For several years now, I have been fascinated by microbreweries and the craft beer that they offer. I can remember my first experience at the Huske Hardware House in Fayetteville, NC several years ago. The live entertainment, rustic hardwoods and of course great tasting beer created the ultimate trifecta.
Since then I have visited several microbreweries and tasted some really great beer and even did a few brew tours. While $6 a beer always seemed to be on the steep side, it was almost always worth the experience.
As my interest in home brewing grew, I finally decided to pull the trigger and begin the research process into what it takes to brew. I picked up a few books on homebrewing including John Palmer’s How to Brew and watched dozens of Youtube videos on brewing.
Once I had a fairly good grasp on the basic process of creating a batch, I spent several hours researching how to get the most bang for my buck when purchasing equipment. I decided to purchase middle of the road equipment because I didn’t want waste money on inferior equipment that will likely be replaced quickly when i decide to continue this hobby. Towards the end of my shopping spree I realized that creating beer can be quite an expensive hobby.
Home Brew Talk proved to be a useful resource with lots of great information posted in their forum. Several members have been brewing for decades and as many of you know, I am a believer in learning from the experience of others instead of spending time figuring everything out all things on my own.
As far as total cost, this will of course depend on several factors such as
- Choice of all grain vs malt extract
- Supplies and equipment that you already have
- Your budget
- Choice of equipment
- Several other factors
There is a chance that your circumstances are similar to mine so if you are basically starting with nothing and are interested in all grain brewing, this will serve as a great estimation of cost. Feel free to use this as a guide but as always, it is best to check out several other setups and do your homework before creating a home brew system that works for you. There are several decisions to make that will greatly impact cost and the quality of beer that you create. Lets start with extract vs all grain.
Malt extract vs. All grain
The first decision that you must make is whether to go with extract brewing or all grain.
Liquid or Dry Malt extracts
With liquid or dry malt extracts, the sugars have already been extracted from the grain by a manufacture and conveniently packaged for your use. This can save several hours when it comes to creating your brew. For some, this reason alone is enough of a reason to choose the extract method. From what I understand there are several brewers out there who claim to create great tasting beer from extracts and these claims are likely true. My personal opinion is that these extracts are a shortcut – Sorta like making lemonade from a powder.
- Saves time that could be spent doing something else such as drinking beer
- Less equipment to purchase up front
- Less room for error because the extraction process has been completed in a controlled environment
- Easy to use. Simply pour extract into kettle along with water
- Takes some of the fun out of brewing
- Less choices when it comes to recipes
- Leaves little room to experiment with different grains
- Extracts could sit on store shelves for several months before being sold
- Much more expensive than all grain
All grain brewing requires a few more pieces of equipment that allows you to extract the sugars from your own grain. The process is somewhat similar to the way many people brew their coffee every morning. There are several pieces additional pieces of equipment that must be purchased, thereby raising the overall start up cost of brewing. To me, the additional cost is worth the long term savings. Also, it is far more impressive to others when they learn that you beer didn’t come from a concentrate in a can. I will discuss the system that I used and the cost associated with the purchasing it but first here are some of the pros and cons to consider.
- Brewing all grain is fun and allows you to experiment with different grain combinations
- When you create your own wort you know that it will be fresher than what comes in a can
- All grain is much more cost effective
- Gives more of a sense of accomplishment, sort of like making homemade soup vs canned. You will be proud to tell others that you made it
- Raises your equipment cost considerably
- Increases likelihood of something going wrong while brewing
- Takes more time to complete the brewing process
Cost of all grain brewing equipment – $419.67
I obviously decided to take the advice of others and go straight into all-grain brewing. There seems to be a general consensus in the brewing community that once you go grain you never go back.
So what do you get for $420? Here’s what I decided to go with.
5 Gallon mash tun – $88.75
This is a necessity when it come to all grain brewing. It seems as if most beginners and several seasoned brewers prefer to use a converted cooler chest to do the job. They are inexpensive and very effective when it comes to keeping the mash at a constant temperature. Most people claim that they only lose 1 degree of heat over the course of an hour which is an acceptable amount. In order to make a mash tun you must convert a standard cooler into one with a false bottom and drain valve.
There are several decisions that one must make before choosing the type of tun to build. While many go for the biggest cooler that they can find, I decided to follow the advice of several who say that a round 5 gallon Rubbermaid or Igloo cooler is ideal. This cooler will accommodate around 12 lbs of grain while leaving little “empty space” at the top for heat loss. In addition, they are easier to store which is a major factor if you live in a small house or apartment.
