Jeff Flowers on March 4, 2015 1 Comment Homebrewing is a hobby that offers a relatively low cost entry point for people who are thinking about making their own beer. Starter kits are a great way to start you off. They’re easy to find, and offer a range of products and necessary equipment, including fermentation/bottling buckets, bottles/caps, cappers, siphons, tubing, thermometers, hydrometers, and stockpots of various sizes. However, if you are like me, this hobby will probably take you by storm. Once you get started, you’ll dive deeper in and try to learn everything you possibly can about it, leading you to refine and perfect the process. You will undoubtedly scour the Internet for tips. You’ll experiment with different recipes, and then tweak them before you brew them again. You’ll become a regular at your local homebrew store looking for equipment, supplies and other gadgets that will make your brew day more fun and productive. Let’s face it: A more productive and fun brew day leads to more brew days. And more brew days leads to more beer. And that’s a win for everyone. Brewing Gadgets to Help You Make Better Beer Below is a list of eight brewing gadgets that will all greatly assist your brew day, allowing you to have more fun, be productive and, most importantly, make the best beer possible. I own all of these homebrewing gadgets myself, and have rated them based on their cost, functionality, and ease of use. This should also serve as a great gift guide for the homebrewer in your life (and yes, you should definitely buy these for yourself). 1. Immersion Wort Chiller While some higher end starter kits come with a wort chiller, the vast majority of them do not. Wort chillers are an essential piece of your brew day for a one very important reason: lowering the risk of bacterial contamination. Cooling your wort from boiling to your yeast pitch temp needs to happen as quickly as possible. The longer it takes your wort to chill, the higher risk of infection or contamination from airborne microbes. Unless you are specifically fermenting in a ‘coolship’ (koelschip in the original Flanders/Dutch), you need to cool your wort as fast as possible. Wort chillers are not only easy to use, but are a relatively inexpensive way to cool your wort quickly. Wort chillers work by taking an outside water source (either an indoor or outdoor faucet) and transferring cool water through a series of coils and transfers the hot water back out. Immersion wort chillers come in both copper and stainless steel. The copper ones are a better buy for two reasons. First, copper is a better heat conductor than stainless steel. Secondly, copper is a cheaper material than stainless steel. PROS: Relatively inexpensive to buy (even cheaper to make yourself); can repurpose water used for watering houseplants or refilling bird baths; copper wort chillers offer the best heat conductivity; can easily be setup on a recirculating water system so that little water is wasted. CONS: Cleaning copper can be tedious; copper is flexible, which can result in easy denting or cracks. 2. Auto-Siphon Unless you want to spend hundreds of dollars on buying a pump, you will most likely use gravity to transfer wort to your fermentation bucket and use a siphon to transfer the beer to a keg or secondary vessel after primary fermentation is complete. Auto-siphons are a gift from the brewing gods because they are very easy to use. Simply prime the pump and watch the beer easily transfer from one vessel to another. For the auto-siphon and tubing, you can expect to pay anywhere between $10-$15. It’s also possible for you to buy siphon clips to help ensure that the auto-siphon doesn’t move around while it’s submerged in the bucket or carboy. PROS: Auto-siphons are very easy to use; clips can be used to free up your hands for other brew day tasks. CONS: Not rated for higher temperatures; can scratch on the inside making sanitizing difficult. 3. pH Meter / pH Strips One downside to upgrading to all-grain brewing is monitoring pH levels of your mash. pH levels are critical because the enzymes that are responsible for breaking down starches in the grain work best within a specific pH range. If your pH is too high or too low, you will lose efficiency in your brew day. You’ll likely start with pH strips, as they are a cheaper alternative than a pH meter. However, they are not nearly as accurate as a meter. pH meters can range anywhere between $20-$100, but I found one online for $25 that works perfectly. I would strongly recommend upgrading from pH strips to a meter. Here are the best pH meters on Amazon. PROS: Instant pH reading; accurate and reliable measurements. CONS: Probe needs to be replaced every year or two (depending on usage); need to calibrate for accurate readings. 