There are a variety of views about equipment needed for brewing your own drinks, ranging from those who want everything to be stainless steel and glass, with heating pads and temperature readouts, to those who’ll just throw everything into a covered bucket with some cloth over the top, and hope for the best.
It is, I believe, safe to say that while both approaches are equally valid the first will generally have a little more success than the bucket brigade. But if you do want to keep things simple, and are willing to throw out two batches in three, then the bucket is absolutely fine. The stainless steel, glass, and UV lights group are tending a bit to the other extreme for my taste. Brewing your own isn’t a commercial operation, you don’t need (or really want) exactly the same results every time. A bit of experimentation can give you wonders (or horrors, ask me about a failed batch of mead sometime), and hours spent sterilizing every piece of equipment before putting on a hazmat suit is a little extreme.
Having said that there is some basic equipment that’s useful to have, generally cheap to pick up, and will make it much more likely that your first batch will be a success (or at least not be contaminated, which isn’t quite the same thing). Most of the stuff you’ll need you may already have around the house, other bits are worth picking up before your first shot. If you’re trying to make a big start, then there are other things to consider as well. In this post I’ll be going through the various bits of kit that I use, thoughts on what’s actually needed, and occasionally rambling off at a tangent.
This is probably the most iconic piece of kit you’ll find with homebrew. The mental image of gallon-sized glass bottles with alchemy tubes poking out of them is pretty much ingrained with the hobby. I’ll happily admit that it is comforting to see them sitting there, bubbling away like some ancient laboratory. If you find some glass demijohns in a charity shop for a few quid, or know someone getting rid of some, I’d suggest grabbing them as soon as possible.
But there is a problem with these. It’s not the weight (they are quite heavy), the fragility (they’re glass, and so can break if treated roughly), the impossibility of safely stacking them when not in use (round things can stack, but one rolling off the pile can cause a catastrophe). The problem is the expense. Glass demijohns are not cheap, and I’ve seen them going for £20 upwards, without airlocks or bungs. While this may not seem extreme, when you can get two PET demijohns (with airlocks and temperature readouts) for less than half the price, you do need to wonder a little whether it’s worthwhile. They’re also less breakable, lighter, easy to stack (being square) and can easily be made out of gallon bottles of water bought at the supermarket for a few quid, if you want to save a little more.
If you really want to cut the pennies any PET bottle will do. And airlocks can be fairly effectively replaced with nothing more than a balloon with a pin-prick. This won’t be as sterile as a true airlock, but comes close enough that you shouldn’t see a huge difference.
Once you’ve finished your brewing you naturally need to bottle it. If you’re going to be bottling, and aiming for something with a bit of sparkle, then you’ll need to make sure your bottles can take pressure. Any plastic bottle (or glass) which used to hold something fizzy can be reused for this, assuming you’ve cleaned it and sterilized of course. In the same way any normal bottle will do to hold that beautiful mint wine that’s just finished bubbling away. In fact plastic bottles with screw tops do have some advantages over glass ones with corks, but I find aesthetics matter more in the drinking than the making so would recommend glass.
Getting glass bottles is surprisingly easy. You can buy them, of course, but if you’re willing to do a little walking and negotiating then I’d recommend speaking to pubs, restaurants, bars, nightclubs or other places. See if you can chat to the manager and if they’ll just put aside some bottles for you.
In some cases they’ll offer to let you raid the bottle bin (if you do this big, thick gloves
and very carefully washing the bottles is not optional). In most they’ll be quite happy to put some aside, as most such places don’t make any money from recycling their glass. Talk to the landlord if you can, preferably after buying a drink in there (and not neglecting one for the staff) and you’ll quickly have more bottles than you know what to do with.
I’ve also had immense success simply asking friends and relations to save their wine bottles. While they may only have a few each, it adds up quite quickly (particularly if you mention that you will, of course, put aside a filled bottle or two for those who have really helped you out).
It’s surprising how important a bucket actually is. You can get 25l fermentation vessels cheaper than you can glass demijohns, but unless you’re looking to start making five gallon batches it’s probably best to wait. To start with you’re better off picking up a plastic bucket (PET for preference, or any similarly safe plastic) from a nearby shop and mixing in there.
Of course, don’t let that put you off buying the more ambitious five gallon ones. They do look impressive, and are rather essential if you’re doing larger projects. Most will come with lids and airlocks as well, which is better than a wet teatowel secured with an elastic band for the first stage of brewing.
This is the big one. Absolutely essential to everything else. Sterilizing powder, Camden tablets, whatever you might decide to use must be used before starting a batch, before racking, before bottling, and before starting the next batch. It’s not a complicated process (throw a teaspoon into a gallon of warm water in a demijon, leave for ten minutes, empty, rinse, and use for example) but it must be done to avoid contamination. Either sterilizing powder or Camden tablets are cheap and easy to get hold of from Amazon or other places, and are probably the only piece of equipment where you actually need to buy something rather than jury-rigging.
Corks or Caps
Depending on your own personal preference you can seal your bottles with corks or caps, or screw caps if you’re reusing bottles which come with them. Personally for wines I prefer the look and aesthetic of corks (though this seems to be changing in commercial wine production), for no other reason than that it ‘feels’ right. For sodas I’ll generally use caps, and the same for any beers or ales I put together. There are a few things to be aware of, whichever way you decide to go.
With corks you will need a corker, either one of the simple press types or the easier to use double-hander mechanical monstrosities. With the mechanical ones you’re relatively safe, but with the press types beware of back injuries (yes, I’ve done this and it wasn’t pleasant). It’s important to soak the corks before use – I generally go with about 15 minutes in boiling water before corking, since then it’s merely difficult rather than bordering on impossible.
Caps are simpler, but you will need a tool to help you with it. Simply put the cap on, put the bottlecapper over it and press down on the handles. Do press straight down as pushing at an angle can send the bottle flying across the room, sending your hard-won prize to decorate walls, ceiling and floor rather than going into storage. Most bottles you buy from homebrew stores will come with either caps or corks, so for your first batch (unless you’re recycling) you’ll only need the tools.