The What’s What of Homebrewing Starter Kits
What’s in a Home Brew Starter Kit?:
The prospect of making your own beer can be an exciting one. You go to your local homebrew store or visit one of the online options, and head over to the starter kit section. There you’ll usually find several selections, each claiming to be the ideal set for beginning home brewing, but how do you choose what’s best for you? In this article, we’ll go over all of the most common components you’ll find in a starter kit, and what they are used for. From there you’ll be able to make an educated decision based on your situation.
One thing you’ll find about brewing is that there is a lot of cleaning and sanitizing of equipment. Some starter kits offer cleaning options. Cleaning is removing any visible build up from bottles, fermenters, or other equipment. Sanitizing kills bacteria on surfaces and is done right before brewing or bottling. Cleaning is not sanitizing and sanitizing is not cleaning.
- Bottle of Star San or other Sanitizer - Star San is an acid based concentrate that you dilute to make a sanitizing solution. Another option is iodophor, which is iodine based.
- Bottle Brush - A bottle brush is a small wand with a brush at the end used for cleaning bottles that have been previously used.
- Carboy Brush - Another brush, but has a bent end to better reach the top of the carboy, which is hard to reach with other traditional brushes. * It’s important to NOT use brushes on plastic. They will scratch the soft plastic and create safe harbor for bacteria, and increase the risk of infecting your beer or wine.
- PBW - PBW, or Powdered Brewery Wash, is a powder form that you mix with warm water to clean your equipment with just a soak.
Bottling & Transferring Equipment
- Vinyl Transfer Tubing - Vinyl tubing, or siphon tubing attaches to different tools to move your brew from one place to another. Most transfers use gravity to create a siphon to continuously transfer your beer or wine.
- Plastic Bottle Filler - A bottle filler is a spring operated piece of plastic that goes on the end of siphon tubing. While a siphon is started, you can stop/start the flow by pressing down and releasing on the bottom of a bottle.
- Bottle Caps – Bottle or “Crown” caps are what gets put on bottled beer. The edges are fanned out and get crimped down over the collar of a bottle. Because of this, you can’t reuse caps.
- Bottle Capper - A basic capper is manually operated with 2 levers. Place a cap over the bottle and pull both levers down equally. Practice on a couple bottles to get the hang of it before bottling your beer. More advanced cappers are easier to operate and make bottling quicker.
- Plastic Bottling Bucket with Spigot - A bottling bucket has a spigot on the bottom for filling bottles. You can also prime (add sugar before bottling to prepare for carbonation) all your beer at once with one. Open the spigot to fill bottles, then close it and repeat. If you have a bottle filler, you can leave the spigot open (as the spring action keeps your beer from spilling on the ground.
- Auto-Siphon - A siphon starter is 2 plastic pieces that make transferring your beer or wine easier. One piece is a tube and the other is a firm plastic rod that is bent at the end. Siphon tubing attaches to the end of the bent end. With the rod pushed to the bottom of your beer (but staying out of the sediment layer), pull up on the rod, leaving the tube where it was. Then push it back down. This begins a siphon without creating a manual vacuum (or sucking).
- Sterile Siphon Starter - Similar to a racking cane, but works with a bung and has a rod going down into the beer. It has a secondary port which you blow on (through an air filter) to increase the pressure and push the beer out. Once the siphon is started, gravity does the rest, just like an auto siphon.
- Funnel - If you don’t have a siphon, a funnel is the next best way to transfer wort (beer that hasn’t been fermented yet, before the addition of yeast) from your boil kettle to your fermenter. It is okay to add oxygen before and when you pitch yeast (which happens when you pour through a funnel), but after that you should avoid vigorous pouring of your beer.
- 12 or 22 oz bottles - New bottles without labels. They are nice and clean and can be re-used if washed. You can also re-use commercial beer bottles but try to avoid clear, or green bottles as they let more light in that will produce off flavors and skunk your beer. Also, any bottle with screw caps can’t hold the stress of the capping process, or carbonation. It’s nice to start with a fresh batch of bottles as you’ll need 45-50 12 oz bottles to bottle a five gallon batch.
- Mesh Steeping bags - If you’re making extract batches, many of them require you to steep specialty grains (crystal malts, roasted malts, oats etc.) in hot water before you begin your boil. You can’t boil the grain so having them in a steeping bag is very helpful for removing grain from your wort. Some of them are reusable.
