You won’t believe ‘how easy it is to home brew’ that even monkeys and elephants can make it! The first wines fermented naturally in the hollow of a tree (rotting trunk) in the jungle without any human intervention. Fermentation is so easy, that it predates human civilization.
If a hobby like Origami can be practiced by folding plain paper sheets, then Home-brewing can also be simplified in a similar fashion. The modern kitchen is already equipped for most types of fermentation. Understanding your budget, locally available resources, time, and size of the batch and how long you want to store/ preserve it can go a long way in selecting the ideal equipment.
Few aspects to consider before making the first equipment purchase:
- Is your equipment food grade? Most of the disposable PET tends to breakdown over time and alcohol & vinegar are solvents that are notorious in leaching out toxins from the containers. Wines and meads tend to be acidic which reacts with copper and is not recommended. Aluminum is OK to boil or to temporarily hold food but fermenting in aluminum cans gives off metallic flavors. SS304/316 are much better industrial-grade materials.
Check the markings to understand the material rather than taking the word of the shop. A triangle with Number 2 (HDPE) and number 5 (PP/ PPCP/ PPCPE) are the best in plastic. Similarly SS304/ 316 are boldly stamp on the sheets. If only stainless steel is mentioned, then most likely it is SS 200 series which is about 50% less expensive. 200 series is used for regular kitchen utensils but it tends to crack after a few uses and hence, it is not advised for equipment fabrication. Check the local pharmaceutical manufactures, hospital equipment and restaurant SPM (special-purpose machines) manufacturer to help you with the customization of fermentation equipment.
Types of plastic markings
- Temperature resistance: Boiling/ autoclaving is still the preferred form of cleaning. A vessel that can be boiled and steam cleaned is easier to maintain in the long run than a use and throw plastic. Use a pressure cooker to DIY an autoclave. Borosilicate glass is better but normal glass can also be boiled. All one needs to ensure is that temperature in the water bath rises and cools down slowly.
- Surface finish: Go for a scratch-free smooth finish. Be mindful of corners or hard to reach the surface and you will be safe. I have recreated traditional terracotta recipes in sturdier glass fermenters and obtained exactly the same results.
- Weight and fragility is another aspect to be taken care of. I personally prefer the traditional porcelain and glass fermenters; however, they need to be handled with care. A large glass carboy/ demijohn weighs as much as an LPG cylinder and can shatter if not placed properly on concrete floors.
- KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid): Simpler the construction, is easier to clean. Jazzy equipment like a top of the line fully automated robotic gadget with probes, coils, and electronics will take forever to sanitize and maintain. As a rule, disassemble all equipment before use. This makes visual inspection and cleaning of ‘hard to reach corners’ or ‘blind-spots’ easy. Electronics are good to have as they offer attractive features and automated controls but some of the probes are difficult to clean or maintain. So be mindful of the tradeoff.
- Inertness: Not all packaging materials are inert. Oak and terracotta leach their flavors in the packaging. By today’s standards, they are crappy but now people are so hooked to its taste that these flavors are now artificially introduced. I doubt if people will appreciate our plastic flavored beer, copper flavored wines or cardboard tasting pickle! We do not need masters in bio-corrosion to design our equipment but be thorough with the ranges of temperatures, pH and longevity of the containers.
- Check the history of the equipment: HDPE that was stored in UV/ sunlight will start to breakdown into a powder and yield micro-fissures that can introduce contamination. Even food-grade containers that were used to store chemicals, paints or pesticides cannot be used to hold food. Just going by regulatory stamps, trademarks and brand names is sometimes not good enough, especially when we are trying to buy second hand.
- Although DIY is encouraged, be certain about the technology used. Lead and tin-based solders are not advisable. Also, some porcelain might have lead (Pb) coating which is not advisable. Poorly welded or brazed joints tend to have holes and uneven finish that can harbor microbes.
- Always check the joints, gaskets, sealants and the coatings for leakages. Today, food-grade silicone gel is readily available to bail us out without any trouble. Plumbing and aquarium shops are also good resources to hunt for the right parts. As a rule, anything that is hard to reach is hard to clean and will harbor microbes.
- CIP Ready: To make ends meet, industry experts will try to sell complicated heavy equipment and then sell you CIP (cleaning in place) set up to maintain them. For a hobby with non-commercial batches, it might burn a deep hole in your pocket. Estimate the life of the equipment, the number of times you are going to use it and how much time it saves before signing a fat check.
