Homebrewing Gear: Basic or Deluxe?

I’ve finally saved up enough money from teaching knitting and doing freelance bookkeeping to start shopping for homebrew gear. I have $290 to play with right now. The question is… Is that enough money to get the gear I want or do I have to keep saving?

My goal is to minimize the number of times I need to upgrade my equipment. I know up front that I want to do all-grain brewing, so the gear I start with needs to have that capability. I’m also concerned with minimizing the amount of heavy lifting I need to do. My back and I have a history of issues and I certainly don’t want to aggravate anything.

Based on the input I got from my brewing brother-in-law, I shouldn’t skimp on the brew kettle. It’s a waste of money to buy a cheap one. I also need to get enough gear to be able to do two-stage fermentation, so I can promptly move from extract brewing to all-grain brewing.

The more I looked at the various equipment options, the more I was enticed by the cool equipment that makes brewing easier. The Fermenator started making more sense. It replaces the two carboys and does primary and secondary fermentation in one place. The cost of that is only $550. I remember in my previous research coming across a tiered brewing setup with propane heat plates on the tiers that simplifies the brewing process. It uses gravity to move the liquid from one vessel to the next. That was probably about the same cost. Add a $250 brew kettle, and the other bits a pieces I would need to get as well, and I could have a pretty nifty setup for only $1,500. I would just need to save a bit more money.

Then logic and reality kicked in. What if I spent all that money and decided brewing wasn’t for me? That’s a pretty expensive couple of cases of beer. And what about the book I’m writing? I wouldn’t be able to explain first-hand the various equipment options if I started on the Rolls Royce version of homebrewing equipment. I needed to start on a more fundamental level for the sake of my writing project, my finances, and the lack-of-storage-space issue in our home.

Oh well, it was a nice dream. My husband said that if I got enough cool equipment, I could brew beer like “Captain Kirk” and sit back in my command chair and tell “Sulu” what to do.

Now that I’ve carried my mental purchasing to the extreme, it’s time to pull back and get realistic. I’ll be starting a bit more basic and I’ll be able to start sooner, since I don’t have to save up another $1,200 before I can start brewing. I’m still getting a cool brew kettle though!

-Jenne Hiigel

Support Fresh Beer…

Many people don’t realize that beer is a perishable product. Like bread, beer is best shortly after it’s finished and begins to lose it’s “umph” thereafter. Fresh beer is especially good when it’s well-brewed fresh beer.

Periodically my husband Chuck will bring home a case of Nectar Ales from the Firestone Brewery in Paso Robles that was bottled only hours before. The freshness of the flavors come through in the beer and is quite noticeable. It helps that Matt Brynildson, the Brewmaster at Firestone, knows his stuff!

Contrast that with a beer that Chuck handed to me the other day. He didn’t tell me what it was, but asked me to smell it and tell him what I thought. One whiff and I said it was imported. “Imported” to me means old. It turns out the beer he handed me was a Warsteiner that was two years past its “best by” date. Other aromas can alert you to signs of light or heat damage. Years ago I became sensitive to “skunky” smells and “metallic” tastes in beer that are clear signs the beer has traveled too far and was not cared for properly in transit. I’ve been avoiding imported beer for many years.

The ones that can seem to handle a long trip best are your high hop and high alcohol beers, such as barleywines and IPA’s. But even with those, I’d rather drink them local and fresh. By “local” I mean I’ll accept anything brewed in California, which gives me a lot of great beer to choose from.

The flavor differences between fresh beer and imported beer are similar to buying produce at a farmer’s market vs the grocery store. Once you experience and appreciate the flavor of a fresh vine-ripe tomato, it’s impossible to go back to the bland, mealy, wax-covered tomatoes that have traveled halfway across the world.

Experience fresh beer. It’ll open a whole new world for you that you don’t have to travel far to get to.

-Jenne Hiigel