Dec 30, 2012

Equipment Progression

I am an all-grain, fermentation-controlled, kegging homebrewer (with other bells and whistles thrown in there, too).  But I didn't start out that way.  I was thinking about my progression as a homebrewer and wondering if I would change anything about my journey (hindsight is 20/20).  So, I made a list of my progression.  The list below doesn't contain every gadget or step, and some steps include multiple purchases/equipment, but it hits key milestones.  Here is a brief overview of how I have progressed so far as a homebrewer:
  1. Extract on the stove top
  2. Wort chiller
  3. Turkey fryer/Burner for outdoor use
  4. Kegerator
  5. Pump
  6. Fermentation control
  7. Yeast starters
  8. All-grain (all the equipment at once)
  9. Plate Chiller
  10. Oxygenation system
So, what would I change?  How would I choose to progress now that I am more advanced?  Or, I guess a pertinent question also is, where did I get the most bang for my buck?  What was most worth the money?  Below is my list answering those questions.

Here are my assumptions with my ideal list.  I am going to assume that you are able-bodied and can lift 5+ gallons of wort to pour and that you don't mind a little bit of effort.  Also, I am going to assume we are starting from the beginning - extract on stove top.  I will also assume that you have all the basic equipment - big pot, fermenters, PBW, sanitizer, etc.  I will also assume you have space - space to store equipment and space to use said equipment.  Being stuck in an apartment, you may not be able to adhere to this list.

1.  Extract on the stove top
I said I was going to start here, so here I am.  Nearly everyone starts here.  No shame if you are.

2.  Turkey fryer/Burner for outdoor use
Get out of the house, man!  Having a fryer gets you out of a cramped kitchen, boilovers are nowhere near of a hassle, and your kitchen stays much cleaner.

3.  Yeast Starters
"Brewers make wort; yeast make beer."  I am a firm believer in that saying.  As brewers, we are trying to give yeast an optimal environment to do their thing and do it well.  Up until now, you can toss in several vials or smack packs and get away with good beer.  But pitching several packs of yeast is not the same as making a starter.  A starter really awakens, multiplies, and energizes the yeast so they can do what they do best.  It also provides enough yeast so that they aren't overworked or strained.  Starters really helped make my beer better and is one of the more inexpensive ways to make better beer.

Immersion Wort Chiller
4.  Wort chiller
Up until this point, there are lots of ways to chill wort without dedicated equipment.  Frozen 2-liter bottles (sanitized) can work wonders.  So can a snow bank.  Or an ice bath.  Or time.  All that being said, a wort chiller can help get the wort to a reasonable pitching temperature much faster.  Most people use an immersion chiller, which works really well.  If you have warm ground water, you may want to think of a pre-chiller so you can get everything down below 75F.  It would be best to get it a few degrees cooler than your fermentation temperature.

5.  Fermentation control
In making sure yeast can do their thing in the most optimal way, we need to have enough of them (a starter), pitch them into an environment appropriate for them (wort chilled to fermentation temp), and then control the environmental temperature, which is where fermentation control comes in.   Most people have a fridge (Craigslist!) dedicated to fermentation with a temperature controller.  This combination makes it easy to set your IPA at 68F or your Lager at 50F and let it go.  The work and worry is taken out yeast getting too warm and producing off flavors.  For some, a cool basement is perfect for fermentation, but a fridge takes it to the next level.

6.  Kegerator
Most people think this is the best choice you can make, but if you are producing crappy beer, why would you want that on tap?  I say, worry about making good beer before you worry about how you are going to dispense it.  But homebrew isn't the only thing that can go on a kegerator.  You can easily get commercial kegs and sixtels for your beverage enjoyment.  So, if you are impatient, go ahead and jump on this early.  It is super helpful for when you do want to put homebrew on.  Cleaning and filling one big bottle is a lot more fun than 54 little ones.  You can check out how I went about building my own kegerator at this post.

7.  All-grain
If you are finally making the best beer you can with extract, it is time to go all-grain.  We waited nearly 18 months before we brewed our first all-grain batch.  Some people thought we were crazy for waiting that long but neither of us wanted to make crappy beer on more expensive equipment.  I recommend getting your fermentation situation under control before you go to all-grain.  Equipment is expensive, it takes more time, and there is more to clean/learn/do.  Take your time in getting comfortable with brewing before you go all in.

A gravity fed system.
8.  Pump
A pump (or two) is very helpful on a brew day.  It can move lots of liquid easily (no more broken backs) and safely (no more broken carboys).  But it is not necessary to brewing.  Is it helpful?  Heck, yeah!  But not necessary.  You can do all-grain with a three tier gravity system, letting liquid flow from one pot to another lower one.

9.  Plate chiller
Is this even necessary?  No, but it chills wort to a cooler temperature faster than almost any other method.  We can get our 10+ gallons of wort cooled to 65F and in fermenters all in about 15 minutes.  It is great - expensive, but great.  I could go into a long diatribe about "cold break" and "chill haze," but you can look that up yourself.  Just know that a plate chiller does a great job at the one thing it is supposed to do.

10.  Oxygenation system
For most brewers, aerating their wort involves pouring, splashing, rocking, and shaking.  We did it that way for the longest time.  But, finally, I purchased an aeration system to use pure oxygen.  With it, I no longer have to lift up fragile, wet carboys full of sugar water and pour it back into the pot.  And then back into the carboy.  It saves a lot of effort.  Plus, an oxygenation stone does the job of aeration so much better than pouring.  I have noticed a step up in the quality of my beer.  The flavor is crisper and cleaner; the yeast flavors are what they are supposed to be.  It is last on the list because it is a bit of a specialty gadget and there are other ways to get air in the wort that are cheaper and nearly as sufficient.  An oxygenation stone is really one of those things you want to get if you really want the best beer possible.

So, there is my list.  It is my opinion; you may differ.  I'd like to hear if you do, why you do, what you did, etc.  You may have insight I do not.

I should also note that you shouldn't just race down this top ten like a checklist.  Only move once you feel like you have a good handle on what you are doing AND you feel like the next step will help you make better beer.  You need to have both of those things be true in order to get anything out of that money spent.  Also, some of the things on the list have nothing to do with better beer and instead are for the sanity of the brewer (kegging and plate chiller, for example - though some would argue that those two pieces of equipment can produce better beer).

Best of beer in the new year, readers.

Cheers.