How to Build the Perfect Homebrew Setup for the Office
So you just got a new job. You changed offices and found that this place has a slightly more millennial approach when it comes to the alcohol policy. No stuffy boomers are hanging around telling you to wear ties and wait till happy hour. It’s time to get the beer flowing. You’ve heard of this cool new homebrewing thing and are wondering if this is something you and your office mates would all like to participate in together as an *ahem* team building exercise. Here is a guide on how to homebrew for the office, ideally, in the office.
What and Why about Building The Perfect Office Homebrew Setup
What follows is a primer on shopping for home brew supplies. Scroll down to the big heading if you just want to see the list already.
This post was inspired by an email from a buddy of mine. He had no homebrewing experience at all and the bosses credit card. It’s not quite a tutorial in homebrewing, but more a shopping list for how to build the perfect homebrew set up for the office. This is also the perfect beginner's setup for the standard at-home homebrewer, however, while this is basically the setup I use now, it’s a little riskier (read, expensive) for just one fellow to use at home. If you are in an office, especially one that already owns a kegerator for at work happy hour, this is, without doubt, the most perfect list of stuff to get you started for the perfect at work homebrew setup. These were the constraints I had in mind:
It has to be as easy as possible. That means that maximum amount of easiness to buy, set up, learn, and use. More on what that really means later.
It has to be as versatile as possible. It needs to be upgradable or downgradable. If y’all start off homebrewing and find that you want to ramp up your game to produce more impressive brews, nothing you bought should become useless or redundant if you decide to upgrade. Similarly, if homebrewing for the office turns out to be pointless and difficult, as much of the equipment should be repurposable as possible.
It has to be as cheap as possible. While you might have the boss’s credit card, you still want to keep this below the quadruple digits. Tons of plug and play systems exist out there to prey on those with big budgets and not a lot of experience. This won’t be one of those.
If I had known everything I now know about homebrewing back when I started, this is the system I would have built from the get-go. If I had built this system first, it would have saved me lots of time and money on Northern Brewer’s website.
Here is what your set up will be able to do:
5-gallon batches - this is the standard size for homebrewers. 1 gallon is much too small. Since homebrew kegs are 5 gallons, this size setup will produce one keg every time you use it.
Extract only, but easily upgradable to all-grain. Extract brewing means you purchase pre-made beer syrup which you turn into beer. It circumvents the costly and complex step of producing your own sugars from malted barley. It’s also the standard way homebrewers start out and learn the basics before upgrading to the “all-grain” homebrew standard. More about this below.
No bottling, only kegging. Putting your homebrew into bottles is the most time consuming and pain in the ass part of brewing. It’s enough to turn even the most twinkly-eyed beginner away from the game. We’re gonna skip it completely. That requires a little bit of an upfront investment in a kegerator, but that can be used for serving commercial kegs too.
2 tap kegerator for serving 2 beers at once. It can be used to serve homebrew or commercial brew. That almost makes it more an investment in your own alcoholism (always worth it) and not a hobby homebrew investment (not always worth it). It’s the kind of thing the office would gladly pitch in for. If this whole homebrewing thing goes south and is completely abandoned, you will never regret owning this piece of machinery for dispensing cold beer at a moments notice.
Before I dive into the shopping list, let me break down those constraints to give you a little background and so you can see exactly why I made some of the decisions I did. The more you know, the better you will be able to make any changes required to suit your own needs. If you know anything about shopping for homebrew supplies, skip the next three sections to find the list.
1. It has to be as easy as possible
Homebrew supply stores like to sell kits that include “everything” you need to start brewing. Often they include a kettle that is too small as well as low-quality parts in an effort to keep the cost down. You wind up thinking “well shoot, for $99 I only need to brew like 5 batches before I break even” only to find that the idea of brewing even a second batch on the horribly inconvenient system you just bought is reprehensible. The worst part about it is the bottling. You are required to gather something like 50 empty amber bottles, sanitize them all by hand, then fill and cap them all one at a time, a process that can take an hour or more. Once you’ve bottled, you have to “bottle condition” which means waiting 2 weeks while the yeast activates again to carbonate the beer. It’s an excruciating exercise in patience which you would rather skip. On the other end of the spectrum, you can achieve maximum ease of brewing by spending a lot of money and time and effort on a huge plug and play systems. They can cost thousands of dollars, and while they come with everything a pro* homebrewer wants, they are difficult to wrap your head around and set up. And they will still require you to bottle all the beer by hand, one at a time.
