I grew up with stories of weird and wonderful wines and beers that my mum had made - stuff exploding and clothes stained purple from picking wild hedgerow blackberries for wine making. It sounded like fun so recently I decided to try it myself. Since then I've made somewhere in the region of 6-8 batches each of beers and wines and I can confirm that it's both fun and satisfying. It doesn't require a whole lot of kit, it doesn't take long, and it saves you money compared to buying from the shops.
If you're interested in getting into homebrew and don't know what equipment you'll need or how complicated it is, this post is for you. It's worth noting that I haven't tried cider yet but it's on my to do list. I expect a lot of what I'm saying here also applies to cider making but I can't be certain until I've tried it.
For beers and wines brewing is easy enough that anybody with access to clean water can do it with a small amount of equipment. You'll require some
It doesn't even take up much space - initial preparation takes a bit of counter space but fermentation requires no more space than an available chair or chair-sized gap. Furthermore, the setup cost is not expensive. You can get a pretty decent beer from simple beer kits, but with all hobbies there are more complex, more expensive options available that offer more control.
So, what do you need? This depends somewhat on what you're making and how much of it you want. For beers the basic equipment is all based on 25 litre (~40 pints) batches, but for wine the usual size is a 3 litre demijohn - a small glass container. Whether you're making beer, cider, or wine, they all share the following common components:
- Some flavoured liquid containing either natural or added sugar that you can ferment
- A container to ferment the liquid in
- Some yeast
- A bung and airlock to make the container airtight
- A big plastic spoon
- A sanitiser, usually a powdered chemical that you mix with water
- A thermometer, preferably glass, that you can dip into liquid that covers the 15 to 100c range
- A siphon (the most basic DIY version is just a piece of tubing)
- A plastic water jug. 2L kitchen jugs work fine
- A room with a fairly constant appropriate temperature
- Something to put your drink in when it's done. If you're using bottles for beer you'll need a capping tool and some caps also. If you're making wine you can buy reusable stoppers
In addition there's some optional stuff:
- A hydrometer and jar, used for existing your alcohol content / ABV
- One of those stick-on fish tank thermometers to attach to your fermenter for convenient at-a-glance information
For beer you can buy a homebrew starter kit, which is usually a good way of getting everything in the above list without much effort. The kits don't seem to be readily available for wine, so you'll want to order the parts separately. It's cheaper than beer as you need less stuff. Wilco sell demijohns for £7. Homebrew is still a popular pass time and you shouldn't have trouble finding an online shop that has what you need, but fewer and fewer shops exist on high streets these days. I've bought stuff from both eBay and The Home Brew Shop without any problems.
This is a picture of a typical fully featured starter kit for beer - it's Brewferm's "deluxe starter kit".
Once you've got your equipment (if your starter kit doesn't contain one) you'll need a beer/wine kit. Something like this for beer, or this for wine. Each time you want a new batch you'll need to order a new kit but all the equipment can be re-used. You should note that these kits usually don't contain sugar, but the instructions will tell you if you need to buy some or not. These kits are the most basic ways of making beer and the majority of my beers have been made with them. There are many different kits around so you can try for many different kinds of beers. I've been particularly impressed with this one. Once you want to try something more advanced you can do what I've done and start a foray into the world of all grain brewing which requires more investment into kit but gives even more control.
The cost of beer
With a beer kit such as the porter linked above you can get almost 40 pints out of it, for £10 (plus ~£1 of sugar), leading to somewhere in the region of £0.30 a pint. Comparing that to the £2-£3 you'd pay from the supermarket, that's a huge reduction.
For wine a typical kit for 6 bottles costs around £10 also, bringing it to about £1.70 a bottle. I recently made 25 litres of beetroot wine in one of my beer fermenters. I went to the local market and bought a few kg of beetroot for £5, then added about £1 of sugar and £0.50 of yeast and I can get about 30 bottles of wine from it - bringing the per-bottle cost down to ~£0.22.
Books and resources
There's a huge amount of information available on homebrew. For beer the book How to Brew by John Palmer is great and the first edition is available online free. YouTube is a great resource, as is eBay as a lot of the information on homebrewing hasn't changed much since the 70s/80s. I always keep an eye out in charity shops for homebrew books and to date I've found the best one to be Brewing Beers Like Those You Buy because it includes a whole bunch of recipes (but doesn't cover some of the basics that How To Brew does). For wine, C.J.J. Berry's First Steps in Winemaking is a kind of bible and has loads of recipes and great information - I would recommend his rice and raisin wine recipe. There are also many online forums and the Homebrewing Stack Exchange for getting prompt replies to questions.