Home Brewing – Starter Kits
Quit dreaming about a man-cave full of gleaming copper and let’s get serious. After a couple hours of reading about brewing in general and comparing & contrasting the features and benefits of different starter kits, we thought the shortest distance between spending a few bucks and drinking our own beer was the Mr. Beer kit, but we will be trying more of these as well.
Our top 3 criteria for the best home brewing starter kits are:
- Requires little space
Home Brew Ohio
Homebrew Ohio’s FastFerment Beer Brewing equipment kit retails for $129.99, but does not come with bottles or brewing ingredients, so it cannot be said to really be a “complete” kit for beginners. This kit features highly specialized equipment designs that it claims will reduce work by reducing the need to transfer materials during the fermentation process. That may be true, but many beginner starter kits are also single-vessel systems. It’s difficult to see how their special, conically shaped fermenting chamber and “collection ball” does a better job at separating liquids and solids than a raised spigot or siphon tube, neither of which are much work.
No information is provided on the site about the size and weight of this equipment, so it’s difficult to know how much beer is produced in a batch or how much space the system needs during its use. The wall-mount brackets the system comes with are certainly not as easy as setting a vessel on any flat surface. There is a tabletop stand available for an additional cost, but that looks like it might make the system unstable and top-heavy. Upon first glance, this system doesn’t look very cheap, very easy or very space conscious.
Brooklyn Brew Shop
This single-vessel fermenter from Brooklyn Brew Shop is smaller than most others and makes 1 gallon of beer in each batch. Their Beer Making Kits include all necessary brewing ingredients (grain, hops and yeast), a one gallon glass fermenting vessel and any other specialized equipment not ordinarily found in most kitchens. Most of these kits (different ingredient packs) cost only $40 and also contain a packet of sanitizer. Similar to most kits of this sort, it’s assumed that your kitchen will have the necessary strainer, funnel and pot. They also offer a 5-gallon kit and ingredient packs along with other accessories, but they are not a full service brewing supply company.
The one thing missing from the kit is bottles. Any glass or plastic bottles that came with carbonated beverages in them can be washed and sanitized for reuse, but the system contains no capping equipment or supplies so even reusing sanitized beer bottles will cost extra for the capper and caps. We recommend using disposable plastic pop bottles for free that can be used over and over. They do offer a $75 full kit that comes with bottles, caps and a capper but that is pretty expensive for a 1-gallon system.
There are videos available on the Brooklyn Brew Shop Site that show some cooking is involved, but they make it look pretty straight-forward. We assume the ingredients are all precisely metered and the instructions are clear. This one may be too small if the same work and only little more ingredients would make a larger batch in about the same amount of time. Still, we will be trying it out and we’ll make sure to let you know all the pro’s and con’s. This system does seem fairly “complete,” cheap, easy, and takes up little space and we are looking forward to trying it out.
We ordered the American Pale Ale kit and paid only $38.25 including free shipping to our Chicago area location. Assuming this makes 11 12oz beers, we have spent about $3.48 per beer. Of course that includes a lot of reusable stuff. Refills look like they will be around $15/Batch or about $1.36 / beer plus shipping. We hope it’s pretty darn good beer for that price, but let’s not get hung up on the price because our purpose here is to wade into home brewing without spending too much to get started and these simple kits certainly do that.
The Mr. Beer Craft Homebrew Gold Kit is a single-vessel fermenter that makes a 2-gallon batch in their “Little Brown Keg” fermenter. The kit comes with absolutely everything needed to start your first batch the moment the kit arrives assuming you have basic kitchen equipment and utensils like pots, funnels etc. This kit is like the simplest possible, totally controlled kid’s science experiment. The “hopped malt extract” comes in a can and it’s easy to prepare as heat and eat canned soup. It looks completely idiot-proof, which is a good thing for us because of all the wine we make and drink.
The Mr. Beer system is easier than systems that require you to prepare and strain the wort. The system pretty much supplies instant wort that only requires water and heat and the little brown keg is easier to use because the filling spout makes it easier to fill bottles than siphoning from the fermenting vessel. Perhaps this system is too easy to hold one’s interest long, but maybe that’s the best way to get started, given our criteria of cheap, easy and requiring little space.