The trick is to remove bottling altogether- you need a kegerator to serve your beer from. A kegerator, if you don’t know, is a portmanteau of keg and refrigerator. It holds a keg of beer or two and has tap handles on top for dispensing. The co2 tank is inside and keeps the beer carbonated as well as forces it out of the keg and into your glass when you are ready. Filling the keg is as easy as filling a single bottle and “force carbonation” allows you to cut the bullshit stage of bottle conditioning from two weeks to a single day if you want.
2. It has to be as versatile as possible
You’re about to make a sizable investment. Brewing can be a fun hobby, but some whose eyes are bigger than their free time might find that it isn’t for them, even after making the investment to get started. Or, opposite of that, you may find that home brewing is totally dope and a few more investments to make the job better or produce better beer are in order. This purchase list is the bare minimum you need to start brewing, but it leaves lots of room for expansion. Everything on the list, unlike some of the kits you can buy, can stay with you as you expand your operation. No plastic buckets, no kettles that are too small, and no bottle cappers you’ll never use after your second batch. A common problem is that the 5-gallon kettle that comes with discount kits sounds like it should be big enough to brew 5 gallons of beer. That is just a dirty misdirection to make sure you come back to buy another adequately sized kettle later on, so we’re gonna buy the big kettle straight out of the gate. The kegerator is another fantastic source of versatility - if you completely bail on homebrewing in general, then you are in luck, you now have a kegerator that can be used to serve up to two commercial kegs as well. All you need is a conversion kit to change the fittings back and forth between commercial kegs and traditional home brewing kegs called “Corny/Cornelius Kegs**.” Thankfully, these conversion kits are inexpensive. This will also work if you want to have one “real beer” on tap next to your homebrew.
3. It has to be as cheap as possible
It’s hard to make a homebrew setup that works and is cheap. The kits are cheap because they don’t work. They have cheap parts like plastic buckets that get internal scratches and make sanitary fermentation impossible. The people selling these kits, like Budweiser/Voldemort owned Northern Brewer know that the kit is enough to get you hooked but shitty enough to get you to later invest in their “premium kits.” God, I shouldn't have even looked, now I am all worked up about these bullshit scams. Look! They have a $500 kit that comes with a 2 keg co2 regulator, but only comes with one keg, and also comes with a bottle capper, caps, and a co2 powered bottling gun as if you’d ever bottle again once you had a kegerator. Why so much redundancy?! If you are buying that kit, it is guaranteed you already own the stuff to bottle because the kit doesn’t contain any of the stuff that the other kits had that are actually required to brew a beer!! Ok breathe, breathe, breathe. Northern Brewer can’t hurt you again, Andrew. You’re safe here. Back to the point. You’re going to need to invest just a bit of money to get a set of equipment that can grow with you and do everything you need. By building it piecemeal you miss out on some of the pretend “savings” of the kits, but you will have wasted nothing. Nothing in this set will go unused, but in order to keep the cost and risk down, the list doesn't include (or rather, it optionally includes depending on your budget and ambition) lots of things you will want to get when you start to brew more.
What to buy to build the perfect office homebrew setup
I put Amazon links to everything you need to buy. Some things you’ll have to scavenge for yourself, but anything where I felt my recommendation would be nice, I have a link. By the way, I must mention that these are Amazon affiliate links which means if you use them and inevitably end up buying the product, then this blog gets a small kickback. I shopped around and truly believe these are the best prices and the most convenient kits, but by all means, search for yourself and find better prices if you can! And if you do find a cheaper way to get these things, comment it below. Pro tip, don’t shop homebrewing websites. Since homebrewing is such a popular hobby, prices on those sites are way inflated to take advantage of schmucks. Regardless, if those are the best deals, then they’re the best deals.
