Last week I introduced this mini-series that will cover brewing your own beer at home. I’ve been brewing for a while now, but I wanted to do a series of posts on this topic because the number one question I get from people is whether or not you can actually save money this way. It is possible to set up a basic home brewing operation and actually save some money in the process, but it’s just as easy to find yourself spending even more money than you intended.
Ultimately, it all comes down to your equipment. This is what will make or break your frugal beer experience. Most of your basic extract beer recipe kits can be had for between $25 and $30. These kits are typically designed to make 5 to 5.5 gallons. All said and done, that gives you in the ballpark of 50 bottles per batch. The math is pretty simple, and for the ingredients alone you’re looking at creating a beer that costs roughly $0.50-$0.60 per bottle. That’s not bad, especially if you’re making a style of beer that typically costs $8-$10 per six-pack in the store.
The problem is that you need more than just the ingredients to make beer. Brewing requires some basic equipment that you just might not have around the house. There’s also some equipment that might not be essential, but will make your brewing experience much easier, faster, and you’ll find those items are worth every penny. So, I’m going to walk you through the basic equipment and tell you what you need as a bare minimum so that you can start your brewing on a shoestring budget and keep those costs as low as possible.
The Mr. Beer Kit
I’m just going to mention Mr. Beer because it’s something a lot of people use to first get started with homebrewing. Mr. Beer takes brewing to the simplest level possible, which is both good and bad. It’s great for a beginner, but at the same time you’re missing out on a lot of the brewing process, have very limited ingredients, and probably won’t make as tasty of a beer as you expected. In addition, it only makes 2 gallon batches and the ingredient kits are actually more expensive than what you can get elsewhere, so it really isn’t a very frugal way to go.
In my opinion, if you already have a Mr. Beer kit that you received as a gift or something, go ahead and use it to get your feet wet. But if you’re starting from scratch and will be brewing for the first time, skip Mr. Beer and move on to better equipment as listed below.
Bare Minimum Brewing Equipment
If you want to save money brewing your own beer, you have to start with buying the right equipment, and only the equipment you need. If you search online for beer making supplies you’ll encounter hundreds of sites all offering a wide variety of equipment “kits” that range in price from about $50 to well over $300. How much do you really need to spend to make your first batch of beer? That’s going to depend a little on what kind of equipment you already have around the house and what you need to buy.
Here’s a picture of what I’d consider the bare minimum:
Let’s cover each of these items in a little more detail.
You need a big stock pot of some sort to boil your beer. Yes, size matters. At the very minimum, you need something large enough to comfortably boil 2-3 gallons of water. Most pots are labeled in quarts, so you’re looking for probably a minimum of a 8-10 quart (2-2.5 gallon) stock pot. If you have something bigger, that’s even better. When you’re making beer, the more water you use for the boil, the better your beer will turn out. This has to do with the darkening of the wort because we’re using extracts and how the hops are utilized. I won’t get into the science behind it, but let’s just say that the bigger the pot you can find, the better your beer will ultimately be. Your beer will still be fine if you can only boil 2 gallons so don’t let that stop you as you’re just starting out.
In this picture you’ll see my pot, which is a 22 quart (5.5 gallon) stainless steel pot. I actually didn’t have a good stock pot other than a tefloncoated 2 gallon pot already at home so I used this as a good excuse to go buy a big stainless pot. I picked it up for $40 at Walmart or some other superstore and it came with a lid. That’s really not too bad and it is also fantastic for boiling corn on the cob, crab legs, large batches of pasta, or whatever. Again, if you already have something that can boil a few gallons, start with that and you don’t have to spend a dime, but over time you will likely want to go bigger.
The other key piece of equipment is a large enough vessel to handle the fermentation. In this case I almost always recommend a 6.5 gallon plastic bucket, as shown in the picture above. You need at least a 6 gallon container because the fermentation process generates a lot of CO2 and your beer foams up significantly during this process. If you put 5 gallons of beer in a 5 gallon bucket you’re going to have an incredible mess on your hands. You need the extra head space to accommodate all of the fermentation action that will be taking place.
Since you need a larger than 5 gallon bucket, it’s probably something you won’t find out in your garage or at the local hardware store. And actually, that’s a good thing. A lot of those types of buckets are not suitable for food use. There are different types of plastic and there are really only a few that you should consider using for holding food. If you look on the bottom of virtually anything made of plastic you’re probably going to find one of those little triangle recycling symbols with a number inside of it. This is where you can determine whether or not your plastic is suitable for use. The scale ranges from 1 to 7, but only 1 and 2 should even be considered as food grade. If you buy a bucket specifically made for brewing beer or making wine, you can be sure that it’s safe to use. You can typically pick one of these up for around $12-$15, usually with a lid included.
