A few years ago I started a series of essays dedicated to homebrewing (Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3 can be found here). At the time when those articles were written I was still working in the brewing industry. Since then, as I have alluded to in a few recent posts, I am no longer working in the adult beverage industry and glad of it. But that has not diminished my love of beer or of brewing it. In fact, now that I am no longer surrounded by beer and all the things (both good and bad) that happen in a brewery on a daily basis, I now have much more time for family and hobbies. And because of that, my passion for the actual brewing process has had a bit of a renaissance. Due to the cold winter and some breaks from the school that I now work at, I have had ample time to brew and bottle a bunch of batches of beer, improve upon my brewing skills, and more importantly getting my home brewery cleaned and organized.
This article is going to explore some of the equipment, space requirements, and other resources that make for a successful and awesome DIY home brewery. Like so many homesteading projects and hobbies, there are basic procedures, guidelines, and equipment that should be followed to end up with a good result. Think about canning as an example. When you set out to can tomatoes, make preserves, or whip up a batch of pickles, you do not try and reinvent the wheel each time. We know through the scientific process and observation throughout the years that certain recipes, amounts of acidity, appropriate sugar and salt content, and proper processing methods and times lead to a successful end result that will not kill you or get you sick. This is a good thing and is in place for a reason.
While brewing is a much more forgiving process in terms of the end product not killing you (at least not because of crappy equipment or poor brewing methods), having the proper equipment and a decent comprehension of the process can lead to success more times than not. But don’t let this fool you into thinking that it is a one size fits all approach. There are quite a few variations on both equipment and procedure that can be adapted to your personal situation. Do your homework and evaluate what kinds of resources you have available to use, and as Charlie Papizian once said, “Don’t worry, relax, and have a home brew”! So what follows are some of my thoughts and ideas as far as my downstairs, DIY home brewery is concerned.
Making Space – As most homebrewers can attest to, having a dedicated spot to do your brewing is sure a nice thing. While it is easy enough to whip up an extract beer kit in your kitchen on a Saturday afternoon without ruining domestic bliss; when you start to move into all grain brewing you will find having a dedicated spot set aside from the kitchen can be a very nice thing for many reasons. Due to equipment requirements and time constraints for all grain brewing, having a spot that won’t interfere with cooking dinner or story time can be very helpful. In the summer, this problem is easily solved by moving the DIY brewery outside onto the deck, driveway, or garage. But in the winter this can be a bit more problematic unless you have a heated garage.
I have chosen to locate my brewery in my basement. It has taken a few years to get to where I am at (and honestly there is still more to do) but I am to the point where everything has its place, and because of a relatively organized work area, the process of actually turning malted grain into an alcoholic beverage has become more streamlined and efficient. The most important aspect in the basement brewery is proper ventilation. Because there is combustion going on (whether that is propane or natural gas) having fresh air coming in, and a vent to remove excess carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and moisture is very important. In my case I have fresh air coming into the basement for my furnace, a small fan to help move it around, and a vent hood that is located right above my burner. This has worked out very well for me, and the only improvement that still needs to be made is the installation of a stove (which is currently gathering dust in my garage) that will use natural gas instead of the propane burner that I currently use. The new stove will burn more efficiently and safely, and will be in a permanent spot dedicated to brewing and maybe some canning in the fall.
Another nice aspect of having an area dedicated to brewing, such as a basement, is that all of my equipment, access to water, ingredients, and tools are all in close proximity to each other. This helps out immensely, whether that is moving a full 6 gallon carboy into the fermentation cellar or if my mash tun bottom needs to be repaired on the workbench. By having everything relatively close to each other, and stacking functions of all the different components, my basement performs many roles other than just a DIY brewery, but also a workshop, cellar, dry and bulk storage, a place to do laundry, and a quiet spot to cool off from the hot summer sun.
Equipment – For the all-grain home brewer, having the right equipment can be the difference between great beer versus swill. In its most basic form, the brewing process is fairly simple, but having a few key pieces of equipment not only makes the process much easier, but can also lead to a better finished product. As already mentioned, you need something to cook on. A propane burner or kitchen stove is what most people will use. Just make sure to have adequate airflow and ventilation and you shouldn’t have any problems.
One key piece that is absolutely necessary for the all grain brewer is some type of grain mill to crush your malt. I use an older type of corona mill that I got from a friend. It is a very simple piece of technology, but when it is dialed in properly, you can achieve a very nice finished crushed grain. You do not want to turn your malt into flour, so having it properly set can take a little time and adjustment, and will vary depending on what kind of grain you are milling (barley, wheat, rye). There are many models of grain mills you can purchase all the way from the type I have all the way up to double roller mills that can be powered by a hand drill. What you decide to use depends on how much you brew, how much money you want to spend, and whether or not you want a machine doing some of the work for you.
Next up is a brewing kettle. This will be your main vessel for heating water and boiling wort (beer before it is fermented). I built mine out of an old ¼ barrel keg. First I bled out any left over pressure that was still in the keg. Second, using a reciprocating saw and an angle grinder, I cut out the top. And third, I added a ball valve drain towards the bottom. While I won’t go into specifics on how to install this part, it is a necessary component for an all grain brewing kettle. If you have welding skills, or know of someone who does, this is a good way of adding this part, otherwise it can be installed using components that are threaded and within the abilities of most people to install themselves.
