Wednesday, January 13, 2016

How much to invest in home brewing...links to DIY projects and products...

Home brewing is more than a hobby.  More than a hobby that produces delicious ales, lagers, sours, mead, and ciders.   Home brewing is almost a way of life.  When someone asks me what I am,   First, I am a man of faith (if you're not that's cool, not here to judge anyone, it just works for me), Second. I am a father, and third, and surprisingly high on my list, I find that I let them know I am a home brewer.  A fermentation enthusiast, a zymurgyst if you will.

Something I struggle with, that I know many home brewers struggle with, is how much money to invest in home brewing.  Sure, if I won the lottery my basement would surely and quickly be converted to my own personal micro pub, with all the tricks and gadgets.   I will admit I while away the hours dreaming of my ultimate system, complete with a glycol chiller, micron filters, a labratory set up, and multiple automated fermentation chambers that I could control from my phone.   But how do you take those dreams, that passion, that love, and convert it into the real world?   The world where you actually have to pay for all of this stuff?

My approach has been only to invest in things that make the beer appreciably better.   I brew primarily on the stove top (small batch) and in an electric turkey fryer (5 gallon all grain and partial mash).  I have a heat stick to supplement the turkey fryer, it is only 1650 watts.   I have added a valve to the turkey fryer to make transfer easier.  But for the most part I believe that simple and inexpensive is actually better. The best home brewers I know, the guys who win at club, the guys who win at major contests all tend to have a similar philosophy... it isn't the equipment, it's the brewer (assuming of course that the equipment is adequate.  

I ferment in clear plastic PET carboys, and in glass.  I rarely ferment in pails.  My sour set up is a black PET pail that has the word sours spray painted on the side.  I do make brettanomyces and lactic sours.  When I make lactic sours I tend to just kettle sour.  When I make brett, I build it up from dregs of commercial beers.   My yeast stir plate died.   So I make starters in 1 gallon glass jugs.  Or I plan a series based on a particular yeast and I pitch right onto part of the yeast cake.   I do tend to remove the cake clean the carboy, and perform a modified yeast wash.

All of these items are intended to make my brewing excellent, and to reduce the cost of home brewing.   For me that is important.   Good Beer, Simple Repeatable Processes, Low Cost.But really how much should you invest into home brewing?   What do you have to have?  Many of you read my rant that was inspired by a guy who thinks his home brewing obsession is more important than his daughter going to college (you know who you are,.. to his credit he started working 2 jobs to rectify the situation).

I propose the following as a guide to sanity in brewing spending.

Level 1:  The newb - No more than $250.   You'll need a couple of big pots, some pails to ferment in, a hydrometer, a brewing thermometer, a 1 gallon jug,  and some basic kitchen stuff.  You really don't need much more than that to make some really good extract batches of beer.  Newbs should focus on beers where fermentation temperature control is not a big issue, by brewing beers that ferment ok warm, and using yeast that will ferment ok at warmer temperatures.  Belgians, Wheat Beers, and Clean ales using US05, Wyeast 1056, WLP001, WLP008 (poor attenuation so make low og beers only) BRY97.  Lagers should probably be avoided when you are a newb.   If you want a lawnmower beer make a clean cream ale.   Ferment it in a laundry tub with water and frozen 2 liters to keep the temperature down.   To really improve your beer shake it up to aerate, and make a yeast starter in your 1 gallon jug... it isn't hard.

Level 2:  The occasional hobbyist -  No more than $500.  In addition to the things listed above you'll need some glass carboys,  a very large pot 8 -10 gallons, a burner or heat source capable of boiling 7 gallons, a wort chiller, some brew bags, and potentially a mash tun.  This is where you should really be thinking about some simple fermentation temperature control. Ferment it in a laundry tub with water and frozen 2 liters to keep the temperature down.   You should probably be making yeast starters at this point in your brewing career.

Level 3: The home brew enthusiast.  - An additional $500 to $1000.   In addition to the items listed above you are probably going to invest in a kegging system.  You'll probably want some tools to make your brew day even better, tools like a pH meter, and a refractometer.   And you'll want real automated temperature controlled fermenation chambers, a converted dorm fridge works great. Youll be making yeast starters so building a stir plate is probably on your horizon.   You'll probably also have bulk grains.  So having a place to store them is a bonus.