Bucket Lid and Airlock
In addition to the bucket, you need a lid that secures tightly. We want to do everything possible to keep your beer closed off to the outside world. Wild bacteria, yeast, and mold in the air and all around us are your beer’s worst enemy. Your best bet is to get a specialty lid made for your fermentation bucket. Usually if you buy the bucket it will even come with a lid. What makes these lids special is that they usually have a small hole drilled in the top along with a rubber washer. This hole is where you stick in the airlock.
If you notice that clear plastic thing sticking out of the top of the bucket, that’s the airlock. In this case it’s a 3-piece airlock. You fill the reservoir up with some sanitized water and it works by allowing gasses from the fermentation to escape, but no outside air to get in. There are other types of airlocks available as well, so the style doesn’t matter as long as you have one. At just a dollar or two it’s a no-brainer piece of equipment you should buy.
You’ll see two thermometers in this picture. The first one is just your typical probe thermometer attached to the boiling kettle. This one is optional, but very handy. The reason you’d want this is if your beer recipe kit requires you to steep any grains. To steep grains you ideally want to do it in water that’s 150-160 degrees. If the water isn’t hot enough, you won’t extract enough of the flavor and sugars. If it’s too hot, you risk extracting tannins from the husk of the grains which will make your beer astringent and bitter. You can get by without one as long as you estimate your water temps well, but at only $5 or $10, it’s really an expense worth dishing out in my opinion. Besides, it’s a multitasker and can be used in your regular cooking as well. If you already have one, whether digital or a probe, go ahead and use it.
The other thermometer is on the side of the fermentation bucket. This is just a liquid crystal adhesive thermometer just like you’d find on a fish tank. Again, probably not something you have at home already and might have to buy, but they are literally only about a dollar or two. If you buy a brewing equipment kit it should be included, but you can always find one separately or go to your local pet store and grab one. As long as it works in the temperature range of about 50-80 degrees it should be fine. We’ll touch on why this thermometer is important later, but one of the most important things about brewing beer is the temperature, so this is not something you should skip out on.
Cleaning and Sanitizing
With beer, what you put into it is what you’ll get out. That means having very clean and sanitized equipment is a must right from the start. About the only thing that can ruin beer is if it gets infected by an outside contaminant. That’s why cleanliness and sanitation can’t be overemphasized. If you dump your beer into a bucket that hasn’t been sanitized and there are some seemingly harmless bacteria in there it could ruin your beer. It’s also important to understand there is a difference between cleaning and sanitizing. They are not the same. Cleaning removes any dirt, dust, and grime, whereas sanitizing actually kills any potential bacteria, mold, or yeast hanging out on your equipment.
The first thing you’ll notice in the picture above is a big tub of Oxiclean. This is my cleaner of choice, and for a couple of reasons. You might think good old soap would get the job, and you’re right. But, did you know that soap residue can cause problems with the foam and head retention of your final product? You can certainly use regular soap or some other detergent for cleaning, but keep in mind that if you don’t properly rinse it and even a little soapy residue is lever over it can cause your beer to have a very thin head when you pour. Not a deal breaker, but it isn’t ideal either.
The other thing to consider is that brewing is messy and sticky. What you’re boiling is a thick mixture of all sorts of stuff full of sugar and hop particles and it sticks to everything. Your boiling kettle will be a sticky mess and if you’re like me, the last thing you want to do is sit and scrub down all of your equipment. Oxiclean is almost like a miracle cleaner. If you fill up your kettle with water and mix in some Oxiclean and let it set for a few hours you can literally just wipe it up with a damp towel and it’s spotless. Not only that, it’s a miracle bottle delabeler which I’ll talk about in the bottling part of the series. You can pick up a big tub of this stuff at virtually any grocery store, use it to clean other stuff around the house or even laundry. Again, it’s a multitasker and worth every penny if you want to save time and energy. Just make sure you get the one that says “free” on it because it’s free of any scents or additives that you don’t want on your brewing equipment.
Finally, we have to talk sanitation. Everything that touches your beer after you’re done boiling it has to be sanitized. We all know that a little bleach in water is good for the job and cheap, but again, it’s one of those things you might not want to skimp on when it comes to making your beer. If you use a bleach solution, you obviously have to rinse it off so that you don’t get the bleach into your beer. Well, once you rinse it off it’s instantly exposed and has the potential to get contaminated again, which would defeat the purpose of sanitizing in the first place. So, I would have to recommend a no-rinse sanitizing solution specifically made for this task.
