Every new or aspiring wine maker wonders exactly what wine making equipment they need to get started. When I started making wine, I actually started very low tech and used a Mr. Beer 2 gallon keg fermentor. It wasn’t ideal, as it tended to leak slightly, but it worked well enough for experimenting and figuring out the process. In case you’re wondering, I don’t recommend that you start the way I did. Instead, I will walk you through everything you need to make your first wine kit as well as talk about options for buying everything you need as a kit.
Note: You will have to decide for yourself how much volume you want to make. Typical sizes are 1 and 6 gallon kits. Your decision will determine some of the items you will need. More details are below.
The most important items are your primary and secondary fermentation vessels. There are many options to chose from and the ones that you need will depend on the volume you intend to make.
Primary Fermentation Vessels
When you put the yeast into your juice, the yeast will cause the juice to form a foam. When this happens, the volume in your vessel will rise requiring the primary fermentation vessel to be larger than the total amount you intend to make. Plan for at least half a gallon to one full gallon larger than the amount of finished wine. So, if you’re making a 1 gallon kit, you need a vessel that can hold 1.5 to 2 gallons. For a 6 gallon kit, you need a vessel that can hold at least 6.5 gallons.
Pro Tip: Typically, you don’t want empty space in your fermentation vessels because air coming into contact with wine results in wine oxidation, which ruins your wine. However, during primary fermentation the yeast will produce a layer of gas that will fill the empty space in your fermentor. If you have ever seen an airlock bubbling, this is the gas that is escaping. Empty space of 1-2 gallons is fine but I wouldn’t ferment 1 gallon of juice in a 10 gallon fermentor. As a rule for primary fermentation, the less empty space the better.
For small batches, you’re choices are a little limited.
The best option is to find a food grade plastic bucket on Amazon that holds the volume you need. I use this one for my 1 gallon small batches. Note that you will either have to drill a hole in the lid or cover it with a cheese cloth. I chose to drill a hole and fit it with a bung and airlock but placing a cheese cloth over the bucket will work just fine for primary fermentation. Make sure to clip it in place so it doesn’t fall off or worse, fall into your wine.
Pro Tip: Make sure any plastic bucket that you buy is food grade. If it’s not, the plastic could leach into your wine and you don’t want that.
For larger batches, you have many more options. Your best option is a large plastic bucket like this one that holds 6 gallons or this larger one that holds 7.9 gallons. Both of these are easy to work with and highly recommended. If I were buying new equipment, I would buy the larger one for the versatility. I have used both though and continue to do so for my larger batches.
Secondary Fermentation Vessels
After a week to 10 days, your primary fermentation will finish. At this point, you will siphon your new wine from the primary fermentation bucket into a clean and sanitized carboy for secondary fermentation.
Pro Tip: During secondary fermentation you don’t want air coming into contact with the wine. Unlike primary fermentation, you must closely match the volume of wine to the same size carboy and always fit it with an airlock.
For those of you interested in smaller, 1 gallon batches, I recommend that you use one like this that comes with multiple jugs, caps and airlocks. I use this exact setup for all my small batches.
For those doing larger batches, I recommend avoiding glass carboys. Glass in these larger sizes tend to be heavy and hard to move around. They are also prone to breaking which causes a mess and the loss of your wine. Instead, I recommend going with plastic carboys such as this 6.5 gallon one.
Airlocks and Bungs
Airlocks perform an important task in wine making. They work by letting gases escape from inside the carboy and keeps oxygen from getting inside the carboy.
Airlocks come in two forms, single piece (also called S-bubble because it looks like an ‘S’) and three piece. Single piece airlocks are exactly like they sound, the airlock is one piece and doesn’t come apart except for a small cap on the top. The downside is they are hard to clean. If your fermentation is vigorous, the foam it produces can push through the airlock. When this happens, it’s hard to get the airlock cleaned out completely.
The three piece airlock, which I prefer and recommend you to buy, comes apart into three pieces and is much easier to clean. It may seem minor but making sure everything is cleaned and sanitized is very important in wine making. Even the smallest bit of bacteria can ruin an entire batch of wine.
Pro Tip: These airlocks are plastic and can crack. I’ve had several crack down the seams when inserting them into a bung. Always buy extra airlocks, so when one cracks, you have another one you can use.
Bungs are rubber and come in drilled and solid options. The drilled option is what you will need to go along with your airlock, in most cases. The stem of the airlock fits snugly into the drilled hole in the bung. Then the bung is placed into the mouth of the carboy, together they form an air tight seal.
Auto Siphon and Tubing
Auto siphon’s are used to transfer your wine from one bucket or carboy to another. They work by placing the bucket with liquid in it on a high location, such as a counter top, and then placing the empty carboy on the floor. You pump the siphon a few times to get it started and then gravity does the rest. The empty bucket fills in a matter of minutes. Simple and easy.
