I was recently approached by an old friend who was curious about getting into the hobby of homebrewing, and wanted to know what I thought he should know and do to get started. As my mind began swimming with particulars from my experience, I also was trying to keep from overwhelming him with details that wouldn’t matter, and I thought that writing a post might be a good way to organize my thoughts.
The two absolutely most important things to care about are sanitation and temperature control. These sound incredibly uninteresting and boring, but they really will make the biggest difference in your end product.
Understand that brewing is a combination of creativity and science. To have fun and make good beer, you need to be able to respect both parts of the process, even if you lean towards one or the other (most do).
For beginning brewers, there are a handful of pieces of equipment that you need.
- A good reference book (I recommend How to Brew by John Palmer)
- An ample supply of PBW (or OxyClean) and star-san (or sani-clean) for cleaning and sanitizing
- A large stockpot (at least 4 gallons, preferably 6)
- Fermenting buckets/carboys (carboys are great because you can see what’s going on, buckets are easier to clean — pick which one is more important to you)
- An auto-siphon
- Packaging materials (either bottling equipment or kegging equipment)
- A thermometer (I’ve come to prefer digital after breaking about 5 glass ones)
- A hydrometer
There will be other ingredients in a new homebrewer’s kit, but these, in my opinion, are essential.
You can, of course, buy a kit and follow the directions, but I believe you’re rolling the dice with that approach. Take the time to either take an in-shop brewing 101 type course (usually a couple of hours), or seriously read the basics sections of the How to Brew book. Understanding the process, even just at the surface level, helps you to understand the relevance of the steps in the kit directions. Your beer and your tastebuds will thank you for it.
Lastly, a very common mistake for new brewers to make is to want their first batch to be a barleywine with chili peppers and ginger aged on bourbon soaked oak cubes (or something equally outrageous). You need to get some practice with your process and equipment before you take on something like that. Pick a simple recipe, like an american pale ale, or a stout, or an IPA. Something not too big, not too complex, and something that you can compare to a commercial beer you also like. Then, with the help of some more experienced homebrewers, you can try your homebrew alongside a commercial brew, and talk about the process, ingredients, and what you like (and dislike) about both your beer, and the commercial beer. Then you can start to tweak recipes and make them your own — in my opinion, the very best part of the hobby.
There are a million other things that are helpful, important, and also common stumbling blocks, but let’s be honest — there are only so many things you can keep in your head at once. This is an attempt to provide simple advice, and to highlight things that I think are important. The very best thing you can do is to brew with a friend who knows more about it than you do. Make sure they let you do the work yourself, but they can keep you from going too far astray.
Like Charlie Papazian says, RDWHAH (relax, don’t worry, and have a homebrew).