The mash cooler – $26.36 each
I went with a Rubbermaid 5 gallon cooler purchased from Wally World for $23.36 with tax. Since Walmart does not carry a large selection of coolers in the wintertime, I ordered it online and had it shipped to my local store for free. While you are at it, order two of them, you will need it for the hot liquor tank as I will later discuss.
False bottom -$36.98
There are basically three choices when it comes to selecting a false bottom. I chose a 9″ stainless steel round false bottom that was pre-made for several reasons. I purchased mine from MidWest supplies for $36.98 including shipping and received in in just a few days. The stainless steel false bottom is easy to clean and apparently is very effective at extracting sugar from the grain. After all, the more efficiently you extract the sugars, the higher gravity you will obtain which usually translates into higher alcohol content.
I also considered a couple other false bottoms such as the copper manifold or the bazooka tube screen but decided against both of them for various reasons.
Like many other metals, the price of copper is extremely high right now, increasing the cost of a homemade copper manifold. In addition, you have to cut hundreds of slits in the pipe to allow the wort to seep through. Cleaning the inside and outside of the manifold appears to be a chore when compared to the stainless false bottom.
An alternative to building a copper false bottom is the plastic manifold. Building a plastic false bottom is more cost effective when compared to copper but still has the cleaning drawback. In addition, I would be paranoid about getting plastic shaving in my brew and chemicals leaching out from the plastic. The few dollars more is worth the peace of mind and easy cleanup.
Bulkhead and valve – $24.41 each
In order to connect the false bottom to the drain you will need to replace the factory drain valve with your own, heavy duty one. Some sell a stainless steel bulkhead and valve kit for around 40 bucks or so but you can make your own for $24.41 each. I decided to create my own with the help of “FlyGuy” From Homebrew Talk. He list all the Watts part numbers which makes finding all the fittings much easier. All the parts were purchased at Lowe’s with the exception of the stainless steel washers which I had to get from Fastenel. Unlike other fender washers sold at Lowes, these are constructed of stainless steel and will not leach heavy metals into your brew. While they are quite expensive, once again, it was well worth the peace of mind. They have an inside diameter of 5/8″ which is slightly larger than the ones available at the big box stores.
I read some concerns about surface lead on the brass fittings so I took a precautionary measure and “pickled” the fittings. This can be accomplished by creating a solution of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar and soaking the fittings. Some say it is not necessary but for a few pennies of solution I figured it was well worth it.
Mash tun tubing – $2.00 per foot
In order to make the connection between the 3/8″ nipple on the false bottom and the 3/8″ nipple on the bulkhead, you will need a short length of tubing. If you look in the plumbing section at Lowes or Home Depot, you will find all sorts of tubing, mostly vinyl. Some people have success with braid reinforced vinyl tubing while others say don’t use it. The reason is simple – this tubing is not manufactured to take the amount of heat associated with the liquid wort. The tubing will see temperatures in excess of 150 degrees F for an hour or more.
For this reason, it is a good idea to go with silicone tubing. While it is quite expensive ($2 per foot) it is rated for food use and can withstand temperatures of up to 500 degrees F, way above what we will be dealing with. I ordered mine online from Moorebeer because they sell it by the foot and offer the 3/8 tubing with 5/8 OD, which is much thicker than the 1/2 OD tubing that many other offer for the same price.
In short, spend the extra $1 for a piece of food grade silicone tubing to avoid a collapsed hose due to heat or the possibility of off flavors from the vinyl. Some say this is not an issue for them but why take the risk for such a small cost?
Hot Liquor tank – $57.77
The hot liquor tank or HTL is sometimes mistakenly called the “hot liquid tank” but this is not the correct name. Why it is called liquor and not liquid, I couldn’t tell you. It is simply a tank that holds hot water that is usually around 170 degrees F. This water is used to sparge your grains after the first run off.
Creating a hot liquor tank is very similar to creating the mash tun except you don’t need a false bottom. The cost is $23.36 for the 5 gallon round cooler and $24.41 for the valve setup. In addition you will need about 5 feet of silicone tubing which will set you back about $10. Total cost for the hot liquor tank = $57.77 USD. Simply follow the directions above and omit the false bottom and connecting tubing. When finished, slide your piece of 3/8 silicone tubing over the outside nipple. This will be filled with hot water from my brew kettle and used to feed my mash tun while fly sparging.