You’ll see that little rectangle bottle with the purple label in the picture, that’s called Star-San. It’s a concentrate that you mix with water. This stuff is even used in many commercial breweries. The beauty of this stuff is that you don’t have to rinse it off and it’s perfectly safe. You dunk your equipment in it and it’s sanitized and ready to go without any hassle. A 16 oz. bottle like I have here will last a long time and only costs about $10-$12. I’ve used less than half of the bottle and I’ve done 6 batches of beer. When you consider that it will probably stretch to cover 15-20 batches of beer it makes the added cost well worth it.
Here’s an item you won’t have at home, yet you’ll need as a brewer. A hydrometer measures the specific gravity of the liquid you place it in. Why is this important? Well when you’re brewing beer, this is the only tool you have that can tell you how your fermentation is going.
You need to make sure your beer is at the correct specific gravity at a few times during the process to ensure the fermentation is complete and that you’re recipe is working as it should. If you accidentally bottle your beer before the fermentation is complete, you could actually have exploding bottles. You don’t want that, so you’ll want a hydrometer instead. These should be included in any basic brewing kit or can be purchased separately for under $10. You can see my hydrometer in action to the left.
Another very important thing to remember about brewing is that once your beer goes into the fermentation bucket, from that point on you want to keep it as still as possible and try not to slosh it around or otherwise introduce any oxygen into the beer. Beer can oxidize and that creates off-flavors you don’t want in your beer. That rules out pouring or dumping your beer, so how do you go about transferring the beer to a bottling bucket or directly into bottles? That’s where a siphon comes in. Whether it’s siphoning the beer into a different bucket or directly into the bottles, you need some tubing.
You’ll need a good three to six feet of some vinyl tubing that can be had at any hardware store or it will almost certainly be included in any equipment kit you buy. You can see in my picture above that my siphon tubing is connected to this long and larger cylinder. This is completely optional, but what I have there is called an auto siphon. It’s basically a big piston that can be used to create the siphon simply by pumping the tube. Not only that, but the intake at the bottom of the cylinder is about an inch above the bottom which helps keep you from sucking up the sediment at the bottom of the beer. This tool also eliminates the need to try and create a siphon from scratch, which many people try to do by using their mouth to suck on the end of the siphon tube. Again, this is a bad idea because your mouth has bacteria on it, and by doing so you’re risking an infection by contaminating the tube that will come in contact with your beer.
You can create a perfectly good siphon without doing that, but it can be a bit of a hassle. In my case, the kit I purchased included the auto siphon tool which I’ve found to be very handy. While I won’t call it a mandatory item to buy, it will make your life a little easier. If you get a kit that comes with one, great. If not, just go ahead and use a plain siphon tube to start and it might be something you upgrade to later.
Bottles and Bottling Equipment
Finally, you need to put your beer into bottles. First of all, you’ll need somewhere around 50 bottles for a typical 5 gallon batch of beer. The great news is that bottles can typically be had for free. Yes, you can actually buy empty plain bottles, but there’s no reason to. You have a couple of options for obtaining your bottles. First, if you already drink beer, just save your empty bottles. It doesn’t get any easier than that. All you have to do is clean them and take the labels off. Just make sure they are not the twist-off bottles! The second thing you can do is hit up your local bar or restaurant and see if they would be willing to give you some bottles. If they normally just toss them out or recycle them anyway they usually won’t have a problem in giving you some. If you’re in a state where they get a deposit back for returning them this might be a little harder, but you might offer them a few bucks and still get them for cheaper than buying bottles at a store. Finally, if you really want you can just go dumpster diving and collect bottles that way.
One word of warning, and that’s to make sure you get brown bottles. UV light skunks beer, and brown bottles block most of it out leaving your beer nice and fresh. Have you ever wondered by Heineken often tastes skunky? That’s because they are in green bottles and are usually sitting on a store shelf for days or weeks at a time under the harsh fluorescent lights. You can still use green bottles if you must, but they need to be stored in a dark closet away from any direct light.
Once you have your bottles you just have to get some bottle caps and a bottle capper. Again, these are specialty items that you won’t have sitting around the house so you’ll have to make the purchase. Luckily, it’s very inexpensive to get some basic bottling tools. If you look at the picture above again you’ll notice that strange looking red tool. That’s a standard wing capper. It will come with most brewing kits or you can buy one for about $15. There are other capping devices out there, but this basic one will work just fine.
