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I bought the First-Time Brewer's Starter Kit from Midwest Supply and enjoyed the process quite a bit. While the kit has the essentials for extract brewing, I know there are lots of things I can get to make the process (and product) better. Since I'm not independently wealthy, though, I need to pick just one or two pieces of equipment now and build up my arsenal slowly. What are some of the best next equipment purchases that will give me the most improvement in my brewing? A few of the items I'm considering are:

  • Glass carboy for 2-stage fermentation (the kit only came with a plastic fermenter and a bottling bucket)
  • Wort chiller - because I'd hate to lose a batch to infection if I can help it
  • Auto-siphon - just seems like a good idea overall

And a few other cheap miscellaneous things that I'll probably get right away anyway (funnel with strainer, nicer thermometer, nylon boiling bag so I don't have to use that sock thing they send with the kit). Any other suggestions or reasons I should/shouldn't get any of the above items right away?

Thanks!

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9 Answers 9

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Neither of those... The next purchase to making better beer is a thermostat controller and a fridge. The controller you can get at your LHBS or at an online shop. Then cruise craigslist for the fridge. You can get a fine chill in the sink with ice, like you already are doing (right!). A secondary isn't necessary really anyway. And several people make great beer just using buckets which are cheap and easy to clean.

Temp control!

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I totally agree (and up-voted accordingly) however if this guy is on the fence and still "considering" buying an auto-syphon ($10 maybe?) or a carboy ($30-40) then he probably won't be able to shell out the $60-70 for the temp controller and $25-75 for the fridge... –  Graham Oct 10 '11 at 18:08
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I'll stick with it and say that, of you really want to make better tasting beer the money spent on temp control will get you better tasting beer than the combined cost of a secondary, auto-siphon and a copper immersion chiller. Seriously. There are many things I have bought over the years that make beer making more fun or easier, but the bang for the buck is temp control hands done...then yeast management type stuff, like starters. –  brewchez Oct 10 '11 at 19:11
    
@Graham What kind of temp controller is that to warrant such a price? Can't be a simple on/off thermostat? –  Max Oct 10 '11 at 19:41
    
I wasn't saying that I'd need to bust open my piggy bank to afford a $10 autosiphon. At the same time, I wouldn't want to waste $10 on something that wasn't worth the money, especially if I could put that $10 towards something that would be a bigger help. The question isn't so much about the price as it is the price-to-benefit ratio. –  Jarett Oct 10 '11 at 20:25
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@Jarett: Yes, the temperature you ferment the beer at. +1 to brewchez's comment; Temp control during fermentation was by far the most bang for my buck in terms of making better beer. Of course, I have also spent a lot of money making things easier. (which is the category I put the auto-siphon into) –  Dustin Rasener Oct 10 '11 at 23:03
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I would say a wort chiller and and auto-siphon both seem like excellent ideas. The chiller will save you a TON of time in the process, and the auto-siphon is good for sanitization and ease of use. Auto siphons are pretty cheap too, but the chiller might cost you a fair amount. As for the carboy, I usually don't rack to secondary, I just leave it in the bucket until it's done, so I wouldn't see it as necessary but that's up to you. I really only use my carboy for cider now since it doesn't foam over during fermentation.

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I agree with the auto-syphon as it could save a good amount of time and should be a bit easier to use. I improvised one with aquarium tubing, a valve, and a syringe, but it's soooo sloooooow (narrow tubing)! It's good though, in that it doesn't kick up any sediment (some auto-syphons are the "shake" variety, not sure I'd want that when there's sediment - but I don't usually rack to secondary, just bottle from primary) I'd stick with chilling in the sink packed with ice, that's what I do and it works fine (as long as you clean up your dinner dishes first!). –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Oct 10 '11 at 21:23
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+1 each for the autosyphon and temperature control. Glass carboy? Guess I'd say carboy in general, without getting into the plastic v glass argument (each has its fanboys and never will the two camps agree, my small carboy is glass and my large ones are certified nalgene and polycarbonate because of weight handling issues). Something simple that I wish I had early on is a "wine thief" to make taking intermediate SG's easier after I moved to carboys. The faucet attachment to spray out bottles is good and can be used to rinse out carboys if you are stuck inside and can't use a garden hose. Getting some Erlenmeyer flasks to culture yeast can be handy. And a clip-on tube clamp for the syphon tubing is something that my local homebrew supplier turned me onto and has proven to be a great help, if you don't get the autosyphon.

