Build It and You Shall Brew


By Don Rowell and Paul McDermott

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Sometimes we have a tendency to put the cart before the horse or argue which came first, the chicken or the egg. (Chicken!)

We’ve written several articles on how to brew, what to brew, bottling issues — but nothing in-depth on what you need to get started other than an ingredients kit. In this issue we’ll discuss some equipment you may need to brew from bare bones to “wow!” and from deep pockets to penny poor.

Don’t be intimidated about getting into homebrewing because you think you can’t afford it. There’s nothing further from the truth. When we started brewing, we were penny poor to say the least. So listen to us, we’re speaking from experience. To get started, you probably already have the majority of the equipment you need right at home. You’ll need a decent size cooking pot, stove, stirring spoon and funnel. All you need to acquire is a fermenter, a siphon, bottling bucket, bottles, caps and bottle capper. All of this can be purchased as a kit for under $75.

Once you have your equipment, starter kit and ingredients kit, you’re ready to go! (On how to brew, see Homebrewing 101 in the Summer 2017 Issue). As mentioned before, homebrewers tend to grow their brewery over time to absorb the costs of new equipment. If you have the cash up front, there is all kinds of nice equipment on the market. Complete systems with electronic controllers, heating elements, pumps, temperature-controlled fermenters — you name it. They even have systems out there that are an all-grain, all-in-one brew system and fermenter. That’s right, only one vessel! Some of these systems are so nice they will almost brew by themselves. Of course, a lot of these systems cost thousands of dollars and out of most people’s budgets. It seems as if companies come out with new gadgets everyday to make homebrewing easier.

Like we said earlier, when we started off, we were penny poor and built a lot of things ourselves. We were “old school” and brewed “old school.” For the most part we still do. We’re still using the same direct-fired mashtun and boil kettle we’ve been using for the last 10 years. Of course, we’ve added vessels, pumps, quick connects, etc. over the years. Building your brewhouse or upgrading your brewhouse to a larger size can be done cheaper than you may think if you put your head to it and do it over time.

We’ll use our personal journey into homebrewing to give examples of how you can build your brewery or expand to a larger size on the cheap. We started with a turkey fryer kit doing 5-gallon extract batches. These kits are perfect because they come with a burner and stainless steel pot typically big enough to make 5-gallon batches. Another great benefit is that these kits are fairly inexpensive. Now keep in mind that this is not a duel purpose vessel. No turkey frying in this pot, brewing only!

Then we wanted to go to 10 gallons and found a damaged 15.5-gallon commercial keg. We didn’t have the ability to cut and drill the keg, nor the money to pay a machine shop to do it. So, we found a local guy in town to do what we needed and paid him in trade with homebrew. We then put the ball valve fittings on ourselves and voilà: We had a 10-gallon brewhouse for little money. We used (and still use) the same burner that came with the turkey fryer kit with the new converted kettle. Then we bought a couple of cheap ice coolers and converted them into a mashtun and hot liquor tank in order to move into all-grain brewing. We eventually found more damaged commercial kegs and upgraded to all stainless steel vessels and a propane burner for each vessel. You can find a lot of how-to videos online to help you do all the things we have done. Keep in mind these upgrades took place over 10 years so the cost remained relatively low and each vessel we did ourselves.

There are may things you can buy for homebrewing to make your life easier, but there are just as many things you can do yourself to keep the costs down. Spend the money where you need to and put a little thinking, paired with a little elbow grease, to the things you can do yourself. Our system is nothing fancy, nothing shiny and pristine, but we take pride in the fact that we built it ourselves and it has rewarded us with many a fine beer!

Having to build our brewhouse was a big part of our homebrew journey. It taught us a lot about brewing, how to think outside the box and most importantly about ourselves. We wouldn’t have changed a thing!

Til’ next time … happy brewing, happy holidays and may your dreams be filled with the “Complete Joy of Homebrewing.”