Level 4:  The lifer - No more than $5000 total, this is a freaking hobby afterall.  Use your head. Remember it is the brewer not the equipment.   This is the phase where you are all in forever.   You'll want multiple fermentation chambers for lagers and ales, a keezer set up for your kegs, and some pumps for transferring wort and possibly some automation.  You aren't just a home brewer anymore, you are a competitive home brewer, who makes some of the best beer your friends and family have ever tasted.   Any thing is with in your reach, from a reiterated barley wine to a light crisp American Pilsner (very difficult). You truly understand your system, yeast, malt, and hops.  Decoction and Krausening to improve attenuation are regular procedures for you.  You know in your head how much the temperature will drop when you add the grist, because you've done this hundreds of times.  You can look at a carboy and know what is going on with the yeast.

I tend to float somewhere between the enthusiast and the lifer.  Don't get me wrong I'm a lifer, after 27 years. But life happens, and much of the advanced gear I owned was lost in a hard times.  So I'm rebuilding my brewing empire.  I try to keep my head on straight.  I try to only to purchase things that improve my beer, and make my life easier.  Please always remember; it is the brewer, not the equipment.  You can make world class beer on your stove top if you really know what you are doing.  You don't need to mortgage your home to have a world class automated wort production machine.  Unless you really know how to clean, and don't mind cleaning, a lot,  the recirculating eHERMS, and plate chillers are probably not the best option for you.   I'm not saying they aren't good systems.  I'm saying they take a lot of extra cleaning to avoid "minor' infections.  And minor infections are the bane of brewing, the number one reason home brew doesn't taste quite right.    So my advice stick with gear that improves your beer, makes your brew day easier, and is easy to clean.   And keep your head on straight when considering how much to spend on home brewing.  Don't compare your set up to online bloggers.  Remember many of us get some free stuff to try out for a while.   I got a packet of yeast once... But seriously, you don't need all of that stuff.

Some important links to affordable DIY home brew projects.

Links to other easy to clean and use brew gear that will improve your beer.

 Notice there are no links to pH meters and refractometers?  You don't really need them a years supply of pH strips is $3 at your local Walmart (go to the aquariums or pools section) and you should already have a hydrometer.


  1. This is a great post and it speaks volumes. I would consider myself a level 2 brewer currently with the aspiration of a level 3 and the passion of a level 4. Unfortunately, like for most of us, a real world budget will keep me in level 2 for now. I have no problem with this, it is very easy and fun to refine my process and find different things which can improve the overall product.

  2. Yeah I would agree you're flirting with level 3 though with the oncoming construction of a temperature controlled cedar ale cellar. That will take your beers to the next level. On another note... the cream ale is gone, please brew more.

  3. Love the post. Puts it into perspective. I appreciate you uploading the links. I am going to research these in order to line up what I want. It's important that I do not go overboard since I consider myself an occasional hobbyist right now.

  4. Hey David, really enjoyed reading this. Faith, family, fermentation...a man with his priorities in order. Got a quick question I wonder if you might help me with. I'm somewhere between around a level 2 brewer at this point. I'm managing some decent efficiency with my indoor setup, using a cooler and boiling on the stove top with a 32 liter pot. But man, it takes forever to bring my wort to a boil. Thinking about buying a cheap outdoor burner that would run on propane/LP. Do you think it would speed up the process on a brew day? My full-time job is not brewing, so minimizing the actual time of process will allow me to work in more batches around my schedule. And any insight as to the energy cost of boiling on the stovetop (two burners on high for several hours) vs. boiling over an open flame (with wind guard)? Thanks!

  5. It definitely speeds up the process. My blog is about making beer the easy way on your counter, but my brewing partners know, and now you know too... that isn't the only way i do things. We often use a 65000 BTU burner on brew day. Alternatively you could purchase a heat stick for about $20 plus shipping on ebay. I also am a big fan of the cajun injector electric turkey fryer... you might read my posts on it. It has really worked well for us.