What you need to brew beer
Turkey Fryer w/ propane. - Don’t let a homebrew site trick you into buying a fancy one. They all do the same thing - put heat into the water. I personally own the Edelmetall Bru Burner, but I’ve never regretted a purchase more in my life. Here’s a much less overpriced one https://amzn.to/2KCqTG6
8 Gallon Kettle - People will tell you that you need a valved one or one with a thermometer built in, don’t fall for it https://amzn.to/2rSr0Xb
Big Spoon - or any giant stirring thing. 2 feet of dowel rod will do just fine. https://amzn.to/2rSnJHl
Fermentor - I use the 6-gallon plastic big mouth bubbler. The seller on Amazon is, unfortunately, Voldemort, but they have good prices in this case! https://amzn.to/2IRrt5q
Airlock - used for keeping the air out of the fermentor. I recommend the two set in case one breaks, which it inevitably will. https://amzn.to/2wWvm4s
Sanitizer - I use Star San. The big bottle lasts forever https://amzn.to/2wTLRhx
Spray Bottle - Dilute Star San into the spray bottle to avoid having to soak components https://amzn.to/2IxzKZ5
Auto Siphon - Use this to get beer out of the kettle and into the fermentor then later from the fermentor and into the keg. This link is a set that comes with a clamp and vinyl tubing. https://amzn.to/2KDXX0p
Everything above will run just about $195 dollars and it’s all highly useful equipment you will use as long as you homebrew. You might be thinking right now, "well shit dude, this is twice the cost of the kit I am looking at, what gives?" The $99 kit I'm looking at from a popular website comes with only a few things you might ever use: a big spoon, the air lock, and the auto siphon. It neglects the turkey fryer and the 5 gallon kettle it comes with only works with the 3 gallon kits they scale up by adding water. They include sanitizer, but only enough for a couple brews. For all the value they claim to have, it is all trash equipment.
What you need to keg beer
The Kegerator. Amazon sells exactly what you need. It’s pricey, but a great value. If you need a less expensive option, see the options section below. https://amzn.to/2Iu2SQU
Conversion Kits. These will let you seamlessly convert your commercial kegerator into a homebrew kegerator and, most importantly, switch it back if you give up on homebrewing. You’ll need one set for each keg. https://amzn.to/2IyEpKi
Kegs - You need homebrew corny kegs to put your beer in. Refurbished ones are just fine and about $40 cheaper than new. https://amzn.to/2KAz8SR
Everything above will run about $720. If that is busting out of your budget, then look below for cheaper alternatives, but I am sure you will never regret having that kegerator unless you suddenly develop an allergy to beer... Sorry, Dad. Waiting for a kegerator to go on sale is also another good option.
Optional Upgrades To Make More Precise Beer
Wort Chiller - this lets you cool your massive amount of hot wort down in a reasonable amount of time so that yeast can be added and brewing can be complete, otherwise you need a clever ice or snow based solution. It’s a must-have for sophisticated brewing, but your first batches will do just fine with improvised cooling. https://amzn.to/2LcCtsx
Hop Spider - This thing is amazing for trying to keep hop sediment out of the fermentor. Not totally necessary, but it’s a nice to have for sure. https://amzn.to/2IssG3Q
Fermentation Fridge - ideally your fermentor is at a stable temperature for the duration of the brewing process. If your office is air-conditioned you’ll do just fine without. There are lots of solutions to this problem, but my solution was to hook one of these https://amzn.to/2IxRzLG to an old mini fridge, though I suggest you scour the internet for a better solution
Hydrometer - lets you tell how much sugar is in your wort. A necessity for all grain brewing and a fun toy otherwise. https://amzn.to/2Gwr6be
Thermometer - this is really nice to have when doing specialty grain additions or doing any kind of precise brewing. https://amzn.to/2IyzLfk
These will all run you about $120. Consider investing the extra money to improve the quality of your brews.
Options for your set up
You have some choices to make. It’s likely that the easiest + cheapest option is to follow this purchase list, but for some additional savings at the expense of easiness, here are some options for you:
Boiling your wort. I suggested buying a cheap turkey fryer and propane tank, but you can try to use whatever you have available to try to boil over 5 gallons of water. That takes some umph, so an electric kettle big enough will be expensive. A gas range in your kitchen or break room if you are lucky enough to already have it will save you some money. An electric range can eventually boil 5 gallons, but it won’t be easy and its weak boil will probably never quite get you great results for truly stellar beer.
The Kegerator. I suggested buying a new kegerator off of Amazon. It has the benefits of certainly being big enough to hold 2 kegs and including all the fitting and things you need for commercial keg beer. If you know you won’t be bothering with commercial beers, then you can build your own kegerator. The best way to do this for cheap is to find an old chest freezer, install an off the shelf temperature controller, and pick up something like this: https://amzn.to/2KAdbU0 , a kit that contains just all pieces you need to make any fridge into a kegerator. If you really want to elevate your game, you can build a keezer that holds many more beers, uses a bigger co2 tank, and has fancy faucets. Out of hubris, I did end up abandoning my store bought keezer in favor of a huge home-made one that fit 4 different brews, but I find can never keep it full of beer and it wound up costing a lot. You can find all kinds of guides on how to build your own keezer elsewhere on the internet. You could also opt for an off the shelf single keg kegerator to save a little money, but heed my warning that you will likely want that second tap and there is no way that is cheap and elegant to add a second tap to a single keg kegerator. You should probably just get the boss to spring for the double.
