When I decided to start home brewing, the prevailing thought for me was “I’ll make my own beer so I don’t have to spend $20 on 4-packs anymore.”
Well, as any experienced homebrewer will tell you, that simply doesn’t happen in practice. Equipment upgrades, larger batches, more batches and increased focus on quality ingredients will likely render this hobby more expensive than just grabbing beer at your local brewery.
The real reason we all keep home brewing is that its really fun. It is fun to experiment, to build and to upgrade.
Oh the upgrades!
Below are the seven upgrade paths that typical home brewers follow as they move from beginner to something closer to an expert. If only we had purchased to final upgrades first, we would have saved so much money in the long run. However, doing it this way is prudent and actually more cost-effective if you find yourself not brewing as much after the novelty has worn off.
Upgrading your fermenter is a path that is almost a rite of passage for home brewers. When I purchased my first homebrewing kit it came with a couple glass carboys. Picking one up instantly made me realize how fragile the thing was, but hey (I thought) – “this is how the pros do it!” Well, not exactly.
Cheaper homebrewing kits will come with plastic bucket instead of glass carboys, but they are both in the same beginners class of fermenters. Your first step will be to get cheap fermenters that you’ll use for a few months to a year, and then finally upgrade. The glass will feel like its one slippery day away from disaster, and plastic buckets scratch way too easily, leading to bacteria infections if you’re not careful.
Next, you’ll decide it’s time to upgrade and start looking at stainless steel fermenters. I just recently chose to upgrade to the Delta 8 gallon FermTank. This upgrade allows me to do so many brewing activities much easier. Everything from dry hopping, to taking samples to pressure transferring is multitudes easier. The only thing I regret about this upgrade is not doing it sooner. Honestly – that glass carboy made me nervous every single time I moved it.
Experts will gradually grow out of either a single fermenter or want the features that a conical fermenter can bring. To be clear, some basic-level steel fermenters will have a cone-shaped bottom, but they aren’t true conicals. Besides having the deep bottom well, these high-end fermentors also come with tri-clamp everything, a larger capacity and more useful ports for dry hopping, cooling and emptying.
Glass & Plastic
Conical & Larger
When you first start brewing, the instructions tell you to just drop the hops directly into the boil kettle or fermenter. You’ll quickly realize that doing it this way makes it hard to keep your equipment clean and clog-free.
Next you’ll end up buying an inexpensive hop spider that will keep your kettle free from floating hop particles that normally would have stuck to everything. A hop spider in the boil usually is the best it can on the hot side, but dry hopping is another matter altogether. I quickly switched to using disposable muslin bags when dry hopping. Free floating hops in the fermenter may get slightly better utilization, but when it comes to racking your beer out, they become a nightmare. Unfortunately, muslin bags are not the ultimate answer either.
Home brewers that make a lot of IPAs oddly find themselves getting back to basics when it comes to dry hopping. We find that hopping directly into the beer makes a big enough of a difference, especially with the price of hops always increasing. There are a few tools that we buy to make this easier on ourselves. This can include anything from a keg hopper to a dip tube filter. None of these items are necessary, but when trying to squeeze every drop out of your hops, we commonly spare no expense.
Muslin Bags / Spiders
Homebrewers that have been brewing for decades will probably swear their RIMS or HERMS setup is best. It had been the only real way to brew beer at home – that is until Brew-in-a-Bag – or BIAB for short – was introduced in the early 2000s. BIAB is a single vessel system that steeps the crushed grains in a nylon bag for easy removal from the wort.
Honestly, anyone starting to home brew now should start with BIAB and never look back. By using this method, you’ll need less equipment and brew just as good beer as the old timers.
I started out performing a partial mash with a 5 gallon kettle over a propane burner I had around the house. Partial mashes have you steep the specialty grains in a couple gallons of water, then add extract (DME or LME) to increase the gravity afterwards. Finally, you’ll add enough fresh water to reach a total of 5 gallons.
After two partial mash kits, I quickly graduated to a 10 gallon kettle that allowed me to make all-grain recipes without the use of extracts. I stuck with this method for quite a while, and I still use it most of the time.
However, I decided to try an all-in-one system that does the heating, recirculating and cooling for you. Honestly, this is a fail-proof system when following directions. A propane burner can be unpredictable at times, but the electric heating elements inside the eBIAB units are so precise. Unfortunately, good units like the Clawhammer 120V will run you almost a cool grand (USD $1000 for those of you out of the country), so this is a major upgrade once you decide on it.
Full Batch Kettle
All-in-One / eBIAB
Packaging & Delivery
Nobody actually likes to bottle beer. Unfortunately there is really no other way to package your beer at first without a huge monetary commitment. Most home brewers don’t know if this hobby will turn into a life-long obsession or not, so dropping $300 on a kegerator and a couple corny kegs just doesn’t make sense at first.
After packaging a couple batches in bottles, or getting your first oxidized NEIPA, you’ll quickly realize that there is no substitute for kegging your beer. Draft beer always tastes better, and any beer that is best fresh should be kegged instead. I still bottle some special stouts, but overall kegging is much easier, quicker and protects your hard work better.
Once you’ve started kegging, the natural progression is to keg even more. This is when you’ll start look into building your own keezer. A keezer is a chest freezer that has been modified to hold and serve multiple kegs at once and can often double as a cold crashing chamber. If you are the type of person who loves DIY projects, building one of these will always be on your bucket list.
After you’re done boiling your wort, it needs to be cooled down to an appropriate temperature in order to pitch the yeast. Normal ale yeast will prefer the wort to be between 65-70 degrees, with kveik yeast being higher and lager yeast being lower.
Most home brewers start out by cooling their wort with ice cubes. This is primarily for a few reasons: 1) true starter kits never come with a cooling mechanism and 2) ice is cheap. What home brewers quickly realize is that ice is not the best choice. Unless you make your own ice, you’re paying $4 for a bag of ice that will add up over time.
Seeing that we all want to get a bit more sophisticated, most home brewers quickly switch to an immersion chiller. I ended up building my own for less than $50, but commercial ones may go for twice that. Some homebrewers make a larger leap and go for the plate or counterflow chillers, but they both are a bit more expensive and require pumps to work effectively.
As home brewers become more experienced in brewing beer, many settle on using a glycol chiller. At this point, I cannot justify spending over $400 on a chilling device, but they are supposed to do wonders. The refrigerant used will cool your wort from boiling to pitch temperature in around 15 minutes or less. When time is money, you spend what you have to.
All starter kits will come with manual thermometers and hydrometers, and they will work just fine forever. I however really disliked the manual-ness of them, and wanted to upgrade almost immediately. The good news is that you can pick and choose what parts of your system you want to upgrade, and you can go as crazy or mild as you want.
My thermometer was the first thing I upgraded. Having a digital remote thermometer allowed me to work away from the boil kettle and not have to babysit the kettle for fear of boil overs. This $50 device has become an indispensable tool in my brewing setup.
However, popular upgrades like the Tilt Hydrometer or Plaato Airlock are fun to use at first, but ultimately become unnecessary. Here’s why: half of the time I don’t even take gravity readings because I’m brewing a recipe I’ve done (or tweaked) a hundred times over. You’ll eventually become so used to how your beer looks, acts and tastes over time, that taking sample gravity readings will seem pointless.
Experts usually leapfrog over “Advanced” and go straight to full automation. This will typically involve getting an Inkbird control, building a keezer and dialing the whole brewing process in as if they were brewing professionally. Going this far will likely also include using software that monitors temperature and gravity for brews that are exactly what is prescribed every time.