This kit cost only $72.90 including $7.95 shipping to our Chicago area location and included enough bottles for one full batch and enough ingredients to make two batches. Until we taste the final products and order refill ingredients to make more and even try different varieties, it will be impossible to know which of these kits is the better value, but one key difference is the slightly different experience the kits offer. The Mr. Beer kit is as simple and controlled is it gets and produces about 44 12oz beers for about $1.84 each. The per/beer cost of refill kits depends on quantities, discounts, and shipping expenses, but we priced a refill order of three batches that would bring the cost down to about $1.00 / beer.
BrewDemon Starter Kits look cool and pretty complete at first glance. However, this 2-gallon, single-vessel kit comes without bottles for $60 and with only 8 1-liter plastic bottles for an extra $12. Reading through the instructions makes this kit sound very much like the Mr. Beer kit except that it does not supply carbonation drops and instead provides instructions in the use of priming sugar at the bottling stage. Either the kit yields less from a 2-gallon fermenter than the Mr. Beer kit or you will need more bottles. Additionally, you will need to have pure granulated sugar on hand for priming the bottles. These are not great additional expenses or complications, but they do make the kit slightly less “complete” than other kits.
This kit cost $80.00 including $8.00 shipping to our Chicago area location. Assuming it produces about 16 12oz beers, that comes to about $5.00 per 12oz beer, by far the most expensive startup system we’ve seen. The per/beer cost of refill kits depends on quantities, discounts, and shipping expenses, but we priced a refill order of three batches for $70 including $8 for shipping that would bring the cost down to about $1.45 / beer. Let’s hope they are just shorting us bottles and that their 2-gallon fermenter and standard kit recipe will yield the same volume as the Mr. Beer Kit. If that’s the case, then this kit will produce refills for about $1.06 / 12oz beer, which is only slightly more than the Mr. Beer kit. Either way, the Mr. Beer refills should work the same with this equipment and we are hoping to see that this equipment is a bit higher quality and perhaps more durable.
“True Brew” was included on somebody’s list of good starter kits (sorry, I can’t remember where I saw that), but is a bit difficult to find. This actually provides an interesting synopsis of how marketing techniques and search queries can make things more complicated instead of simpler. The result of this little wild goose chase makes the idiot-proof, very nicely packaged and presented “all-in-one” starter kits seem so much more appealing to the complete beginner taking a first look.
Googling “True Brew” gets you to homebrewing.com where you find a variety of ways to get lost and even end up at morebeer.com, so it’s difficult to keep your bearings. “True Brew” seems to be the name brand of a series of 5-gallon brewing ingredient kits offered through homebrewsupply.com, but do not come with equipment.
MoreBeer.com offers a 1-gallon starter kit that makes a single batch of 10 12oz bottles for $52.99. This looks consistent with our theme of cheap, easy systems that require little space. Packaging is everything! The equipment offered in this kit is generic, which may be a little intimidating until you have used or at least reviewed several of these starter kits in great detail. It takes a bit of knowledge and confidence to choose this kit because it is not presented as “idiot-proof” the way others are. The benefit here though is that the kit is equipment-centric and still supplies the brewing ingredients for one batch. There is real value in the equipment that is provided in this kit that is not provided in other kits. This kit provides:
- a mini auto-siphon that makes transfers a breeze
- a premium, spring-loaded bottle filling wand
- a bottle capper
Granted, these things are not terribly expensive, but they are the kind of things any home brewer will need if they get at-all serious about the hobby and all are the same equipment you will use when you move up to larger batches and need cleaner more efficient operations to get the job done right.
The kit may or may not come with any printed instructions for how to use the equipment or how to use the ingredients to prepare the batch. A savvy eCommerce consumer might notice and take a look at the “Documents” tab on the product page and notice 2 .pdf doc’s available. These doc’s provide good and detailed information, but still are not nearly as idiot-proof and reassuring as the simple videos available in the Mr. Beer Kit or on the BrewDemon site. I’m having a renewed appreciation for the value of well-designed packaging and clear, professional communication media.
This kit looks like a pretty good value, but you wouldn’t know it when you are just looking at home brewing for the first time, so we’ll take a pass for now.
Strange Brew – Home Brew
Here is another site that is a bit confusing regarding where you are and what is available. Searches for “Strange Brew” will invariably turn up http://www.home-brew.com. They do offer a number of “starter kits” that all include the “True Brew Handbook” so it makes sense to get the handbook from any of dozens of sites that offer it. I saw it for as low as $2.99 at one place and for $4.49 at Amazon. This site is branded as “Strange Brew” but located at home-brew.com and might well have good prices on generic equipment, but that’s of little value to a curious beginner who doesn’t know how to use it and is not sure they are interested in reading a book to find out. This site or the products there do not meet the “easy” test.
