Being successful at making your own beer at home starts with the right supplies and equipment. Much of what you need can be cheap or free if you know where to look and ask. These are guidelines for buying supplies, not instructions on making beer.
- Bottles: Buy good beer and drink it - a tough job, right? Rinse out each bottle with water after drinking and save. If you don't rinse out, mold will grow in them, and you will not feel like cleaning and using them. Ask friends to do the same. You will soon have enough to brew your first batch. Only the type of bottle requiring an opener is useful for home brew. You can't use screwtop bottles. Soak the labels off in a strong ammonia-water mixture. You need about 50 bottles per standard 5-gallon batch of beer, so eight 6-packs is perfect.
- Boiling pots: Do not use aluminum. You will need at least one stainless steel pot (or enamel with no chips on the inside) that will hold about three gallons. I recommend two pots. Most home brew is made in 5-gallon batches, so if you don't want to boil and cool things twice, get two pots. Find these at thrift shops or garage sales.
- Bottle brushes and cleaning supplies: Absolutely critical for cleanliness. Contamination is your worst enemy. No need to be extravagant, so buy cheaply at your local supermarket, but you will want to get a brush specifically designed for your glass carboy (if you get one). The rest of your supplies and equipment should probably come from a home brew supplier.
- The rest of the basics - Primary and secondary fermentation vessels, plastic tubing, rubber stoppers with holes, siphoning and bottle filling kit, fermentation lock, bottle capper, caps, floating thermometer and hydrometer can all normally be purchased as a kit at your local home brew supply store or online supplier. Most suppliers I have dealt with will let you delete and subtract the cost of any items you already have and don't need. If they don't allow that, shop around. Look at a different supplier, or look at what a kit contains and purchase the items separately.
I recommend a plastic primary fermenter (6-7 gallons) and a glass carboy (5-6 gallons) for secondary. You can do just fine with two plastic ones. The quality of your beer will not be greatly affected if you buy cheaply while using reasonable care and caution. Or you can actually spend as much as $500 on a kit for making beer. Don't.
- Nice, but not necessary to start: A bottle washer faucet attachment (low cost and excellent for rinsing bottles and carboys). A more expensive item is a wort chiller. If you decide to become a real brewer of your own beer, it is indispensable.
- Consumables: These should be bought fresh as needed. You will need a sterilizing solution. Unscented liquid chlorine bleach is acceptable, but just barely. Bleach requires rinsing, and that can introduce contamination. I use an iodine solution. It doesn't require rinsing. I am careful, and I never have a problem with contamination. I use ammonia for cleaning. I also recommend that you maintain a supply of Irish moss (which is really a seaweed). It is used in the last 15 minutes of your boil to help clarify your beer. Don't bother with other additives until you've gained some experience, or your recipe specifically calls for them.
- Ingredients: These will vary, depending on the recipe you use. I recommend a kit for the first several batches. A kit can range from a simple hopped malt extract to an all-grain extraction process. Go ahead and start with an intermediate partial mash kit. Such a kit will include malt extracts, some crushed malted grain, the correct yeast strain, hops and priming sugar, plus any exotic additives such as orange peel or coriander. Make sure you get a muslin bag for the grain. A partial mash kit will produce amazing results even for a beginner if you follow the directions carefully and keep everything absolutely sterile. Stick with extract kits if you haven't bought a thermometer yet. Don't try a recipe with an extremely high alcohol content your first time around. They are just a bit tricky, and you could end up with a stuck fermentation process. Also avoid lagers that have to be fermented at very low temperatures. Try an ale of a variety you really like. You want to be successful the first time out and impress friends and neighbors. Super cheap kits (below $25 or so) often taste super cheap. Caveat emptor.
- What about the cheap kits that have a single-stage two-gallon fermenter and canned hopped malt extract, all in a single box for about $40? They are actually not terribly bad, but they are not cost-effective or versatile. You will outgrow them almost immediately. They make nice gifts for friends who talk about making their own home brew, but never do anything about it. If they move on and get some serious equipment, they can still use the cheap kit to make root beer.
- Buy locally or online? I buy locally, and if you have a supplier near you, I recommend you do the same. The costs will not be greatly different than purchasing online, once you balance sales tax against shipping costs. It is also easier to get and give feedback with a local supplier. And, frankly, home brewers are gregarious and outspoken, so you can probably get a lot of free advice while you shop.
If you have no supplier near you, then the choice is clear. Just be careful about your online yeast purchases. I use nothing but liquid yeasts, and they are best kept refrigerated until about 24 hours before using them. My bias against dry yeasts is probably unfair, but I have had such great luck with liquid yeasts, I wouldn't consider trying the dry. Online suppliers will ship liquid yeasts in a cold pack, but be careful about the additional cost. Shop around, and go for faster shipping if you can afford it.
- And one item not listed above, but critical to long-term success, is a good home brew book. Get The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian. Then get whatever other additional books and magazines suit your fancy.
Be smart, be frugal, and happy home brewing!