Finally, you need the bottle caps themselves. Most kits will include enough caps to get you through one batch, but it’s always good to have extra on hand and buy in bulk for future batches. The more you buy, the cheaper they get. A bag of about 144 caps will run you a little over $3, while you can get a bag of nearly 650 for about $12. When you break it down, you only need to spend about a dollar per batch for caps and the bottles can be reused forever until they break.
A Temperature Controlled Location
Ok, so this isn’t really a piece of equipment, but it is one of the most important things to have when it comes to brewing beer. When you’re brewing, you’re dealing with a living organism. That’s right, you have live yeast doing the magic of creating your beer, and they require a certain environment in order to carry out their task successfully. The most important part of their environment is temperature. Most ale yeasts require temperatures between about 60 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal quality.
That means you should have an area in your house that maintains a constant temperature in the 60s. For most people this will mean a basement or a cool and dark corner of a closet or something in the house. If you don’t have a basement and no air conditioning and can’t keep your house that cool in the summer, there are options we will discuss later, but it may mean you want to wait until a cooler time of year before starting your brew. The reason is that if your beer is too warm during the fermentation process the yeast will often start to impart off-flavors in your beer which can have a negative impact on the overall taste. The last thing you want to do is spend all the time it takes to make beer and then not be able to keep the temperatures down and end up with something you don’t even enjoy drinking.
Optional, But Very Handy Things to Buy
Everything outlined above should be considered the absolute bare minimum in brewing equipment. Having everything listed there will brew you a perfectly fine batch of beer, but you will be missing some items that can make the process faster, easier, and better equipped to avoid an unwanted contamination. If you were to buy everything above and didn’t need to buy a stock pot you could plan on spending between $40 and $50 for the equipment needed to make your first batch of beer. If you want to get really frugal and ditch the Oxiclean and Star-San sanitizing stuff you could get started for under $40. And all of the equipment listed will last you virtually forever except for the bottle caps which need to be purchased new for each subsequent batch. So, if your budget allows, here are a few other things you might want to invest in to make your brewing process even easier.
Some people might even call this a mandatory piece of equipment, but technically, you can get by without it which is why I didn’t list it above in the totally frugal setup. Personally, I wouldn’t brew without one because it is an inexpensive addition that will make your bottling job a hundred times easier. Here’s my bottling bucket in action.
As you can see, the bottling bucket is virtually identical to the fermentation bucket except that it has a spigot attached to the bottom for draining the beer. In addition, I’ve attached what’s called a bottling wand to the spigot to make bottling even easier and to prevent any additional sloshing around of the beer while filling. Remember, we don’t want to oxidize our beer! The bottling bucket can be had for another $12 and the bottling wand for another four or five. Trust me, for another $20 on equipment that might last a lifetime and make your job a lot easier, I’d strongly recommend it. The good news is that almost all pre-made brewing kits will include a bottling bucket anyway so the decision is an easy one.
Additional Fermentation Vessels
Making beer takes time–sometimes months. You can expect a typical beer to take three weeks in the fermentation bucket and another three weeks in bottles before its ready to drink. That’s six weeks minimum from boiling to drinking, so most people like to have a spare fermentation vessel on hand so that you can get started on another batch while the first one is going on. If you just have one fermentation bucket, that means you can only have one batch of beer going at a time.
So, plan on picking up a couple extra after you have decided that you enjoy making beer as a hobby. This way you can keep a pipeline going and will have more freedom to experiment with your beer. Buckets are cheap and easy to clean, and at $12 or so it’s worth adding a couple more of those to your arsenal. Another option is called the carboy. These are typically 5-7 gallon glass or plastic containers that look like those water cooler jugs. These can be helpful to have once you get into beers that need many months to mature, dry hopping, adding fruit, etc. The downfall is that these are harder to clean due to the small opening and will require some additional care. The more you learn about the brewing process you’ll determine if this is something you want or if you’ll just stick to buckets. And don’t forget, if you’re picking up more fermentation vessels you’ll also need additional airlocks for them.
Finally, an item that will certainly help you improve your overall quality once you start doing larger boils (3+ gallons) is a wort chiller. Ideally, you want to cool your wort (beer) down after the boil to about 60-70 degrees in the shortest amount of time possible. For one, the quicker you can do this, the less of a chance that something will end up in your beer that you don’t want and contaminate it. Second, a rapid cooling will help ensure a good “cold break” which means a lot of the proteins settle out and will give you a clearer finished product. When you’re working with smaller volumes of water it’s easy enough to just cool the wort down by sticking your pot into an ice water bath. But once you start trying to cool down a lot of water it ends up taking a lot of ice, a lot of cold water, and it will still take a lot of time.
