So I started typing up my first brew day, and I realized that I really need to talk about the basics first, rather than drag out the brew day post to ridiculous lengths.
What kind of equipment does brewing beer require? A typical homebrew batch is 5 gallons. On brew day, you’ll need at the minimum a 3.5 gallon brew pot (20 quarts, or five gallons, is preferable). Mine is thin-walled stainless steel, but aluminum is fine. I’ve also seen people using the thin walled “granite” pots you can find at Wal-Mart and such. You will need something to stir the brew with – I use a spatula from my regular kitchen arsenal. If you are using specialty grains, you will need a mesh bag for them. Following the actual brewing, you will need fermentation container at least 5 gallons in size. Options include glass carboys (I use a 6.5 gallon one), plastic buckets, and Better Bottles, which are essentially plastic carboys. For any plastics you use, make sure that it is made of HDPE (high-density polyethylene), aka food-grade plastic.
If you’re interested in plastic buckets, I highly recommend doing a quick search on Google maps or wherever you please for a local restaurant supply store. They’ll have food-grade buckets of all sizes with practically unbeatable prices. Buckets will require lids, which are often sold separately. The lid will need a 1/2″ hole drilled into it with a rubber grommet inserted into it. You can get pre-drilled lids from online brew shops, but just man up and drill your own hole. You’ll feel more virile afterwards.
Into that grommet will go an airlock. This will allow ventilation of all the carbon dioxide the yeast is going to produce while keeping everything else out. I strongly recommend the 3-piece airlock over the bubbler. In my experience it’s easier to use, less likely to fail, sturdier, and easier to clean.
If you are using something with a narrow neck (e.g. not a bucket), you’re going to need a funnel. A strainer for the funnel could be useful, but you don’t need one. If I had one in my kitchen, I’d probably use it, but I don’t. A carboy or better bottle will need an appropriate rubber cork/bung with a hole for the airlock. There are also carboy caps instead of corks, but I haven’t used them. The very first time I was getting everything set up, I accidentally pushed the cork into the carboy. There are some interesting methods on the internet to remove a cork from a bottle, but since these have a hole in them, I was able to use a hex wrench to pull it out. This almost, almost made me purchase a carboy cap immediately. After my first brew, however, I have had exactly zero problems with corks. Word to the wise: sanitizer makes those rubber corks extremely slippery.
In theory you don’t need a thermometer, but it’s really indispensable. Any old kitchen thermometer will do. You don’t technically need a hydrometer either, but in my opinion, anyone not using one is less interested in the art and science of brewing beer and more interested in having cheap (probably unpalatable) beer in large quantities. The thermometer and hydrometer will help you control the process and at various times inform you when to wait and when to proceed. Sounds pretty important, yes? A simple plastic spray bottle or two (also available from your local restaurant supply store) will come in handy, but aren’t necessary. I keep one filled with water for brew days, and one filled with sanitizer for any time. A measuring cup isn’t necessary, but I find my 2 cup Pyrex to be very handy. I also keep my copy of John Palmer’s ridiculously useful How to Brew at arm’s reach. It is generally regarded as the single most useful book for beginning brewers. There is no reason you should not own this book before you brew your first batch. The first edition of the book is available at http://howtobrew.com, but the third edition in print has newer and more accurate information, is more thorough, and is at least twice the size. So spend the twelve bucks on the book. Keep in mind there is a good deal more equipment you can use, and I am just trying to list everything you would need.
Cleaning is removing visible particulate from your equipment. Clean all of your equipment scrupulously, as any visible matter or discolorations may house bacteria or other contaminants. PBW (powdered brewery wash) is a damn good cleaner. It is, however, relatively difficult to get into solution and may be overkill for basic cleaning. It is excellent for cleaning your brew pot, though. Being cursed with an electric stove, I wind up with the caramelized spiral shape of the coil at the bottom of the pot after every batch. PBW destroys this without remorse. Any normal soaps or detergents you have will work, though be mindful that scented detergents may deposit their scent on your equipment and therefore in your beer.
Sanitizing is killing off all the bacteria and other persona non grata that may be present on your equipment. This is necessary for everything that will touch your wort after you take it off the heat. You don’t have to initially sanitize your brew pot or anything that will go in during boiling, just clean it. You should sanitize your scissors because they will cut open the yeast smack pack, which will be poured directly into the cool wort. So if they weren’t sanitized, the scissors could introduce unwanted bacteria into your beer. You will also have to sanitize the carboy (the primary fermenter), and various other things. Star San is my choice of sanitizer, and it works very well. Other sanitizers, such as Iodophor or bleach, are available. Bleach is workable but recommended against because it may leave bleach flavors and scents behind (go figure). “70% of brewing beer is cleaning.” I’m sorry, but it’s true. Clean beer is good beer; it will look and taste like you want it to. Bacteria will produce off flavors and potentially make your beer undrinkable. You cannot be too thorough when cleaning and sanitizing.