Above is my checklist for equipment selection question. In short, be creative, do investigate different options/ add-ons. Having an inquisitive mind will help us assemble the right equipment affordably. Being utilitarian, I enjoy the scavenger hunt- getting the right technique, assembling the equipment, reading and talking about it is a part of the fun-filled brewing.
Basic Level Equipment:
Pre-requisites to make a successful home brew:
- A food-grade container with a big enough lid so that cleaning the bottom is easier. (Two containers, if secondary fermentation or aging is required).
- An airlock: We can probably do a DIY airlock using a blow-off tube as well (a pipe that is inserted in a liquid/ sanitizer filled bottle) or a large balloon, surgical glove or similar to vent out the built-up CO2 easily (details in chapter 43).
- An airtight lid: Oxidation is the biggest enemy of home brewers and an airlock with a secure lid goes a long way. Most common lids can be forced to be airtight by adding some packing material (cellophane/ cling wrap is my favorite). We can also use silicone gel, yellow Teflon tapes available at the plumbing shop. We don’t need to spend a lot but don’t under-estimate its importance.
- A siphon: It can be as simple as a food-grade pipe to one with a pump attached to one end (details in chapter 43). Siphon helps in easy pouring/ decanting without the risk of oxidation. DIY experts fabricate a vacuum bottle filler using an old refrigerator compressor effortlessly.
- Sanitizer: Refer to our next chapter on safety. Iodine, Star-San, Lye, Oxi-Bleach, Hydrogen Peroxide, Perchlorate etc. are few of the standard food grade sanitizers available at the local chemist shops.
- Presentation: Bottles to package or kegs to serve. It is OK to spend a bit more for aesthetics purpose. Presentation is the most important aspect of any food-craft.
- A thermometer: I still use gauge thermometer but the next generation prefers digital. A temperature regulator (optional) can control our air-conditioning/ refrigerating to provide finer control over the recipe. Some programming and electronics enthusiasts integrate a microcontroller with a phone app to make a data-logger and to automate the whole recipe.
- Logbook: (Chapter 49). Be systematic in your approach. Have a pen and paper handy to record notes. So many people regret not being able to remember the steps. The goal here is to be able to recreate your wonderful beverage. Also, if need be, the notes help in zero down the faults and rectify them later.
- Glass marbles: If the brew volume is more than our fermenter (especially secondary), one can easily put it inside a small-sanitized beer bottle for experiments. However, often we end up with smaller batches than our fermenter size. For anaerobic ferments (alcoholic), this headspace between the lid and the liquid level becomes a source of oxidation and has to be eliminated. Lead-free (non-decorative) glass marbles come in handy to eliminate this space. Also when using a spice bag (or dry hopping), weighing down the bag with glass marbles helps eliminate the floating debris problem which could harbor mold contamination.
Like any other hobby- The journey, scavenger hunt and the exploration is part of the most significant and fundamental aspect. One should not rob themselves of the gratification from the success of one’s experiments. Start small but as the hobby develops, make sure to expand to add the necessary hardware needed. Adapt to your needs, batch size and pocket as you evolve in your fermentation journey. SS304/316 is good to have, but not necessary.
The traditional porcelain pickle jars is a great choice for fermentation but do inspect its inner glace. If it is cracked, then it is no good. If it is coated with a lead glace, then it is not food grade. The fragile glass jars are great for up to 5 liters size. Anything beyond that, in my opinion, is ‘too cumbersome to lift’ and ‘too prone to shattering’ to be of any practical purpose. For plastic, observe the marking on the bottom. PP5, HDPE and PPCPE are great. If we are using recycled plastic, avoid ones that had non-food articles stored in them or ones exposed to Sun or extreme climate for long. Avoid thin plastic, single-use PET, Tupperware bottles as they were designed for oxygen to permeate through and keep water tasty.
Warning! The 20-liter plastic carboy is ideal but I have found them impossible to clean or sanitize. Hence, I cut and throw them after every use.
Intermediate Level Equipment
- A hydrometer or refractometer: To measure the Brix/ Plato buy it as early as possible. It will help to scientifically measure the alcohol content & extent of fermentation.
- Either a crown capper (beer bottles) or a wine corker (wine) or a swing top glass bottle. One can scavenge bottles from the local bar or scrapyard too.
- A brew kettle or a mash tun to achieve an ideal mashing temperature and have precise temperature control for the elongated duration. Otherwise, a small mash container inside a bigger vessel can create a great hot water bath to achieve indirect heating.