Malt mill – $126.95
Here is an area where you can actually cut cost. I ended up buying a Barley Crusher from Beersmith for $126.95 including shipping. There are 2 models to choose from and this one has the 7lb hopper. While researching, I discovered that many were satisfied with this product. I have not tried it yet so I can not say one way or the other. Overall, it is the best bang for your buck IMO. Apparently the Barley crusher does a better job at crushing the grain instead of milling it. In addition, it comes with the hopper attached and is well constructed. However, some claim that a Corona grain mill works just fine with a few modifications. These are sold for around $50 and have been popular for years among brewers.
Want to save some money on your all grain system? Fortunately, most local home brew stores will grind your barley for you. If this is the case then why should you spend your money on a crusher. I found 2 reasons:
- Enables you to buy in bulk – purchase a 55 lb bag of grain for far less than if you purchased by the pound
- Gives you the freshest grain possible. When you buy grain that is crushed at the store, you have a limited time to use it. With fresh grain you simply run it through just before your begin your brew.
Obviously you can eliminate this cost but I was thinking about reducing my overall cost by buying in bulk, not to mention the freshness factor.
Boil Kettle / Burner setup – $104.23
Most of us do not have a large 36 quart stock pot or propane burner so this expense is difficult to avoid. If you have a gas stove in your home you may be able to get away with not purchasing a burner but having one prevents your kitchen from becoming a sticky mess in the event of a boil over which is common. If you plan to brew a 5 gallon batch as many do, you will need a pot that is large enough to hold your pre-boil wort and prevent boil overs. This means about 7 gallons of liquid plus some extra room for the protein foam to expand. A 36 quart pot should be the minimum one should purchase for a 5 gal batch.
Turkey fryer setup
You can often find a turkey fryer setup which typically includes an aluminum pot and burner system. Many homebrewers use this system while others say that an aluminum pot causes beer to have a metallic taste. In addition, there is a still a debate concerning the possibility of aluminum causing Alzheimer disease. While some say it is bogus, others will not use aluminum for this reason.
Stainless Steel Pot setup
I decided to build my own for a couple reasons. The number one reason was that I found a great deal on my pot and burner on amazon. I picked up a 36 quart SS pot for $58.92 and 55,000 BTU burner for $45.31 for a total cost of $104.23. These were purchased on sale and qualified for Amazon’s free shipping program. The burner had great reviews while the pot had questionable reviews concerning the way the handle attaches to the body of the pot. I suppose only time will tell.
In addition, stainless steel is easier to clean and eliminates the possibility of aluminum flavors that could make me forget how to brew in the first place. Overall, Stainless steel seems to be favored by most homebrewers and professionals so i decided to go this route.
Home brewing Keggle
Another option is to use an old keg and convert it into a boil pot. This allows more capacity to make larger batches in the future. These are created by cutting a hole in the top of an empty keg and smoothing out the rough edges. Keep in mind that empty kegs are the property of the beer distributor, making it illegal to dismantle one without permission.
A used keg can often be found on craigslist for $30 or so. I searched for a while and didn’t have much luck finding one so I simply purchased the the 36 qt pot. I will keep a eye out for one and may switch over if I decide to make larger batches in the future. This seems to be a great way to heat your strike/sparge water and boil the wort.
You may have noticed that I did not include the cost of propane or a propane tank. Like many other men, (some women) I enjoy cooking on a propane grill. If this sounds like you then there is no need to buy another tank, unless you do a lot of brewing. Simply borrow your grill tank for a couple hours.
If you are in need of a tank then you can purchase one and have it filled or purchase a prefilled one. I have not priced one in a while but I would imagine they cost around $45 for a filled tank.
Wort Chiller – $55.97
The wort chiller is necessary to cool down your wort to pitching temperature quickly and reduce the chance of bacterial growth and oxidation. Some choose to give their wort an ice bath but the serious brewer seems to invest the money in one of these. It seems as if most that do without and then get one are very satisfied with the results.
As previously mentioned, the cost of copper is crazy high right now. This makes the cost of a chiller very high since it is constructed of mostly copper tubing. I went the less expensive route and created my own chiller using 50′ of 3/8 soft copper tubing, a garden hose to 3/8″ compression fitting, and a bit of 3/8″ vinyl tubing. It is okay to use vinyl because the water within the immersion chiller will never come in contact with your beer.
The total cost of building my own came out to $55.97 plus an hour or so of my time. Similar chillers sell for $80 to $100 so i figure it would be a fun project and a great way to save $40 or so.
