Before I get on to the first brew, I'll blather on a bit about some of the decisions that I had to make before starting.
The standard homebrew starter setup tends to be for 5 gallon batches. This involves some fairly hefty kit to fit in a small house - the boiler in particular - and also leaves you with a lot of beer to get through if you brew a below-par batch. Alternatively, it's also possible to start off with one gallon batches. This has the advantage that you can use regular kitchen equipment for a lot more of your setup, but the obvious downside that you don't get much beer at the end of it!
I've decided to split the difference and start off with two or three gallon batches - fifteen pints or so isn't too much of a chore to get through even if it isn't great, but it's also enough that you can share your beer around fairly freely and not have to jealously hoard it. It also means that a lot of the kit is relatively compact and the process is easy to handle, although it needs a bit more stuff than really small batches. It does tend to make everything a bit nonstandard though: recipes need to be adjusted and instructions need to be adapted. A lot of specialist kit will be too big to use, but repurposed kitchen stuff is likely to be too small. Lots of problems need solving from first principles, and part of the reason that I've started writing this stuff up is in the hope that it'll help someone else to deal with the same issues.
Extract vs All Grain Brewing
Starting off brewing with extract was a simple choice. All-grain seems like more control, more fun, more parameters to play with, but on the other hand, brewing with extract plus steeped grain is a lot simpler. On the principle of trying to learn one thing at a time, it's natural to start off with extract brews and then worry about mashing once I'm confident that I'm unlikely to screw up the boil or the fermentation.
I did a lot of umming and ahing about equipment, but at the end of it I seem to have ended up with a working setup. The extract kit is roughly as follows...
- A cheapo 15 litre stock pot. It's hard to keep more than about ten litres at a rolling boil on our crappy electric hob, and the next step up - either to a bigger pan with a standalone gas burner to heat it or to a purpose-made homebrew boiler with a built-in heating element - is a big one in terms of price and space. The limitation it puts on the size of a batch is irrelevant for an extract brew, where you can just bump up the pre-boil gravity and top up the volume later, although it becomes a bit of a constraint on all-grain brews, where your pre-boil gravity is limited to what you can get out of the grain.
- A 3 gallon fermenting bin with no tap and a bubbler airlock. This is pretty much a no-brainer - plastic buckets are plastic buckets. Demijohns are too small.
- Muslin bags - useful for steeping grains, holding hops, straining things etc. Cheap, reusable if you can be bothered to clean them, disposable if you can't.
- A siphon tube. No pump or anything. Easy enough to use once you get used to it, although an autosiphon might be a nice luxury.
- Bottles - I started off with swingtop bottles, which are great for low faff bottling, but pricey (so you don't want to just hand them out to people) and not entirely bombproof (which means that you can't just bung them in a rucksack or whatever). I've subsequently acquired a crown capper so I can do a mix of bottle types. Using mostly large bottles (500ml and 750ml) seems like a sound plan since it makes bottling easier and less wasteful, assuming that you're happy to drink 750ml of beer at a time or have someone to share it with.
- A bunch of random crap that you've probably got in your kitchen anyway, eg another big saucepan, a measuring jug (the bigger the better), a wooden spoon, a plastic ladle etc.
- Thermometers - I've got three: a stick-on one to put on the side of the fermenter, a min / max ambient one to keep track of how warm the room is, and a probey one to accurately check the temperatures of strike water, mashes, wort etc. The latter is the all-in-one type, but if I was buying again I'd probably get one with a separate probe. You could probably do without these and hope for the best, particularly for extract brewing, but they're nice to have around.
- Hydrometer and tube - again, you could probably do without this in a pinch for extract brews, but I'm a geek and like to measure things. It's small and relatively inexpensive anyway.
- Digital scales - tiny ones from John Lewis. Useful for measuring hops with reasonable accuracy although with hindsight I'd probably go for a bigger set, since even ten or twenty grams of hops takes up quite a bit of space.
- 5 gallon fermenting bin with tap. Useful for aerating the wort, but that's about all, and there are probably other ways of doing that. The tap on mine leaks a bit which prevents it being any use for other stuff like using as a secondary fermenter.
- 2 gallon plastic cask. I've yet to use this - bottling just seems simpler and easier.
- Bottle brush. Generally I wash bottles straight after using them, and I've very seldom had to deal with crud stuck to the insides.
- Large pipette / wine stealer. I got this for pulling out samples for the hydrometer, but have always ended up using a sanitized measuring jug instead.
Right, see you next time when I'll actually be making some beer!