This is easily the # 1 question we hear from new brewers, and it's a good one. The unfortunate answer is, "It Depends".
This may seem like a cop out but it's really not. The hobby requires a little digging into why you want to try your hand at home brewing. Small things you may not have considered can play a significant role in how you start the hobby and how quickly you really begin to enjoy it. It's our job as purveyors of fine homebrewing supplies, things, and stuffs to make sure you get the right tools for the "project" you have in mind, and aren't starting out with equipment and methods that don't align with your goals.
Here are some questions to consider before plunking down any money on home brewing equipment:
Not as simple as you'd hoped huh? Oh, and the last question is a trick and somewhat of a running joke; this isn't a hobby you get into to save money. I'm not saying it can't be done, but if saving money is your #1 reason for trying out homebrewing, you may want to try something else.
Homebrewing is like a lot of other skills and hobbies in that you have to learn to crawl before you walk & walk before your run. I deal with a lot of new and inspired homebrewers that want to sprint out of the gate into a 14% double barrel-aged Rocky Road imperial stout, or a triple hazy IPA with pounds of expensive hops. We have to set expectations correctly. You wouldn't pick up a hammer for the first time and expect to build a sprawling, multi-level deck worthy of the cover of "Southern Living" on your first try. Brewing isn't much different. If I sent you out into the world with $1000 worth of shiny new brewing gear and a $80 recipe kit expecting amazing results on the first try well, that would be negligent. Chances are you're not going to be too happy with me, or your beer, and won't be in a hurry to try again. Let's break down the steps to success so we can get you up and sprinting as soon as you are ready.
Step #1: You have to learn. Take a class (coming soon!), watch videos, read blogs, join a friend who brews, attend a brewing event, etc - but #1 always in my book is THE book. "How To Brew" by John Palmer. Buy it, read it. keep it handy for notes and reference. It is absolutely the best money you can spend as a new homebrewer, and will answer most questions before you think to ask them, and will give you a great overview of the different types of brewing methods available to you.
Step #2: Commit to a brewing method. The methods I recommend to newer brewers are extract, partial mash, and brew-in-a-bag (BIAB). Why these methods? Because the most crucial step to making good beer is in the fermentation (the cold side). Besides, there's a strong chance you already have most of what you need for the making of wort (the hot side) and your initial investment will be less. You'll still need all of the right cold-side equipment, which works the same regardless of your hot side methods. More on that in an upcoming post.
Step #3: Start simple. No mega fruited milkshake sours, no massive doppelbocks, and no NEIPAs with $30 of hops in them. At least not yet. We're talking blonde ales, wheat ales, pale ales, brown ales, etc. Standard, simple, and forgiving. You want to have an initial win. You are learning the process more than the recipe, because if your process isn't good, the best recipe will turn out poorly.
What is the simplest way to start?
For years that answer has been easy: extract brewing.
Extract Brewing: What exactly is extract brewing? It is brewing by using concentrated malt extract (wort) to provide the fermentable sugars for the beer, eliminating the mash step and providing a consistent and predictable result. Let's do a pros/cons breakdown on the extract brewing method.
|EXTRACT PROS||EXTRACT CONS|
|Requires least amount of equipment||Somewhat inflexible|
|Shorter brewday/easier clean-up||Fewer ingredient options|
|Tons of ready-made recipe kit options||More expensive than grain|
There are some who would poo-poo extract brewing as a method that cannot produce great beer. They're wrong. Extract beers can be delicious and most of this hate is unjustified. Extract brewing is an excellent way to start because it places your focus on the fermentation and process which is far more important to the quality of the finished brew. It simplicity and approachability remove most of the more complicated aspects and build momentum toward going deeper into the hobby.
Partial Mash Brewing:No secrets here, partial mash is exactly that, a partial mash. That means you are going to mash grain - the process where we hold crushed malted grains in water at a specific temperature for a specified amount of time. In partial mash, only a small amount of grain is mashed and the rest of the fermentable sugars are added as malt extract. This process bridges the gap between extract and all-grain brewing and allows the brewer more control over the flavor profiles and types of beer they create.
|PARTIAL MASH PROS||PARTIAL MASH CONS|
|Greater control of recipe/process||More "hands-on"|
|Low space/equipment requirement||Longer brew day|
|Prepares you for all-grain brewing||Less ready-made kit availability|
Partial mash is great for brewers looking to transition from extract brewing to all-grain brewing. It introduces the brewer to mashing and the process of temperature control on the hot side. It allows some of the "fresh grain" flavor to come through, which is especially key in lighter styles of beer, and gives the brewer access to a huge number of malts and grains to work with. the partial mash brewer will use extract to make up the bulk majority of the fermentable sugars so this method keeps the process relatively simple and predictable while allowing more experimentation and control over the beer.
Brew-In-A-Bag (BIAB): This is the newest member of what I'd consider to be an approachable technique for new brewers. It is exactly as it sounds, you're brewing in a bag. It's an all-grain method primarily, but can be used in the mash of a partial mash brew as well. BIAB uses a special fine mesh bag inside your brew pot to contain the crushed malts and grains during the mash portion of the brew. Once complete, you simply remove the bag and the grains and start your boil. It is easily the fastest and simplest way to get started in all grain brewing and many experienced brewers prefer BIAB and its derivatives over a traditional 2 or 3 vessel for its simplicity and quality beer it produces. BIAB also gives the brewer complete control over their recipe but can also adapt ready made all-grain kits easily.
|BREW IN A BAG PROS||BREW IN A BAG CONS|
|Complete control over recipe/process||Requires more precision|
|Low space/equipment requirement||Longer brew day|
|Can use all grain recipe kits||Wet grains are heavy/messy|
|Highly efficient use of grain (saves $$)||Mash temperature control is tricky|
|Quality bags are reusable many times||Bags can be easily damaged if careless|
|Not as beginner friendly as others|
BIAB is an excellent option for the more adventurous beginner for sure, and we have many customers that will stay with this method (or a similar all-in-one system) as they continue on in their brewing journey. It is not as forgiving nor as predictable as the other two methods, but that doesn't matter to everyone. If you're the kind of person that wants to keep it simple to start, maybe BIAB is not the place to begin, but it certainly is a method that's friendly to the novice brewer. It's a tool we're very happy to have in our kit for brewers at any level.
There's no wrong way to start as long as you start. It's also important to remember that no decision here is permanent, so if you change your mind after one brew, 10 or, 100. It doesn't matter. The important thing is that this hobby serves you and what you want from it. Simple to complex, free-spirited or super technical - the journey is completely yours. We're happy to help, just reach out and we'll dig down and find out what will best suit you now, and get you started.
Questions? Comments? Suggestions for future topics? Leave them below in the comments section. This is the first installment in our FAQ series and we'd love to have you be a part of it and better support you in your hobby.
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