I started brewing in 1992, a white food grade bucket, lid, bubbler, a can of wort syrup, and a packet of yeast. That combined with hot Houston summer yielded some *interesting* brews. Over time I moved to cooler climates, upgraded equipment, etc.
What I realized…I did it all wrong, I purchased my equipment backwards. I should have started with a fermentation fridge this (along with good cleaning and sanitation) has had the biggest impact on my brewing.
If I were to start today, I’d buy a fermentation fridge (craigslist), a temperature controller (or at least a light timer to limit ON times), a bucket, lid, bubbler, wort syrup, and White Labs or WYEAST (though the dry yeasts are actually quite good).
Next would be full wort brewing, a kettle large enough to boil down from ~7G to about 6 gallons of wort.
Next would be all grain. This does add a lot of fun and control to what you can do. Plus, you *feel* like a real brewer. At this point, I would also decide what direction I want to follow, and spend *MORE* than I’d like. I’d buy up to the brew sculpture and equipment that would last me, and potentially grow with me. For example, I’ve ended up with a Top Tier (used) which I love. A mix of pots and a 5G cooler (mashtun).
In the discard pile, I have two burners (one Crawfish boiler – I did mention Houston, and one turkey Fryer). One brew bucket (I now use glass carboys). I guess that’s about it.
Likely soon in the discard pile, the 5G water cooler (Mashtun, it was actually originally for soccer practice), As I’m looking to move to a Metal pot Mashtun, capable of no sparge mash.
Another direction I’ve considered, and still want to try. Some of the all in one brew systems, ‘GrainFather’ or ‘Brau Supply Unibrau System’ or the Blichman. The upfront cost of these systems is high….but it’s all there.