Unfortunately, wort chillers aren’t all that cheap since most are made of copper tubing. Depending on the size, they can run anywhere from about $40-$100. If you’re handy with copper tubing and some basic tools you can actually make your own, which I did, and spend about half as much. In the next post in this series where I show the brewing process I’ll talk a little more about the cooling of the wort and show you a wort chiller in action. Again, this item is completely optional, but it will be very handy to have once you start doing bigger boils and it can really cut down on the total brewing time.
Buying an Equipment Kit vs. Individual Pieces
Now that you know what you’ll need to get started, should you buy one of the readily available brewing kits or just buy the things you need individually? If you ask me, it’s almost always cheaper to buy a kit if you need to buy almost everything anyway. If it comes down to where you only need to buy a couple of the items you can get away with just buying what you need, but if you need a bucket, tubing, bottle caps, a capper, and all that stuff, if you added it all up you can probably get it all as a part of a kit for less.
For example, here is a basic brewing starter kit that has everything I talked about above, a bottling bucket, a small handbook on making beer, and enough bottle caps for your first batch and it’s only $60. That’s not bad, and it comes with all of the equipment you need. If you want to take it one step further, here’s another kit that comes with the same core components but also includes ingredients for creating your very own first beer for $94. You can figure it’s about $65 or so for the equipment and another $30 for the ingredients. That kit happens to come with a wheat beer, but they have other types of beer you can get instead for a few dollars more. This kit could actually save you some money since both the equipment and ingredients would be shipped together to save on shipping costs.
Buying Online vs. A Local Beer/Wine Store
You might not realize it, but there are a lot of speciality stores out there that cater to the homebrewing and wine making people out there. In fact, you might very well have one in your own town. If you’re just getting into this hobby and would like to talk to someone in person, you can’t beat stopping into your local supplier. They will be glad to walk you through the process, help you pick out the right equipment, and be there if you have questions down the road. Some of these brew supply stores may even brew their own beer and allow you to sample some to give you an idea of what you can make and then provide you with the appropriate ingredients. And don’t forget, buying local helps support your community and save on shipping costs.
Unfortunately, not all local home brew stores are created equal. Yours might be a fantastic resource, or it might be an overpriced hole in the wall that doesn’t carry everything you need. That’s something you’ll have to check out on your own or ask around. The benefit of shopping online is usually price. A lot of these online homebrew supply stores are very competitive on price and even after shipping, often hard to beat. There’s also a huge selection since many of these stores have warehouses full of stuff. So, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to buying online or shopping local, but it will depend on what you have available to you in your area and the quality of the store.
If you are looking online, here are a few of the best places to order:
- Midwest Supplies - I use them a lot since I’m located in the midwest and they can get things shipped to me fast. Prices are also very good.
- Austin Homebrew Supply - Another store I frequent, mainly because of their wide array of recipe kits and $7.99 shipping.
- Northern Brewer - Again, $7.99 shipping and located in the midwest. I check them out for occasional deals.
I hope this has helped you understand what kind of equipment is needed in order to begin brewing your own beer and how much money you can expect to spend to get started. As I mentioned from the beginning, this is where you ultimately determine how much money you’ll save by brewing your own beer at home. If you can piece together your equipment for under $60 you’ll be saving good money after just two batches. Every batch after that and the savings will just continue. On the other hand, you can go crazy and easily spend a few hundred on equipment if you want, and that could make the potential savings much lower. It’s really up to you.
In the next post of the series we’re going to actually start making beer. I’ll be walking you through your typical extract recipe kit that can be had for about $25 that makes 5 gallons. While I’ll be covering a general outline of the brewing process, keep in mind that every recipe is different and there are a lot of details you’ll want to pick up by reading through some brewing materials before you get started. So, order your equipment if you’re ready, and get a head start by reading these:
Even better, you can view John Palmer’s 1st edition of “How to Brew” completely free online at howtobrew.com. And if you’re looking to talk to real people about beer, there’s no better place than the Homebrew Talk Forums. Tens of thousands of members willing to answer even the most basic questions. Not to mention a huge collection of tutorials, photos, and tips for brewing your own beer.
And stay tuned for the next post in this series: Brewing Your Own Beer.
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About the Author: Jeremy Vohwinkle is a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor® and spent a few years working as a financial planner. Today, he helps people make the most of their money by writing about personal finance here and elsewhere on the web. Jeremy is also Coach at Adaptu and a regular contributor for other publications such as Intuit, and American Express. Be sure to follow Jeremy on Twitter or Google+.