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How do you feel about making the switch to all grain? If you're up for it, it's cheap and easy to convert a water cooler into mash tun. All-grain is a bit tricky at first, but once you're used to it you'll get a superior beer.

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I recently went from a basic brew kit/extracts and now to starting all grain.
I believe the wort chiller was the best initial investment in my case, followed by the auto siphon.

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For extract, the variables you really need control over (and thus the equipment) are

  • yeast growth (part one). For beers with character of your choosing, it is so much nicer if you can grow the wonderful varieties of yeast from wyeast and whitelabs and do fun things like cultivate the yeast from bottles of chimay. This is basically free. You just need a few jars.
  • fermentation temperature. I agree, get a thermostat (stc-1000 or similar). Ideally get a fridge. As a (slightly) cheaper option, you can control a fan over a dustbin with water in. As long as you can keep a steady, say, 18C (64F) then you can make quality ale.
  • cooling post boil. Yes, get a cooler. Make it a plate cooler. (Though immersion and plate coolers take about the same time to cool a whole batch, the plate cooler chills the actual wort going through it in just a couple of seconds, which is hundreds of times faster than the immersion cooler).
  • yeast (part two). Something very handy is a stirplate. It consists of a computer fan, old mobile/cell phone charger and two strongish magnets. Stir plates guarantee you enough yeast to finish off fermentations properly, which lets you make dryer, cleaner beers.

Auto-siphons and carbuoys are good to have, although you can make do without them. Plastic buckets with taps at the bottom make siphoning un-necessary. There is one shortcoming: siphoning can be better if you want to make really clear beers. Beer that has been left to clear is better siphoned off the top. Oxygen permeability of plastic is not a problem over ale fermentation times. Lager I am not so sure, but fermenting lager is an advanced topic for all sorts of reasons and probably comes at the very end of the long list you are just starting. Good luck!

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I've upvoted a 'real' answer, but if you want to save some money on a chiller, you can make one pretty easily. You would need a propane torch and solder, but even if you have to buy those items, it's still pretty cheap. This video shows you how you can make one. It will shorten your brew day, which is something that some brewers value.

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I was actually planning on doing this already, but it's still a good suggestion. –  Jarett Oct 17 '11 at 19:27
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Here's a really good thermometer...

http://www.homebrewfinds.com/2011/10/themoworks-rt600c-minmax-super-fast.html

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Wow, fancy. I was gonna get a $10 dial thermometer, but this looks nice. Is the .1 degree granularity really necessary, though? –  Jarett Oct 10 '11 at 20:29
    
A $4 Instant Read thermometer is more than sufficient for all grain brewing. –  Graham Oct 11 '11 at 12:36
    
@Jarett: I'm guessing the 0.1 degree precision isn't that useful, unless you are actually able to control the temperature that accurately. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Oct 11 '11 at 14:10
    
Oh yeah and as far as thermometers, I went with a candy thermometer in a stainless steal body. It's much taller than the "dial" style thermometers the kitchen supply store had (so should work in deeper pots) and has a clip on it to attach it to the side of the pot. It cost less than $10, on sale. kitchenstuffplus.com/… –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Oct 11 '11 at 23:02
    
I realized that the temperature granularity wouldn't be that useful for the brewing, but would help with getting more exact gravity readings. I ended up buying this one for $20: ebay.com/itm/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=360395651395 –  Jarett Oct 17 '11 at 19:28
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I bought a starter kit from Midwest brewing and expanded it a little at a time. It was a groupon and a good deal. I have made some very good beer with this.

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