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So You Want to Brew! Our intro-to-homebrewing course – Part One: The Starter Kit

On this episode of Doin’ the Most, we’re kicking off our series of videos called – So You Want to Brew?

Fermentation is as complex as is it rudimentary. Getting started can feel like a complete whirlwind from the first moment you type it in the search bar: “How to make wine at home”

But while there is a lot going on, a lot of equipment you’ll find yourself needing, and a flurry of caution signs along the way – anyone can brew and ferment at home.

A lot of folks come to our youtube channel looking for information on how to make wine or mead. And while we put a lot of effort and thought into how to show the brewing process step-by-step, we could tell that more could be done to break everything down to the nuts and bolts. We really wanted to strive for an introductory course to fermentation.

Real quick, we’ll set some ground rules:

  • This channel is more focused on wines and meads than beers, but the majority of what is presented in this guide will also be relevant when making beer. However, to simplify our language, “must” will be used throughout instead of “wort.”
  • Also, most folks don’t consider meads or wines to be “brewed” – that’s fine, but we’re going to lump all home fermentations of alcoholic beverages into the “homebrew” category. This will included referring to fermentations that have completed primary as “brews.”

Since this is an introductory course to fermentation, we’re going to break it all down in a four-part series.

  • Part 1, the Starter Kit – a walkthrough of mostly essential items you’ll need to jump right into brewing.
  • Part 2 will focus on Microorganisms, the tiny little creatures that make fermentation possible
  • Part 3 is Fermentation itself – the process from creating your must to achieving a clear, drinkable beverage.
  • And finally Part 4, Bottling – the big day when your homebrew goes into glass and gets corked or capped.

PART ONE: THE STARTER KIT

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.

At some point, we’ve all been there.  When I started brewing ten years ago, I had no clue what to look for or what things were called.  And in those days, web forums and books were often the best resources.  Fortunately, now that YouTube and blogs have taken off, so much more information is more accessible. But for the newer brewer, a cheat sheet is always handy.  So here’s your simple homebrew starter kit shopping list, so you can get your brewventure started and jump into homebrewing your own fermented brews:

Hydrometer
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.

So how do you read one of these things? It’s fairly simple. Don’t let all the numbers and markings intimidate you. Most homebrew hydrometers are calibrated at 60°F. Homebrewers are typically using hydrometers to measure “specific gravity.” This is the ratio of the must’s density to the density of water. For example, pure water should give a reading of 1.000, while a traditional mead might read at around 1.09. The higher reading means the liquid is denser than water, which, in homebrewing, is used to approximate the amount of fermentable sugars in your must. As fermentation progresses, your hydrometer reading should creep closer and closer to 1.0. So in our traditional mead example, if the reading started at 1.09 and ended at 1.01, you’ve finished at 10.5% ABV with a hint of residual sweetness remaining.

Carboys
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 capacities. New brewers typically start in 1-gallon batches.  I recommend 5-gallon batches as a starting point – but we’ve got a whole other video on that.  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 fermentations, 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.

Airlocks
The best way to limit outside air (and pests) getting into your brews is to keep them under airlock. The airlock is seated securely between the must and the outside air – typically in a grommet on a brew bucket or in the neck of a carboy.

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 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. Check out our video on it for more information!

Campden Tablets
First off, these are certainly not an absolute necessity, but for a beginner brewer, they offer some peace of mind in a few circumstances.

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 – more on that in video 3 of this series. Campden tablets allow the home brewer to measure small quantities of potassium metabisulfite easily.  They have no noticeable flavor.

Many homebrew recipes include sterilizing 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.

Star San
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 acids. It is cheap, effective, and most importantly safe! Anything that will come in contact with your must should 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! You only want the microorganisms in your must to be those you have intentionally pitched in there – not anything wild.

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.

And while I’m of the old-school mindset, I will acknowledge that autosiphons are in vogue right now.  Rather than starting the siphon with suction from your mouth, you do so with pump-action vacuum pressure. The autosiphon consists of a racking cane with tubing on one end, with the other end housed within a racking tube. Pumping the racking cane continuously for a few seconds draws the liquid into the tubing, then gravity does the rest.  This is considered more sanitary that the old-school mouth-suction technique.

Bottling Wand
Once you’re ready to bottle, you’ll want some serious control over how the fermented brew 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.

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 or Oxyclean and a little scrubbing with the proper brush, and you’ll have clean glass in no time flat!

Bottle Corker
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 a small hand corker, but there are large floor models as well. Just sanitize your corks, plop them in the corker, and cork away.

Bottle Capper
Particularly if you plan to carbonate and bottle-condition, you’ll probably want a crown capper.  They make hand models, but you might 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.

Funnel
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. Get a nice, big, food grade funnel – stainless steel if you can find it.

Yeasts
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. We’ll have more on yeasts in PART TWO of this series.

Well that’s it for part one of “So you want to brew” – was there anything you think we missed in our homebrewing starter kit? Let us know in the comments.  There are so many pieces of equipment and tech out there – some time-saving and others simply gratuitous. We’d love to know what’s in your brewing arsenal! To stay tuned for part two in this series, hit that subscribe button so you won’t miss it! Thanks for watching – see ya next time, when we talk MICROORGANISMS!

 

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