There are several great tutorials available online that show how to make one. In a nutshell, I basically wrapped 50 ft of 3/8″ tubing around a 5 gallon metal bucket. I was very careful not to kink the tubing as this is very easy to do. Once I coiled it up, I held it together with a few pieces of copper electrical wire at various points.
I would highly advise the use of 50′ of tubing instead of the 20′ that Lowes sells. This allows for more surface area for cooling and with only 3/8″ in diameter, 50′ will only stack up to a foot or so when wrapped around a 5 gallon bucket. I would imagine 20′ would be enough to get to the bottom of the pot, a couple wraps and then back out of the pot – not enough in my opinion.
For the home brewer, most choose either the food grade plastic bucket or a glass or plastic carboy. Both of these will do the job but some prefer one over the other. Lets compare the two.
Constructed of either plastic or more commonly glass, these fermenting vessels resemble a giant bottle with a narrow opening at the top. Some advantages of using a carboy include:
- Ability to see the fermenting action of the beer. This is one of the most exciting parts for many as the live yeast “eat” the wort sugars
- Provides an airtight seal
- Lasts a lifetime as long as they are not dropped
- Does nor create environment for bacteria to grow
The disadvantages include
- Difficult to clean compared to a bucket fermented.
- Cost about 3 times as much as a plastic bucket
I chose to go with buckets because they are easier to clean and more cost effective. There are other reasons why I decided to go this route.
- Cost effective, a 6 gallon bucket set me back $11.95 and $2.50 for a lid totaling $14.45 compared to $35 or more for a Carboy.
- Buckets have a wide opening at the top, making them easy to clean.
- Much easier to transport than heavy glass
There are of course disadvantages to using a bucket for fermenting:
- Plastic can scratch, providing an environment for bacteria to form. Some recommend changing out buckets every so often because of this
- Lid does not provide an airtight seal. While some consider this an advantage (exploding bucket) others say this can let in bacteria. I also heard that the CO2 gasses that leak out prevent anything from entering so this is not an issue.
- Not able to see the fermenting action without opening lid, which can introduce nasty bacteria. Some shine a flashlight through the bucket to see whats going on.
In addition, you will need a blowoff tube or airlock and stopper. The airlock and stopper is generally used for most beers and only $2.65 for both pieces. I picked up the 3 piece system because it can be taken apart and cleaned.
Bottles and bottling equipment costs – $76.85
When fermenting is completed, it will be necessary to bottle or keg your beer. I decided to start with bottling because while time consuming, it is more cost effective at this time. Kegging is more convenient and less time consuming but will set you back several hundred dollars. In addition, I plan to give a lot of beer away and the kegging system will not be ideal for this.
Chances are, if you are considering creating your own brew, you drink craft beers on a regular basis. If you are looking to save a bit of cash on your bottles then you can start collecting now before you even begin to buy any equipment. I actually found a guy on Craigslist who gave me a few cases of unwashed, labeled bottles for free. Tell all of your friends and family members that you plan to brew and need bottles. I received a couple cases from a friend and scavenged some while at a couple Christmas parties. You need about 2 cases of bottles to package 5 gallons of brew. After a month or so I ended up with several cases of bottles that needed cleaning.
The other option is buy bottles from your local home brew store. I believe they run around $13 per case, which can certainly add to the cost of each beer and some of your bottles will get tossed and not returned. If you are absolutely desperate for bottles or don’t want to spend the time washing them and taking the labels off then this may be a better choice for you. Otherwise start collecting bottles now.
Any bottle won’t do. Avoid twist offs because they have a thinner rim and supposedly have a tendency to leak over time. Also only use bottles that are brown in color. Some bottles come in green or even clear. These bottles will skunk your beer if light hits them and are generally not acceptable for home brewing.
It is best to rinse out your bottle immediately after use to prevent solid matter from sticking to the bottom and sides and molding. Just fill with water and shake a couple times. This will work until you get around to washing them.
I did not include this in the start up cost simply because I didn’t have to buy bottles and most homebrewers should also be able to dodge this cost.
Bottle capper – $42.95
If you are planning on bottling your beer, you will of course need a capper. This is unless you purchase Grolsch bottles which have the flip-top ceramic caps. These are viewed as superior because capping is easy and can they can be used several times before having to replace the seal. On the downside, they are quite expensive and you may not want to give any away because they might not make it back to you.
