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Right, you’ve made the decision to take the plunge. You want to brew your own beer, and you want to be involved in the whole wonderful process. You’re about to become an all grain brewer! Firstly, congratulations on your choice. You wont regret it! Here I want to give some tips and advice on the basics of what kit you need, how you can save a few quid and shortcuts I’ve picked up along the way.
Traditional Brewing Set Up.
So firstly, here is an overview of what’s involved. We’ll go into each piece of equipment in more detail in a bit…
Brewing requires a sh!t tonne of hot water, or Hot Liquor as it’s called. Liquor is water that has been treated for the brewing process. This could be dechlorination or burtonisation. Different water treatments will create different qualities in your beer. I wont go into too much detail now, it’s definitely another blog topic! To get your liquor hot, you require a hot liquor tank or HLT. Next up is a Mash Tun – this is used to steep your grain with your liquor. You’ll need a Kettle, traditionally known as a Copper as that is the long time material of choice. It’s crazy expensive though and frankly stainless steel is a load less hassle and just as good in my opinion. You’ll need some method for chilling your wort, various pipes and fermentation vessels. A paddle for stirring and lastly accurate scales and measuring jugs. At the end of the day you can get all of the above from a shop. You can make your own, or you can buy a whole system that will do the whole lot for you like ‘The Grain Father’. As you’d expect though, they cost a small fortune and some may say, take the fun out of doing it yourself!
There are various ways you can organise your kit. You may want to invest in a pump. There is a load of liquor and wort to be moved around and it will make life easier. You can also rely on good old gravity and have a tower system set up. Bear in mind though that there is normally 23-25 ltrs of hot liquid to be moved around which can be very heavy. Make sure your equipment is sturdy enough to withstand being in this kind of set up. You need a sturdy floor and a strong back! I’ve seen many a tap knocked off a vessel due to a misjudged lift.
So here’s the detail…
Hot Liquor Tank (HLT)
This is basically a tea earn… think church hall, old ladies, cricket teas, you get the picture. One decent brand is a Buffallo Boiler. They are commonly electric and may or may not come with a thermostat. You’ll need a thermostat to heat the liquor to the exact temperature required to add to the grain. When I started out wiring a thermo was a pretty fiddly job. These days you can get plug and play ones that you just pick up and use. We use Ink Bird at the brewery and I’d highly recommend this brand for home brewing too. If you’d rather have an integrated thermo in your HLT and tech out with a control panel, I’d recommend the STC1000 which looks just as impressive as the name suggests.
You can choose to drop a load of cash on a purpose built, tailor made HLT. You can use a tea earn, or you can build one yourself. It all depends on how involved you want to get, and how much cash and time you have. I stripped out the elements from 2 Tesco value kettles and fitted them to a 25ltr fermenting bucket for my first HLT. I had lots of time, no money and frankly no common sense though. That set up lasted way longer than it should have done. I’m amazed I survived unscathed, please don’t do that. You can fit elements to large pans though. When my grey matter started firing correctly I upgraded to a thermopot, which is an insulated catering pan. It was more expensive, but I was in far less danger of electrocution or 1st degree burns every time I brewed.
If you do drop a decent amount of cash on your HLT you can justify it to yourself and others by doubling it up as a kettle too! Lots of Home Brewers have a combined HLT and Kettle. It just means when collecting wort from the mash tun you need to get it from a separate vessel (usually the fermentation vessel you’re going to use later) This then needs transferring into the HLT when you’re finished with the water at the end of sparging.
The main property you want from this bit of kit, is for it to be very well insulated. It’s for this reason lots of Home Brewers will convert a cool box into their mash tun. It’s as simple as drilling and fitting a tap. You also need a manifold or a false bottom to prevent clogging. The manifold needs to be decent. It could be a series of copper pipes with slits of holes drilled in. It needs to work well though as it’s important for an even extraction of the wort from the grain. You need your wort to run through the grain evenly and not channel. A false bottom achieves the same outcome. As the name suggests it keeps the grain slightly raised allowing the wort to pass through evenly. If you can go for a false bottom as it has greater surface area than a manifold. I started off with a cool box and a manifold and later invested in another thermopot with a false bottom, the latter was definitely more effective. My very first mash tun however was a fermentation bucket with a yoga matt wrapped around it. I filled the gaps with expanding foam. I made perfectly drinkable beer with this. I’m not sure I’d drink it now, but they were different times!
Not forgetting the sparge arm. You could batch sparge, let the whole lot drain off before refilling and repeating the process. A sparge arm refills as it drains and greatly improves your efficiency. You can get the same effect (as I did) with a lid of tinfoil with holes in it, simply pour your water over continuously with a jug – DIY sparge arm!
As I said earlier, we can double this up with the HLT if you have a spare vessel to put your wort into. It does mean more moving and lifting, but it’s the most cost effective use of equipment. It’s essentially another vessel with elements in where you need to heat liquid just like a HLT. There are 2 main differences though. In a kettle the wort needs to be boiled. In a HLT it just needs to reach around 80C. A kettle also needs the addition of a hop filter. Similar to the mash tun and the grain, we need a way to stop the hops blocking the outlet tap. I’ve heard it said that a rule of thumb for filters is ‘holes for hops and slots for grains’ I’m not sure how much I agree with this though. My mash tun had round holes and it worked perfectly well.
One more hop filter consideration is the type of hops you’re using. If you use leaf hops in the boil, these can be filtered out quite easily. If you’re planning on using hop pellets in boil though you need to significantly up your filter game my friend. For pellets your filter needs to be a much finer mesh to handle the finer particle mass. We go leaf in boil and pellets for dry hopping at the brewery for this very reason.
Tubing and pipework
For this you must have something that can withstand high temperatures and highly corrosive cleaning chemicals. You need a food safe variety. Don’t scrimp here as a leaky pipe is just a bloody waste.
Now I never used one of these bad boys, but you might want to if you don’t fancy all the lifting. Obviously you can get a purpose made one from all good homebrewing shops or websites. I’d also have a look at a good old fashioned solar powered pond pump though, which will likely be less cash and work just as effectively.
I hope this has been of some use to someone! As you can see, although homebrewing can be a pretty bottomless cash pit. It is highly possible to get results on a budget… and frankly a bit more fun making your own set up rather than push button brewing. There is something out there for everyone, you just need to do a bit of digging!
Hope you enjoy putting your kit together as much as I did!