4. Refractometer Most homebrewers start off using a hydrometer. And that’s a great tool, by all accords. However, upgrading to a refractometer has to be the single greatest purchase I have made to help my brew day become more efficient, as well as improve the overall quality of the beer I brew. Refractometers measure the amount of sugar dissolved in a solution. Some refractometers display a Brix scale, but you can also buy ones that have the Specific Gravity (SG) scale that most homebrewers use (i.e. 1.061). I use this tool several times throughout the brew day: throughout the mash to calculate starch conversion, pre-boil gravity, and post-boil gravity. The cost of a refractometer can range anywhere between $25-$100, but again, the one I purchased has both a Brix and SG scale, and cost me approximately $25. If there is one brewing gadget on this list you need, it is a refractometer. PROS: Refractometers give you an instant reading of specific gravity; can use throughout your brew day; only need a few drops of liquid as opposed to an entire test jar with a hydrometer; very sturdy construction. CONS: Need to calibrate with distilled water for accurate readings; cannot accurately read fermented beer (alcohol skews the reading); if you get a model that only has Brix, you will need to convert Brix to SG. 5. Digital Timers Your brew day is filled with many time sensitive tasks. If you are an all-grain brewer, you time your mash. When we boil, we time the boil for hop/fining/adjunct additions. With the proliferation of brewing-related apps now available on iPhones and Android devices, it is no doubt that you currently have a timer of some sort at your disposal. However, digital timers are handy because some models offer alarms that go off at multiple steps. This means you set one central alarm for your entire brew day. If there is one less thing I have to worry about on a brew day, then it gives me more time to socialize with friends or tend to other tasks around the house. PROS: Multiple step timers make your brew day streamlined; magnetic backing allows the user to set the timer in a place where it won’t get damaged by liquid or other brew day hazards.; priced between $15-$25. CONS: You probably already use a timer that is easy to use. 6. Digital Thermometer Thermometers are something that most homebrewers already have. There are many different brewing thermometers readily available to you, and some are not worth buying. This is especially true with cheaper thermometers that are not nearly as accurate as they claim to be. However, buying a higher-end digital thermometer will pay for itself within the first year of brewing. My personal favorite is this digital thermometer from Thermopen. It is more expensive than other digital thermometers, but I am very happy I invested in one of these. It offers accuracy ratings that would rival most scientific thermometers at a fraction of the cost. However, you have thousands of digital thermometers to choose from. Pretty much any digital thermometer with a long probe should work, just be weary of going with one that seems to be cheaply made. PROS: Instant temperature readings that are highly accurate (+/- .5°F); some models have alarms that are set to specific temperature readings. CONS: Some may include cumbersome wires that may make temperature readings difficult to monitor with Igloo/Rubbermaid style mash tuns. 7. Sparge Arm When you make the leap from extract to all grain, your mash tun will hold a mixture of grains and hot water to create conditions where enzymes break down starches into fermentable sugars. An important next step is rinsing the grains to ensure fermentable sugars go to your boil pot instead of left behind in the mash tun. There are three different techniques to wash the grains with hot water (termed hot liquor): No sparge Batch sparge Continuous or fly sparge They all have their own set of pros and cons, and will be widely touted as the best method, depending on whom you speak with. Personally, I prefer the continuous or fly sparging method. This allows me to slowly rinse the grains with hot water while gradually draining wort into the boil pot. When I made the switch to a continuous sparge system, my brewhouse efficiency increased by about 6%. Sparge arms are relatively inexpensive – ranging from $20-$40. However, you can also find DIY plans online to make one yourself. PROS: Improve efficiency CONS: Continuous sparging generally takes longer than batch sparging. 8. Wort Aeration System There is an old saying: “Brewers make wort; yeast make beer.” I love this saying because it is 100% accurate. Happy and healthy yeast are critical to making good beer. When speaking to a brew master and a technical writer for a widely distributed homebrewing publication, whom I will not namedrop, he told me that if there is one thing that homebrewers can do to make better beer, it is to properly aerate/oxygenate the wort prior to pitching the yeast. This is especially important for higher gravity beers where oxygen solubility decreases significantly as the OG increases. Invest in a wort oxygenation/aeration kit and you will be able to see a drastic difference between a beer made without proper oxygenation and one with it. Much like the refractometer above, this was definitely one of the best gadgets that helped me become a better brewer. PROS: Healthier conditions for yeast to properly function; easy to use; transforms good homebrew to great homebrew. CONS: Need to purchase separate O2 tank (welding oxygen at a local hardware store works great and is inexpensive/lasts a long time); more to clean/sanitize. So, that’s it. All of my favorite brewing gadgets that I would recommend all homebrewers have readily available to them on brew day. What are your favorite brewing gadgets and why? Let’s hear it down in the comments below. Cheers!