In addition to the siphon, you will also need plastic food grade tubing. One end of the tubing will fit onto the end of the siphon and the other will be placed in the empty bucket. Make sure the tubing is food grade. If it isn’t, plastic can leach into your wine. While you can buy plastic tubing at a hardware store, it isn’t food grade. I recommend you buy the tubing from a wine making supply store on Amazon instead. Make sure to get the correct size tubing that matches your siphon.
Pro Tip: Never try to siphon by placing the tubing in your mouth and sucking. This is a sure way to contaminate your wine.
Hydrometer and Test Jar
A hydrometer is a device that measures how much (or how little) sugar is in your juice or wine. You will need to take a reading before fermentation and multiple times during and after fermentation. By getting these readings, you can determine the percentage of alcohol in your wine as well as when your wine has finished fermenting. Don’t skip taking these readings.
Your hydrometer works by dropping it in a test jar and then filling it with wine or juice. The hydrometer will then float. How high or low it floats will depend on how much sugar is present. The hydrometer itself will have markings on the side with numbers. Where the top of the wine or juice is on the hydrometer will be the number indicating how much sugar is present.
For example, you might look at your hydrometer and see a reading such as 1.080 prior to fermentation. By using this number, you can determine that your juice has the potential to have 10.2% alcohol after fermentation is complete.
Sanitizer and Cleaning
If there is one thing I will stress over and over again, it’s making sure that all equipment that comes in contact with your wine is clean and sanitized. There are several products on the market to choose from but my favorite is StarSan.
Using it is simple. Simply, fill your primary fermentation bucket with warm water (roughly 1/4 full), add StarSan and then put the lid on tight. Shake vigorously and make sure the sanitizer touches every inch of the interior of the bucket. When finished add more water, and all the equipment to the bucket, making sure every inch of the equipment comes in contact with the sanitizer. Then let it soak for a few minutes.
After fermentation and you have transferred your wine to a carboy, you will want to clean your dirty bucket. Do not ever use dish detergent, specially the scented kind. If you do, the next wine that comes in contact with the bucket will have the scent transferred to it (ruining the wine). Instead, a better option to clean your dirty buckets and carboys is to use Oxiclean (the unscented kind, free of dyes and perfume, with the green lid). Fill your dirty bucket or carboy with warm water, add a scoop of Oxiclean, stir and let it sit overnight. Then drain out the water and rise with fresh water. Wipe dry with a clean towel.
Pro Tip: Let me stress again, do not ever use a scented cleaner for cleaning your equipment.
Corker, Corks and Wine Bottles
Corkers are used to place a cork in a wine bottle and seals it so outside air doesn’t come in contact with your wine.
There are two main types of corkers. The one most beginners start with is the hand corker, sometimes called the double lever corker such as this one. I started with a similar one and found it very difficult to work with, especially with large batches. A better option is a floor corker. Sometimes you will see it called a Portuguese Floor Corker. These are a little more expensive but well worth the extra expense because they will not only save you time but your hands will thank you when you are bottling a large batch (~30 bottles).
The typical wine bottle is 750 milliliters. They come in various shapes and colors and are usually sold 12 bottles per case, such as these. Or the 36 bottles option. Most of these bottles take a #8 or #9 size cork. Corks are typically sold in packs of 30, 100 or 1000. Buy good corks and don’t skimp here because this is what protects your wine from exposure to oxygen.
Pro Tip: You can reuse wine bottles. If you have a restaurant near you that serves wine, you can often ask them to hold empty wine bottles for you, at no charge, if you let them know you are a wine maker.
There are a few other items that will make your life as a wine maker easier.
A long handled spoon (18 or 24″) is great for stirring. I recommend a plastic one, such as this one, and not a wooden or metal spoon. Wood in particular is dangerous to use. If the wood gets chipped it can get bacteria inside the chip and it’s very hard to clean out. If that bacteria gets into your wine, it will ruin it. Stick with plastic as much as possible.
A wine thief, such as this one from FermTech, is a very useful addition to your equipment. The wine thief is used to draw samples from your wine for testing (such as filling a test jar or filling a glass for tasting prior to bottling). A large turkey baster can work in a pinch as well. I’ve done that more than once.
When it’s time to fill your bottles, a spring tip bottle filler is essential. These attach to the end of your auto siphon’s tubing. When you place the spring tip against the bottom of the wine bottle, the wine starts to flow. When you lift up, it stops. For just a few dollars, this little item will make your life a lot easier.
Equipment Starter Kits
If you don’t feel comfortable buying your beginner wine making equipment individually, many places offer kits that contain everything or nearly everything you need. There are pros and cons with going this route however. The biggest pro is convenience while the biggest cons are you might not get the exact type of equipment you want and you might find that you still need to buy a few things. It’s up to you which way to go. Personally, I prefer buying individually so I can get exactly what I want. But I have friends who have bought starter kits and were happy with them.
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For the new winemaker, there is a lot of information to take in and a lot equipment decisions to be made. I recommend reading through this article a few times in order to absorb it all. If anything is unclear or you have questions, let us know in the comments below.
Happy wine making!