 1-gallon batches. I recommend 5-gallon batches as a starting point – but more on that in a later blog. You can start out fermenting in food-grade buckets (I did), but as you become more cognitive of and sensitive to oxygenation issues in your wines/meads, the more you’ll want to limit “headspace.” With their narrow necks, jugs and carboys restrict the exposure of your must to the air. Less oxygen in contact with your must means less chance of over-oxygenation in your fermentation vessel before bottling.
The best way to limit outside air (and pests) getting into your brews is to keep them under airlock. Bubbler airlocks use sanitizer or vodka as a “valve” between the must and the outside. CO2 can bubble out, but nothing else can get in. They do come with some maintenance needs, though – a bubbler should not run dry. So you need to keep an eye on it and top up the airlock when needed.
For this reason, I’ve switched to silicone bungs. These (often medical-grade) airlocks are molded, breathable, silicone valves that fit into the neck of the carboy. I’ve found them to be just as reliable as bubblers without any of the headaches of maintenance.
These pill-shaped tablets are made of potassium metabisulfite, a sulfur-based product used primarily to sterilize wine, cider, and mead. They can kill bacteria and inhibit the growth of most wild yeasts. Campden tablets allow the home brewer to measure small quantities of potassium metabisulfite easily. They have no noticeable flavor. Many homebrew recipes include sanitizing the must with Campden 24 hours before pitching the yeast, then again just before bottling. This step is not necessarily required, but it is a useful control mechanism for the homebrewer who is learning the best practices of proper sanitization.
This brings us to acid-based sanitizers like Star San. Star San is a self-foaming acid sanitizer ideal for brewing and other food and beverage equipment. It is an extremely effective bactericide and fungicide made from a blend of phosphoric acid and dodecylbenzene sulfonic acid. It is cheap, effective, and most importantly safe! Anything that will come in contact with your wine or mead must be sanitized to prevent microbial infections that could turn the must into something dangerous (or gross). Star San is the most widely used product, but other homebrew sanitizers are out there as well, like Iodophor. Sanitizing solution is a must-have for homebrewing!
Racking Cane and Tubing
Your racking system is how you get your brew from one container to the next. Remember the old TV shows where someone would siphon gasoline from a car? It is the same idea! The racking cane is a rigid tube that clips onto your brewing vessel. The tubing, typically medical-grade plastic tubing, attaches to the top of the cane. Don’t skimp here – get a stainless steel racking cane. I’ve blown through enough plastic ones early on to have more than paid for stainless. You can start your siphon with a little mouth suction, but some people prefer an auto-siphon.
Once you’re ready to bottle, you’ll want some serious control over how the mead/wine gets from the carboy to the bottles. The bottling wand attaches to the end of your racking tubing and has a valve at the end. When pressed against the bottom of a bottle, the valve opens, and your brew flows delicately into the bottle. Just lift when the bottle is full and move onto the next bottle. You can see an example of this process in our Juniper Mead video.
Brushes – Bottle and Carboy
Make sure to pick up some brushes for bottles (if you’re recycling) and your carboy. It is challenging to clean the insides of these vessels. But with a soak in StarSan and a little scrubbing with the proper brush, and you’ll be cleaning glass in no time flat!
You’re probably here because you’re interested in making meads and fruit wines – which means you’ll probably be bottling in wine bottles. Make sure you have a great corker on hand for this process. You want the cork to be firmly seated inside the bottle all the way into the neck. My favorite style of corker is this small hand corker, but there are large floor models as well. Just sanitize your corks, plop them in the corker, and cork away.
Optional Additional Items
Particularly if you plan to carbonate and bottle-condition, you’ll probably want a crown capper. They make hand models, but I prefer a bench capper because of the added control. Caps are cheap, and recyclable bottles are aplenty – so this is a great cost-conscious option if you plan to drink your brews sooner than later. Stick to corks if you’ll be bottle aging for a while.
A wide-necked funnel can make it a lot easier to get honey, juices, grains, hops, and other fermentables and additives into the neck of your carboy.
Some folks, myself included, like to keep certain yeasts on-hand. My current lineup includes D47 and EC-1118, but I’ve also had Premier Rouge on hand for fermenting fruity reds. It’s nice to be able to grab a packet from the fridge and ferment – rather than run down to the brew shop or wait for an Amazon delivery.
Did we miss anything on this list? Let us know your must-have gear in the comments below!