There are basically two choices when it comes to capper – the bench capper and the hand capper. I chose to go with the bench capper because I noticed many people said they were easy to operate compare to the hand capper. When capping 50+ bottles I want to make it as effortless as possible. After all, this is a tedious task, why make it more difficult than what it already is?
In addition I noticed several people who claim that the hand capper will sometimes crack the neck of the bottle. The cleanup effort of spilling a beer is worth spending the extra $25. If you insist on buying a had capper, they can be picked up from around $16.
I decided to spend a little more and go with the bench capper from morebeer.com. $42.95
Bottle tree – $19.95 (Picture coming soon)
The next couple items are more of a luxury and can be substituted The bottle tree basically looks like a tree and allows you to hang up to 45 bottles upside down for drying. Some use the dishwasher rack while others may choose to build their own. I figured there will likely be a time where I want to bottle and the dishwasher is dirty. In addition, for $19.95 I likely could not build one as sturdy and compact as this one.
The bottle tree is can be used for drying after scrubbing your bottles and also drying after sanitizing. If you want to cut corners here, you can use something else for drying your bottles. Just make sure you are able to sanitize it. I suppose wood would not be a good choice if you are going to build one.
Sanitizer injector – $13.95 (Picture coming soon)
This cool item cost $13.95 and makes sanitizing your bottles easy. It works in conjunction with the bottle tree and works by placing the bottle over the nosle and pumping it a few times. Afterwards, you hang them on the tree and they are ready for bottling.
This item could also be skipped but I chose it because it appears to be a real time saver in the bottling process.
Brushes, testing supplies, water adjustments, and other supplies – $106.40
I really don’t want to bore you with all the small cost associates with buying your setup so I grouped them all together. I was rather suprised that all these small items added up to over $100. Here are the remaining items – most purchased from Morebeer because they seem to have good prices and offer free shipping on orders over $59. (most items)
10 ft 3/8″ ID x 5/8″ OD silicone tubing $19.50 - used to transport hot liquids
16oz star san $7.95 – A must for sanitizing
plastic mash paddle $4.95 - Used to stir out dough-balls in mash
hyrometer $5.95 - Used to measure gravity of beer and estimate alcohol content
Sample taker hydrometer jar $7.95 – need to take sample for gravity reading
6 SS hose clamps $3.90 - Holds hoses on various places
wort aerator $3.25 - Helps splash wort when transferring into fermenter in order to add oxygen
1 lb caps $4.95 – Needed for bottling
PH Test strips $14.95 – Used to test PH of mash
bottle bucket spigot $2.95 – Allows me to attach 3/8 hose to bottling bucket
2 Bottle brush $7.00 – Bottle cleaning purposes
3/8″ line brush $4.50 – Clean out tubing
Bottle filler wand $3.95 – Necessary to fill bottles
9×12 hop bags (12) $4.75 – Keep hop additions together while brewing
Capdem tables (25) $1.50 – Removes chlorine from water before mashing
Whirlfloc tablets $2.50 – Added at end of boil to clearify beer
2 spray bottles $5.90 - One for sanitizer spray, one foam control while boiling
Total cost of homebrew system
Lets add it up.
- All grain brewing equipment setup $419.67
- Fermenting equipment $17.10
- Bottling equipment $76.85
- Other supplies $106.40
Total Cost: $620
$620?!?! You say!
When I first looked into this hobby I estimated that my total start-up build cost would be around $150 – $200 based on a few home brew start up kits that I came across online. If you are starting from scratch and need to buy everything, these starter kits can be quite deceiving when it comes to estimating cost. Most kits under usually $150 do not include items such as:
- Larger stainless steel boil kettle
- Burner for heating water
- Cooler mash tun (usually a non insulated 5 gallon bucket)
- Hot Liquor tank
- 50′ Wort chiller (25′ if even offered)
- Barley crusher
- Bottle tree and sanitize sprayer
- Proper silicone food grade tubing
- Bench capper (usually includes hand capper)
My recommendation, for what it is worth is to first decide if you plan to take on homebrewing as a hobby. If you can see yourself brewing for many years to come then spend the $620 and start off on the right track.
If you are unsure brewing will be a long term hobby and may only last a couple batches, start with an inexpensive setup and buy better equipment as your hobby progresses.
As you can see, I decided to go with a middle of the road setup which should keep me busy for a while.
From here all I need is to buy Barley, Hops, Yeast, and perhaps some bottle priming sugar.
Comments are welcome below. Keep in mind that I just started this hobby a couple months ago and have yet brewed my first batch. All the information presented is a summary of what I have discovered while conducting my own research.