Rob Fink, special to wtop.com
WASHINGTON – The winter holidays are the perfect time to either get new gear for the homebrewer in your life or give the title of ‘homebrewer’ to someone.
Brewing your own beer is incredibly rewarding, and best of all — it’s not complicated. With a few hops, some gadgets and a bucket, you can produce suds in no time.
Below is a list of brewing gift ideas, which range from introductory and advanced equipment, to local homebrew gift cards and books on beer. Most of the items below can all be found at your local homebrew store.
Gifts for the Homebrewing Beginner
- Complete starter kit: Complete starter kits have everything you need to ferment your first beer. Most kits come equipped with a fermentation bucket, a bottling bucket and an auto-siphon. More advanced packages usually include glass or plastic carboys for increased storage capacity. And no need to worry: a recipe kit, with all of the ingredients needed to make an entire batch, will accompany the rest of the equipment.
- Hydrometer: A hydrometer measures the gravity, or potential strength, of wort and beer — wort being un-fermented beer. This piece of equipment looks like a floating glass thermometer and is often used to measure the post-boil gravity of wort and post-fermentation gravity of your beer. For a homebrewer without advanced equipment, this particular item is essential for approximating the alcohol by volume of the beer.
- Digital scale: Although recipe kits will come with pre-measured ingredients, it’s incredibly important to have an accurate scale to measure other items, and once a brewer begins formulating his or her own recipes, it’s entirely essential.
At the intermediate level, you’ll likely need to weigh different ingredients — such as malts, hops, priming sugar or dry malt extract — so purchasing a digital scale with the ability to weigh items by the gram should be one of your first purchases, outside of the basic setup.
- Brew kettle: Besides the equipment that comes with a complete starter kit, a stainless steel brew kettle is on my list of essential items. Do not be lured by the relatively inexpensive cost of an aluminum kettle; it does not maintain temperature nearly as well as the alternative.
In terms of possibilities, brew kettles can be affixed with auxiliary items, such as sight glasses, internal temperature probes and ball valves, some of which are more immediately useful than others.
If you’re shopping for a quality brew kettle, the most important optional item is the ball valve, which allows you to rack your beer into your fermenter without performing the extra step of siphoning your beer.
Additionally, the use of a ball valve aids the homebrewer in creating a whirlpool at the end of the boil, allowing the possibility to draw wort away from the cone-shaped pile of sedimentation formed from the whirlpool. This action results in a much clearer wort heading into the fermenter.
Gifts for Intermediate and Advanced Homebrewers
- Immersion chiller: From the beginner to intermediate level, an immersion chiller is a standard piece of equipment. If you’re using recipe kits containing a portion of dry or liquid malt extract, you’re really brewing a condensed version of your beer and topping off your fermenter with sterilized water to the end volume appropriate for your recipe.
Leaving your condensed wort in an ice bath for several hours is a bad idea for several reasons. First, you’re leaving your wort susceptible to contamination from a variety of sources. Second, one of the more ubiquitous beer off-flavors, dimethyl sulfide (CH3)2S (or “DMS”), stings your senses with a predominant aroma and flavor of cooked corn.
Rapid chilling of your wort is one of the few key tasks you can perform to help ensure the repeatability and general quality of your beer, as DMS gradually builds the longer your wort sustains higher, near boiling temperatures. An immersion chiller made of coiled copper tubing can most certainly help you on your way to making better beer.
One of the prevailing mythologies surrounding homebrewing is that you cannot make great beer brewing with extracts or with a relatively simple setup. But that’s just false. However, I do believe you can make even better beer with the help of several more advanced items — along with a general commitment to sanitation — as described below.
- Stir plate for yeast starters: In my own homebrewing experience, the addition of a magnetic stir plate to build a healthy and proper yeast population dramatically improved the quality of my beer.
With a stir plate, you are essentially performing the same function a commercial brewery performs when it propagates yeast for a comparatively high volume of wort; building up to an approximate cell count necessary for quickly and efficiently fermenting your beer. Overall, this will involve the purchase of a magnetic stir plate, magnetic stir bar, yeast, an Erlenmeyer flask and of course, some yeast. Stir plate starter should try liquid yeast, to start.
- Refractometer: Within the homebrewing realm, a refractometer is a mechanism which takes a refractive measurement through a very small (just a few drops) sample of wort, allowing the homebrewer to accurately calculate the pre-fermentation gravity of a given beer.
Through an ocular lens (think one half of a set of binoculars), you can quickly determine the specific gravity of wort, without having to read via a meniscus, like you would with a hydrometer. Either way, a properly calibrated refractometer is the most accurate way for a homebrewer to calculate pre-fermentation gravity.
- pH meter: This is strictly for the advanced all-grain brewers out there. For an all-grain brewer, regulating and having the ability to manipulate the pH of your beer is critical for making great beer. Your ability to extract a particular amount of fermentable material from your mash will be maximized should you keep you pH level within an acceptable range (5.2 to 5.8).
This will depend on the overall acidity of your grain bill (more or less how “dark” it is), but having the ability to monitor your pH level almost instantly provides you insight into a wide number of things, ranging from flavor profile to mash efficiency. A must have for the advanced homebrewer.
Books on Beer
There are a wide variety of brewing books out there, spanning texts specifically geared towards homebrewers, to those most appropriate for the brewing industry at large.
Below is a short list of my favorites, for the novice and expert, alike.
- Palmer, John. “How to Brew “(2006)
“How to Brew” is arguably the best and most comprehensive introductory text for any homebrewer. Although more recent research has eclipsed the applicability of certain recommendations — especially with respect to water chemistry — this book still provides sound advice for a novice homebrewer, including those brewing with extract or even the all-grain plunge. Regardless, starting out? This is required reading.
- Daniels, Ray. “Designing Great Beers” (2000)
Designing a great beer does not have to be overly complicated, and this text provides sound advice and a solid platform for creating your own individual recipes. Traditional, yet experimental, Daniels respectfully pulls from traditional sources while embracing more experimental ideas.
Information about homebrewing and craft beer, in general, can sometimes quickly stale, but there remains much to be cherished in “Designing Great Beers.” And you owe it to the homebrewer in your life to supply them with the necessary materials.
- Oliver, Garrett Ed. “The Oxford Companion to Beer” 2012
This is quite literally the encyclopedia of beer. Originally conceived of as a deserved counterpoint to the long-lauded “Oxford Companion to Wine,” “The Oxford Companion to Beer” provides an alphabetized listing of about just about everything under the sun as it relates to beer.
One of the few criticisms I can lodge is that it doesn’t specifically discuss yeast strains to the extent it does malt or hop varieties, but it nonetheless provides the most comprehensive detail with respect to all things beer in all of its beautiful manifestations. “The Oxford Companion to Beer” is one of the ultimate gifts for the homebrewer in your life.
Even if you find this list unsatisfactory, don’t lose hope. All of the local homebrew stores — and many online homebrew stores — allow the purchase of a gift card.
As with breweries, I urge to support your local business, wherever you may be in the D.C. area. Below is a listing of three great local homebrew shops.
- My Local Homebrew Shop: 6201 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA
- The Homebrew Shop at 3 Stars Brewing Company: 6400 Chillum Place NW, Washington, DC
- Maryland Homebrew: 6770 Oak Lane, Suite 108, Columbia, MD
Editor’s Note: Rob Fink lives in Arlington, Va., and is an avid homebrewer. Follow him on Twitter.
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