Kegs. I suggested a link to refurbished kegs I found on Amazon. Refurbished usually work just as well as new and cost almost half the price. You can, of course, buy new if you are flush or buy only a single keg if you ain’t. Checking Craigslist is a great way to get cheap kegs.
The Fermentor. I suggested my favorite fermentor, the 6-gallon big mouth bubbler. It has a giant port on the top for reaching in to clean and its 6-gallon capacity means there is space for the beer to make some noise without blowing the top off. This fermentor is merely my preference and you may want to change it up. Smaller mouthed fermentors are harder to clean (requiring a long brush or caustic chemicals) but there is less room for oxygen to permeate and they tend to be cheaper. Plastic vs Glass is an ageless debate around fermentors and I only suggested the plastic because it won’t shatter if you drop it and it is cheaper. You may want to try out several. Elsewhere on the internet can tell you what to think.
Bottling Instead. If despite all my praise, you still don’t want to spring for a kegerator, then, by all means, buy a capper and caps. Collect the bottles yourself, but make sure you get the right bottles. Most pry-off bottles are fine, twist-offs don't work. Redhook bottles, (another Voldemort owned brewery) in addition to being short and dumb, also have the wrong shaped lip making bottling with a hand capper harder. Look out. Doing this will literally save you hundreds of dollars, but serving bottled homebrew isn't nearly as fantastic as serving keg brew.
How to use your perfect office homebrew setup
This isn't a tutorial on homebrewing, so I won’t go into all the details, but I will summarize some of the constraints your system has and how it is different from other systems.
You should buy extract beer recipe kits to start off. The required list doesn’t include things like gravity meters or thermometers that are really nice for creating your own recipes. After investing some time to learn your system you can try to make your own extract recipes and after putting a bit more money in, you can upgrade to all grain. See that below
Sanitation. Your system uses a super easy and low waste sanitation system. Star San is a food safe, no-rinse sanitizer with a spray bottle to apply it. Most homebrew books suggest soaking parts that need to sanitized in a bucket of solution, but the sprayer is a minor upgrade that saves on sanitizing solution in the long run and is easier than soaking. Just make sure you use the right dilution for the small bottle. Follow the instructions. Sanitize the kegs before filling them too.
Forced Carbonation. The main difference between your system and other beginner homebrew kits is that you keg and use forced carbonation to carbonate your beer. This means instead of putting your beer into bottles, you open the top of the keg and siphon the beer to the bottom of the keg, trying to splash as little as possible. Then you cap the keg, put it in the fridge and apply the co2. Forced carbonation is tricky and elsewhere on the internet can tell you how to do it better than I can.
How to Upgrade your perfect office homebrew setup
Your system has lots of room for upgrades just up in the optional section of the purchase list above. Those things are nice to have all the time anyway. Eventually, you may want to give up on purchasing expensive recipe kits and move on to all-grain brewing, the way the real brewers do it. This lets you take relatively inexpensive grain and turn it into the sugars you need to make every variety of beer in a process called “mashing.” Basically, all you need to mash is a “mash tun,” a vessel that holds the grain at a warm temperature long enough for the starches of the grain to break down into fermentable sugars then allows the sweet, sugary, wort to drain off to be put back into the kettle for brewing. There are a number of prebuilt mash tuns out there and plenty of ways to build your own for cheap out of an igloo cooler. You’ll want to look elsewhere on the internet for how to mash and make a mash tun. It is a complicated subject that is its own post alone.
There you have it. That is everything you really need to get started homebrewing in the office. We covered a list of stuff you need to buy assuming you have some extra money to spend on a kegerator. This is basically a shortcut that gets around all the learning I had to do as I amassed my collection of homebrew supplies. To any homebrewers reading this, does your system differ from this in any serious way? What might you do to make it cheaper or better? Do you agree that all the stuff here will grow with the brewer?
* there is no such thing as a “pro” homebrewer. Those are called brewers and they work in breweries.
** Why do I need a special keg for homebrewing? Corny Kegs are made for homebrewing. They have a large hatch at the top that allows you to reach in and fill and clean by hand instead of using expensive machinery and chemicals. Two separate valves, one for co2 and one for beer, make it easier to understand, assemble, and clean.