Coopers DIY Kits are sold in the U.S. by a number of sites and prices can vary a lot. This site seems to be the official Coopers U.S. site. There are 2 basic kits, a 15 liter and a 23 liter. Both kits are complete and really do contain everything necessary to get started. For our purposes, the smaller Craft Brew Kit is comparable to the size and production of the other 2 gallon single-vessel kits we have already discussed here, although at $89.95 plus shipping seems a bit pricey by comparison.
The kit offers a hydrometer, which is useful in home brewing but the online video we saw does not explain how to use it or why it’s necessary. The kit does come with an instructional video that is probably well done. Perhaps use of the hydrometer is explained there, but we can’t imagine why brewing from extract using precisely metered ingredients and timed processes would require its use. The hydrometer will definitely come in handy if and when the home brewer goes beyond idiot-proof starter techniques.
We’re not going to purchase this kit at this price and refills for around $25 each unless we hear credible evidence that their kits produce superior beer. So far we have not seen such reviews, but we assume this kit will produce comparable basic products compared to the kits we have bought and will be reviewing in greater detail.
Brewery in a Box
My first impression of Northern Brewer is that of a very well-done site run by a reliable company. It’s possible I was primed to feel positively about this company/site because over the past several hours researching and writing about these kits, Northern Brewer has been referred to in a positive manner quite a few times on other sites and in a variety of home brewer forums. Nah! I know a good site when I see one and this one is modern, highly-functional and just makes me want to buy something.
Their Essential Brewing Starter Kit is a 6.5-gallon kit that comes with your choice of one of three ingredient kits and is comparably priced with some of the more expensive 2-gallon kits. It doesn’t come with a necessary 3.5 gallon or larger brew kettle or bottles, but it does have a capper and 60 caps. It comes with an instructional video and everything else necessary to get started as long as you get some bottles before the fermentation process is done and borrow your mom’s biggest stainless steel stew or sauce pot. Don’t worry, she’s got one. If not, then ask anybody who deep-fries turkeys to use theirs. It’s the same thing. Just make sure it is perfectly clean and sanitize it properly.
This 16-minute video may or may not be the one that comes with the kit, but clearly Northern Brewer has done a good job. I should be reviewing their smaller kit because it is comparable to the others reviewed here and the ones we’ve purchased to try out, but this larger kit looks like our next step up from those kits. The Essential Brewing Starter Kit does not use the kind of “instant wort” that most of the other small kits feature, so the experience looks like it will be a comfortable step up toward learning to be more hands-on when it comes to handling the various details and stages of custom brewing. When you’re ready to go beyond “idiot-proof” this looks like the way to do it and the company to do it with.
Moving on to their 1 Gallon Small Batch Beer Brewing Kit, it’s clear that this is not the “idiot-proof” version of home brewing that features “instant wort” in a can, but it does meet our requirements for cheap, easy and requiring little space. The system costs $49.99 plus shipping and bottles. This system ends up being pretty comparable to the Brooklyn Brew Shop kit reviewed above, only from a better company with a better site and wider offerings that can take you all the way to master brewer if you stick with the hobby. Anyone interested in the slightly more complicated than idiot-proof 1-gallon kits (this one actually involves measuring water and cooking a simple recipe) would do well to get started with Northern Brewer.
Conclusions and Advice
For a great website, with tremendous information and supporting videos that offer scalable systems and what we’ve heard is great support, you really can’t go wrong choosing to get started with the Northern Brewer 1 Gallon Small Batch Beer Brewing Kit and then moving up to their larger Essential Brewing Starter Kit if you decide to move forward. Still, if you need proof of concept and aren’t sure you can handle anything more than making Mac and Cheese from a box, it might be a good idea to start with the Mr. Beer or BrewDemon kits that do make a respectable starter product.
I definitely recommend these more “idiot-proof” kits if you are giving a gift to someone you think MIGHT be interested in the hobby. My Dad encouraged my interest in photography when I was in high school by helping me set up a pretty cool darkroom in our garage. I learned a lot and had a good time doing it, but I can’t help but wonder whether I might have become a master brewer by now if he’d encouraged home brewing instead, LOL