There is a large range of beer brewing equipment used to make homebrew. This ranges greatly in cost and application.
Thankfully the things that you really need to get started aren’t many and in most cases can be purchased in kits which are aimed at first time brewers. Below are the absolute must have items.
Depending on what part of the world you live in, the style of fermenter that is the most common actually changes.
In Australia and New Zealand, the dominant fermentation vessel is a large, food grade plastic bucket style fermenter; normally with a screw on lid. These come with a hole toward the bottom to allow for the easy insertion of a tap for easy transfer of your fermented beer.
Although plastic fermenting tubs or buckets are still used in the US, the preferred fermenter is a glass carboy style. Beyond the construction material, this differs from a plastic fermenter in that it does not have a tab to siphon out the beer. This is achieved instead through the use of another piece of beer brewing equipment called a racking cane.
The air lock is one of the inexpensive parts of your homebrew kit. Once filled to the specified level with liquid (normally boiled water or vodka) it works to create a seal to your fermenter while still allowing the CO2 created through the fermentation process to escape. The CO2is able to bubble up out of the fermenter and through the air lock safely and therefore a complete seal is enabled, while still keeping everything in the air or environment outside of your fermenter to avoid contamination.
The CO2 gas bubbling through your airlock is one obvious sign that the yeast is working away at converting the sugar within your wort into beer. If you are using a plastic fermenter however, you should not be alarmed if the CO2 is not coming through as you would expect, this can often be due to an improper seal with the fermenter lid.
As important as the air lock is the grommet or rubber stopper that provides for an effective seal with the fermenter or carboy. This will differ in size depending on the hole that is being sealed but exists to create a complete seal from external contamination.
There is a range of sanitizer products available on the market that have either been designed especially for homebrewers or adapted from everyday applications.
Some of the most common products used are:
Star San (or other no-rinse sanitizer)
Developed especially for use in homebrew, Star San is the product that is used by the majority of the homebrew community. It is simple to use, takes only 30 seconds to sanitize equipment, able to be used in any homebrew application and doesn’t need to be rinsed after use.
Iodophor is an iodine-based sterilizer that is diluted down to make another easy to use, no-rinse sanitizer. The Iodophor purchased at your local homebrew store for the purpose of sanitizing your equipment will be a food-grade, restaurant-quality concentrate. Like Star San it is diluted in line with supplied instructions and will sanitize your gear in about 2-5 minutes.
The only real downside of Iodophor is that any plastic object left in contact with a solution of a high enough concentration could be left with an ugly orange-brown stain due to the iodine.
Household bleach can be used to sanitize your homebrewing equipment but obviously requires more care than the other chemicals adopted for the purpose. A solution of 1Tsp bleach to 1 Gallon of water (or 4ml/litre) will sanitize your equipment in 20 minutes.
Even at the recommended level of dilution, bleach is particularly strong smelling and needs to be rinsed thoroughly with hot water to avoid transfer of flavors and smell into your beer. A bleach solution should be left for about 20-30 minutes to sanitize properly and as such it is difficult to use on anything that cannot be submerged (like the lid of your fermenter)
Bleach smells, it takes a long time and needs to be very thoroughly rinsed after use. With this in mind it is probably ok for use in a scrape but should probably not be your first choice if it can be avoided at all.
Depending on the rest of your beer brewing equipment setup this may not be a mandatory part of your kit. There are still few situations where it shouldn’t be though. Although it may be possible to transfer the beer from your fermenter to bottles through the use of a hose or directly from the tap, neither of these would be recommended options.
Use of a bottling wand means that you are able to easily move the plastic wand between bottles and fill them easily from the bottom without needing to constantly stop the flow of beer. Reducing the amount of splashing and air in your finished beer helps avoid the unwanted flavors that can come from oxidization. The piston design of the bottling cane means that you can also move between bottles without worrying about spilling beer everywhere.
The construction of the plastic spigot is fairly simple in design. There are a few different styles of these but the general theme is the same – there is a part that turns which allows the flow of beer from the vessel. It connects to the fermenter or bottling bucket with a screw thread and a seal is made with a plastic or rubber gasket.
Although not at all necessary for their use, the generally also have a small plastic sediment filter that extends, behind the tap, into the vessel to reduce the amount of solid matter that comes out with the liquid.
A racking cane is a simple siphon comprised of a length of flexible plastic tubing, attached to a length of lard plastic tubing with a small filter on the end to avoid the transfer of solid matter (trub). Although simple in design, this is a necessary piece of beer brewing equipment if you are using a glass or plastic carboy without a spigot/tap.
The hard end of the racking cane is inserted into the liquid and through the use of gravity and pressure, the liquid is then siphon out into another vessel. This process would be required to transfer the beer from a primary to a secondary fermenter, a bottling bucket (for bulk priming) or to bottles.
A hydrometer is a specifically calibrated piece of beer making equipment that is used to measure the density (gravity) of water with sugar dissolved in it (i.e. beer in our situation). A hydrometer is configured so that regular water holds a specific gravity of 1.000 and the variation from this figure indicates the level of sugar dissolved within our homebrew.
This is useful as it allows you to identify a number of useful pieces of information depending on the point in the fermentation process. At the start of the process a measurement is taken to identify the benchmark before yeast is added (pitched). A static figure over a number of days indicates the end of fermentation and the difference between these figures can also be used to identify the alcohol volume of our homebrew.