Deciding when and how to upgrade my little brewing system is always a matter of weighing the benefits. Right now, for instance, there are three things I want to do to improve my process a bit. I don’t have the disposable cash to do all of these right now, but I can put some money into at least one of these.

Improvement 1: A refractometer for better on-the-spot gravity readings. Currently, to check the gravity of a beer during the boil phase, I have to take a large sample, run it under cold water to cool it down enough to read it, and then dump the sample. Dumping 6 oz. of beer every time you take a reading isn’t such a big deal when you’re only checking once a day for fermentation purposes, but when you’re still making the beer it hurts to lose a pint or two just to see if your recipe is on-target. A refractometer would allow me to check the gravity with just a couple drops and then make adjustments before I’ve even finished the boil. Cost: $35-60

There's one of these in my future, no doubt!

There’s one of these in my future, no doubt!

Improvement 2: Build a better mash-tun. So many of my recent batches have had a hard time reaching their target gravity that I’ve been seriously considering just adding some extract to the boil to bring it up. I’d rather not go that route if at all possible, I feel the better thing to do would be to improve my efficiency when extracting the sugars and proteins, and that means getting a better sparge. Brew-in-a-bag was a fine process when I was doing partial extract recipes, but with the all-grain process it’s cumbersome and messy. Transferring a 20-poung bag of boiling-hot, dripping grains from one vessel to another is just a recipe for disaster. What I need is a true mash tun with a false bottom that I can strike into and then drain off of. A way for me to actually soak my grains and stir in the sparge water, then pull the runnings off from the bottom. This may still not quite get me up to the gravity I’m expecting, but it can’t help but be an improvement over my current system. Cost: $70-100

Improvement 3: More fermentation space. As I move toward a functioning nano-brewery, one of my goals is to begin brewing larger batches. Unfortunately, at the moment my fermentation space is limited to one carboy and one bucket, 6 gallons each. This is fine for now, since I can use one as my primary and one as my bottling bucket, and I’m only making 4-5 gallon batches once every couple weeks. But if my goal is to increase both my batch size and frequency, well, in the immortal words of Roy Scheider, We’re gonna need a bigger boat. I found some really decent-looking 15-gallon plastic conical fermenters, which is something to keep in mind for down the road when I’m buying equipment for the nano-brewery. I think the next baby-step for me, though, is simply investing in another carboy or plastic bucket. That way I could still handle a 10-gallon batch, though it would be split between two vessels. The upside there is that I could also begin experimenting with variations on a single recipe, by using different yeasts, possibly some dry-hopping, or adding extra ingredients in a secondary. Cost: $13-30

It’s not often that I have the money to do a serious upgrade to my brew setup (the next step there is a single-tier BRUTUS-style brew station, but that’s really a full-on pilot brewery), but making small improvements when the opportunity arises will get me where I want to go. As they say, the journey of a thousand miles yadda yadda yadda.