- A wort chiller for making beer (or) a wine press for wine (very different roles but similarly priced, hence grouped together). Processing batches of 20 Liters or beyond require some degree of automation.
- A precision weighing scale with a precision of 1/10th of a gram to measure hops, spices, and additives that are needed in very minute quantities. The normal kitchen scale has an accuracy of 5-10 gms which makes it useless for making precise logbook notes.
A simple hack is to weigh 10 gms on a regular scale, and visually divide the spices into half a couple of times. In 4 steps, we can reach 0.6gms to a surprisingly good accuracy. Human senses are a piece of million-dollar equipment, which is often undermined.
- For beer batches larger than 5-10 liters, it is recommended to have a wort oxygenator. Boiling strips the dissolved oxygen away. Hence, restoring the dissolved oxygen is needed to create a healthy colony. Wines are fermented in an open container for the first couple of days hence doesn’t require an artificial oxygenator.
Expert level equipment
Chest freezer for bulk aging and temperature-controlled fermentation. An old refrigerator with thermostat and the rear radiator is equally good and cost-effective. The sidewalls of these refrigerators must not have any refrigerant piping. Hence, at a later stage, a hole can be drilled to attach a dispensing tap/ piping to it. Another way to modify a refrigerator is to cut a section in the silicone gasket of the refrigerator door sealing. Pipes and wires should be able to go through this opening and later it can seal it later with silicone glue-gun.
- Some basic benchtop test equipment or high school laboratory setup. Complete with titration, SO2 testing and stir plates. Magnetic stir plates and a conical flask are great to multiply the yeast and ensure that the healthiest ones are introduced without stress-related off-flavors. Measuring total titratable acidity (not just pH) is very useful. A micro-pipette can be a great precise measurement tool. The ability to measure the molarity (active chemical strength) of chemicals and preservatives helps gauge its efficacy and regulate their overuse. A simple mechanical centrifuge (used for blood tests) is great is isolating some of the haze causing particles and root cause the source of lack of clarity. The goal is not to collect all fancy equipment but gain the ability to monitor, control & standardize the process better.
- A pump and vacuum bottling is worth considering. Gravity based siphoning is too slow for large batches but lifting heavy jars to top of the shelf can be a backbreaking cumbersome exercise. Automation and relevant tools that can make fermentation less laborious help in scaling.
- SS conical fermenter: This fermenter takes the dead yeast from the bottom without opening the lid, siphoning, and transferring to secondary. This ability makes it indispensable in preventing oxidation and saving space (details in chapter 43).
- For a small batch of beer, one can go to the nearby flour mill (or organic store) and request for Dalia (porridge or broken wheat) crush setting. For larger and consistent requirements, investing in a dedicated grain crusher would be better. Attaching a drill machine to a manual crusher’s rotatory arm can ease the labor considerably for those who are comfortable with power tools.
- Arduino/ Raspberry PI/ arm micro-controller that can hook your sensors to your cellphone/ computer for a few thousand INR. An IoT, data logger and electronic controls can be used to program the recipe (control each environmental parameter to minutest details). Industrial grade SCADA or PLC system can easily be replicated economically through BrewPi and few other open-source software stacks.
Make a note of the various weight measurements and conventions used in different recipes. A US gallon (3.78L) is not same as British Gallon (4.54L). A cup (237ml), teaspoon (5ml) and tablespoon (15ml) are standard units of measurements. 100OC is scalding hot boiling water but 100OF is only slightly elevated body temperature. We tried to use metric system in this book but it might be a good idea to have a conversion table handy when we discuss our recipes with other artisans or collaborators from around the world.
The usage of some of this advanced equipment will be discussed in the last section (Perfecting Home Brew). From a few thousand INR to a 50 Lakh ($100 to $70,000 USD) microbrewery setup, the choice is completely yours. The most interesting thing about this hobby is that, with a simple fabricated setup, one can achieve surprisingly good quality. I believe in the ‘Theory Of Constraints’ (TOC), where the end process is as good as the weakest link (or limiting factor). Some swanky equipment, no doubt, are good for a showoff, but I am more interested in utilitarian aspect of it.
Fermentation is one of those rare indulgences, which can be mastered without breaking a bank and will make you more social & popular in the community. Many people, nowadays, are inclining towards computer-controlled fermenting & brewing systems. Unintentionally, these take the art away from this craft but at the same time provide convenience & automation. Do check for spares, ease in cleaning & maintaining the system before you make an expensive purchase decision. Also do share your equipment plans with your better half; no hobby is successful if the family support is missing!