Spend a few minutes online trying to fit out your homebrewing rig, and pretty quickly, you’ll be looking at advertisements for $10,000 touch-screen-controlled PicoBreweries—and if not that, then at least few thousand bucks worth of shiny stainless steel. Homebrewing has become popular, and with that popularity has come a whole world of high-profile, custom-made hardware. Don’t get me wrong: Some of this equipment is fantastic, and if I won the lottery, you can be pretty sure where I’d start spending the winnings, but much of this is beyond what the typical homebrewer requires or can even take advantage of.
Remember, homebrewing had its origins as a scrappy, underground hobby in the 1970s, with mimeographed recipes and patched-together brew rigs. Although today’s brewer has the option of running out and buying a turn-key automated brewery, there’s still plenty of ways to get the equipment you need (and want) without having to take out a second mortgage.
1. Shop Used and DIY
Let’s be honest, those homebrew supply catalog photos of shiny, stainless-steel brewing equipment, with the bells and whistles of built-in thermometers and water-level gauges, are pretty seductive. But if homebrewing is just a hobby for you, you can save money by checking Craigslist or community “buy nothing” forums for carboys, oversized stockpots and the like.
If you’re willing to break out the power drill and adjustable wrench, it’s easy enough to build up your own mash tuns and boil kettles; the Internet is full of tutorials, and the availability of “weldless” fittings means you don’t need to deal with the tricky task of welding stainless steel. Drilling stainless steel is hard enough, and I recommend a decent power drill and set of bits if you’re going to start building your own equipment.
2. Brew Small
Homebrewing has long been obsessed with 5-gallon batches. The reason, presumably, is the availability of 5-gallon buckets, carboys and kegs. But that’s a lot of beer to deal with! Smaller batches can be fermented in 1-gallon glass jugs (either bought new or re-used from something like fancy organic apple juice). Working with 1- or 2-gallon batches cuts down on ingredient costs and the need for giant, specialized pots for mashing and boiling. It’s also a fun way to turn out more variety in your brewing or experiment with different yeasts.
If working with existing recipes, just divide the ingredients by whatever fraction is necessary. The only exception is for the yeast: I’ll usually use a half-pack for a 1-gallon batch and a full pack for anything 2 gallons or larger. When setting up gallon jugs as fermenters, be sure the bung holding your fermentation lock fits well; some jugs have beveled mouths that can make it tricky to get the bung seated. Some homebrew suppliers are now selling smaller-sized carboys and even promoting ingredient kits in 2- or 3-gallon sizes.
3. Use Multi-Purpose Equipment
This may be anathema to some brewers, with sacrosanct collections of special-purpose gear, but I frequently share my brewing equipment with our homestead-at-large. My boil kettle and mash tun have both seen double-duty as water-bath canners, and the boil kettle has even served as a stockpot when we found ourselves with a glut of chicken carcasses one winter day. Thinking of brewing gear as part of the homestead’s general-purpose kit may not make it cheaper to buy, but it will make it easier to justify.
Of course, the opposite is also true: If you’re willing to adopt the right techniques and work around the challenges, you can brew a fine beer with what you’ve probably already got around the house. Working with smaller batches, as suggested above, helps. Just make sure you clean any shared gear thoroughly before using it to brew, not just to avoid off flavors but because residual grease or fat can spoil head formation.
4. Share Your Gear
No homebrewer need be an island—even as enthusiastic a brewer as I am, my gear will lounge in the garage for weeks at a time. Making connections at a local homebrew club or online forum opens up the opportunity to share. Ask your neighbors, and bring a bottle or two of homebrew when you come calling. It never hurts to pay it forward! Bottles of all kinds, bottle cappers and high-BTU turkey fryers seem to be the easiest to find, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised how many folks seem to have a carboy or a CO2 tank languishing in their garage or basement.
Get more homebrewing help from HobbyFarms.com:
- How to Use Brewer’s Waste as Animal Feed
- 10 Simple Tips for Better Beer
- 5 Tips for the Advanced Brewer
- Crop Profile: Hops
About the Author: Nick Strauss is an all-grain homebrewer with more than 13 years of experience. He and his wife own a small homestead in the Pacific Northwest and blog about homebrewing, homesteading, cooking and more at Northwest Edible Life.