You will also need another kettle very similar to your brewing kettle to hold hot water for when you sparge your grains. I use a four gallon stainless steel kettle that I purchased very cheaply from a grocery store. It also has a ball valve drain added in the same fashion as the brewing kettle.
The all-grain brewer will also need a mash tun. This is the vessel where the magic happens, where the starches that are locked in the malted grain are converted to sugar; the necessary ingredient for the yeast to do its job. My mash tun is made out of an upright, 6 gallon cylindrical Rubbermaid cooler. Where the original beverage spigot once was, it has been replaced with an almost identical ball valve that the brew kettle and hot water tank has. Also, a false bottom was made out of coiled copper tubing, copper screen, and copper wire all rescued from the waste stream!
Keeping on the subject of copper equipment, another nice item to include in your brewing setup, is a coiled copper wort chiller. These can easily be made out of coiled copper pipe, rubber or silicon tubing, hose clamps, and threaded fitting that will fit a standard garden hose. Cooling the wort as fast as possible to the desired temperature (about 70 degrees F) at the end of the brewing session is important, as it creates the perfect environment for the yeast to thrive and to turn sugar into alcohol. The quicker the selected yeast can thrive and do its job, the less of a chance that the beer becomes infected with unwanted yeast or other bacteria.
There are also a few more pieces of equipment that you will need to finish your beer after it is done being brewed. First is some kind of fermentation vessel. Most homebrewers use glass or plastic carboys. These containers range anywhere in size from a one gallon cider jug all the way up to 6 gallons. They are easy to work with, relatively easy to clean and can be found at any home brewing store or mail order. I have even found one at a garage sale, so keep your eyes open for unexpected deals. The glass ones are my favorite, but you have to be careful. Early on in my brewing, we dinged one on my old cement sink and that carboy exploded into a thousand pieces! Be warned!
After fermentation is complete, the beer will either be bottle conditioned, or racked into kegs. Each has its advantages, but for the purpose of this article I will only talk briefly about bottling beer. I am not opposed to kegs, but I have never really done it so only want to speak to things that I have personal experience with. For bottling, you obviously need bottles. This ones easy, buy beer that is in bottles with pry off crowns – 12, 22, and 32 ounce bottles will all work. And if you are cheap like I am, frequent the recycling bins of any decent beer bar and you will find more than enough bottles in very little time. New crowns will also be needed as well.
Before actually bottling the beer, you will need a syphon to move the beer out of the carboy into what is called a bottling bucket. Mine was purchased, but one could easily be made with the right parts. It is just a 6 gallon food grade plastic bucket, with a spigot added towards the bottom. You will also want a spring activated filling tube. It sounds way more complicated than it is and will only cost a little bit of cash at a homebrew equipment supplier. You will need some type of capper, and there are more than a few models to choose from.
Last but not least lets wrap up a few loose ends on the equipment front. Milk crates are an invaluable resource to include in the DIY home brewery. They can be stacked to create a higher work area or to hold different kettles and such. Carboys fit in them perfectly, so when you find yourself with a 40 pound plus filled carboy, it is sure nice to have a way to move them around with something that has handles. They also work great for storing both full and empty bottles.
A selection of hoses, a stainless steel shower head for sparging, food grade buckets, timers, thermometers, hand tools like screwdrivers and wrenches, smaller containers like cider jugs, quick release clamps, airlocks and bungs, pitchers, a spare scrap of 2×4, and other things I am sure I am forgetting can all come in handy at some point in the brewing process. As you gain experience and get more batches into your belly and under your belt, you will figure out what kinds of things you may need for your specific setup for brewing. Just remember, no two home breweries are going to be exactly a like, so be creative and use what you have available.
Time – Time may be the most important asset to have when it comes to all grain brewing. You can count on at least 4 hours for a single session, but if you have more time available, and a streamlined setup and process, you can get 2 batches done in about 6 hours. Doing it this way also cuts down on resources being wasted. Then there will be anywhere from a week to a few months of fermentation and conditioning depending on the beer you are waiting to bottle. Once it is in the bottle, it is usually carbonated within two weeks, but can occasionally take longer. So while this may be the shortest section of this essay, time is essential. Carve out a block of it and use it wisely, and learn to embrace patience and you will be rewarded with some great beer!
To anyone with experience homebrewing, this essay is not breaking any new ground. It has been a very basic overview of how I go about making a batch of beer and what has been working for me. I really just scratched the surface of the process and the equipment needed to make good beer. My intention was to show you some of the the basics to all grain brewing, and as a motivation to give it a try. There are tons of resources available to the DIY homebrewer these days. Books, videos, forums, and meet up groups are all avenues to learning more about this great hobby! Two books that I highly recommend for the DIY homebrewer are Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing, and The Alaskan Bootlegger’s Bible by Leon W. Kania. Both of these books have great recipes and ideas for those of us who like to do things for ourselves and are just great reads.
While it may come across that I take this stuff really seriously, I actually don’t. I am not a beer snob, but do enjoy a good beer! It is a fun hobby, and a great way to spend the cold winters, but for me it is also a way to save a bit of money, build in a bit of resiliency into my life and still be able to enjoy a few pints of really good beer. There are plenty of folks out there with more knowledge and know how than I have to offer, so seek that information out. But to truly learn anything, you gotta get your hands dirty so give it a shot and brew some beer! Start collecting the equipment you will need, buy your ingredients in bulk and begin your journey on the path of being a DIY homebrewer! Peace & Cheers