- Long Spoon - A big long spoon for stirring your mash and stirring in extract can be very helpful. You don’t know just how short your spaghetti spoon is until you scald your hand trying to stir stuff off the bottom of your pot. Buy a spoon specific to homebrewing.
- Kettle - The kettle is what you do your boil in. Having a large kettle will let you boil all your wort without having to add water back in and prevent boil overs. (10 Gallons is ideal for 5 gallon batches), but you can get away with 7.5-8 gallons. Smaller 5 gallon kettles may require you to add water back in after the boil based on your batch size.
- Wort Chiller - Cooling your wort quickly and efficiently is essential as you want to pitch your yeast (optimal yeast pitching temps for Ales are 64-68 F) as soon as possible after boiling. A wort chiller runs cold water from your garden hose or sink through a copper tubing system, drawing the heat away from your wort. If you don’t have a wort chiller we suggest using an ice bath in your kitchen sink. Make sure you can fit your kettle into your sink, and then layer ice around the kettle in the sink till you arrive at the proper temperature for your recipe.
Fermentation Vessels & Equipment
- Plastic Bucket Fermenter - A big 5 or 6 gallon food grade bucket with a lid is an affordable, effective fermentation vessel. They are easy to move around and aren’t as fragile as glass, but are susceptible to scratching (scratches harbor bacteria and mold which cleaners and sanitizers can’t reach) and may need to be replaced from time to time based on use and cleaning method.
- Bucket Lid with Hole - This is the lid that goes on the bucket. They snap on very snuggly and have a grommeted hole for airlock placement.
- Airlock - An airlock is a piece of plastic filled to a marked level with water or neutral alcohol. As alcoholic fermentation commences, yeast will convert sugar into alcohol and Carbon Dioxide (CO2). As pressure builds from the CO2 being created it will push the liquid in the airlock up and bubble out the excess pressure (preventing your equipment from blowing a lid or cracking. Airlocks also prevent bugs and air from reaching your beer. Airlock also come in the waterless variety depending on an s curve in order to allow gas to escape while preventing foreign objects from entering. There are also airlocks made of semipermeable material that again allow the escape of gas while keeping foreign objects from entering during fermentation.
- Carboy - A carboy is a jug that is either plastic or glass. They typically let in less air than buckets and are sealed up with a drilled bung which fits in the mouth (your airlock goes into the drilled bung). Carboys are wide and cylindrical and come to a thinner neck at the top with a small hole on top. Because of their shape, they can be hard to clean sometimes and a carboy brush is made for that. Plastic carboys though should not be brushed and PBW is a better route in that case.
- Rubber Stopper (or bung) with Hole - If using a carboy, the rubber stopper with an airlock on it gets plugged into the top. Depending on the size of your carboy, you’ll need a different size bung.
- Hydrometer - A hydrometer reads the sugar in a solution. It is typically read in Gravity points. Water will have a gravity of 1.000 (at 21 degrees C, or 70 degrees F). A Pale Ale wort may start at 1.057 and end at 1.012. If you have a starting gravity (SG) and a Final Gravity (FG), you can calculate ABV (OG - FG) * 131.25 = ABV).
- Hydrometer Jar - A tube you fill with wort to measure the gravity.
- Thermometer - Temperature is important in many aspects of brewing. It’s a good thing to have a separate thermometer in your arsenal that isn’t used to prod meat to eliminate any chances of cross contamination.
Some homebrew starter kits will include a recipe or ingredient kit. These include everything you need to make your first beer from malt (or malt extract), to hops, yeast, and step by step instructions. You can buy ingredient kits separately as well.
Homebrewing DVD or booklet
In some cases the kit may come with a how to DVD or booklet. It’s always good info to have for beginners. A wealth of information is also available online.
Small Batch Kits
Separate from the other pieces, some kits available are for “small batches”. These kits are for making beer 1 gallon (roughly 9-10 bottles) at a time. Many will include items listed above but the fermenter will only be 1 or 2 gallons. Not every kit will include all the pieces above. This article is a guide for you to make an informed decision based on how you’d like to begin your hobby, and being familiar with most everything included when purchasing a kit.