All Grain Brewing - Cheaper Than Dirt

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My setup, and how I got to that point:
First off, let me preface this with a few notes about myself. I am a minimalist at heart. I grew up dirt poor, so it has been ingrained in my head. Even when I have the money to buy something I would rather pool my skills and resources to try to figure out how to accomplish something with what I have. Combined with a biweekly self-imposed allowance, which I may or may not actually get, depending on the budgetary constraints of just $25. When I started researching what it takes to start homebrewing I tried to figure out how to have the best possible with the least possible.

You Don't Have To Spend A Fortune To Make Great Beer
Christmas in 2011 found me adding the $40 basic Mr. Beer kit to my wish list. Oddly enough, my wife actually decided to get it for me. Now, bless her heart, I love her to death, but she decided to upgrade to the Brewmasters Select Kit ($140). I was more than happy with the gift, however, when I found the price, I silently cried over the thought of possibly getting a real brewing setup for the same cost. Looking back, I am thankful that I have stuck to my 2.5 gallon fermentors. It works perfectly for my space, and allows me to experiment more. This means less bad beer to drink if I completely mess it up. It also allows me to brew bigger beers, like Barleywines and Imperial Stouts, while keeping under the $20 a batch limit.
For Christmas in 2013, I received yet another Mr. Beer fermentor, plus two ingredient kits. At this time, I wasn't brewing very much, as the kits themselves were expensive. However, I had found HomeBrewTalk by this time, and I realized with a few modifications, the kits could be better than before. This time around, the bug caught! I added some Carapils and a pound of LME to each batch, and I ended up with some very passable, even slightly tasty, beer.
I started researching the recipes database, and then scaled them down to my 2.5-gallon batch size. This was somewhat effective, and ended up making some decent beer. I was still finding the extract to be more expensive than I wanted to deal with, but I, by no means, had the ability to buy a three-tiered system. I didn't have the space anyways, as we were living with the in-laws. I discovered BIAB reading through the forums, and the Beginners Guide sticky in the sub-forum got me going in the right direction. A $5 pair of paint strainer bags, and a $12, 16-quart, stainless steel pot from Walmart, and I was up and running! My first two tries were again decent, but they were significantly cheaper than extract, for which I was excited! A 24 pack of beer for less than $8? Any day, any time.
I ran into the issue of only being able to ferment one batch at a time, which meant I had to wait two weeks between batches. The swamp cooler method of fermentation temperature control doesn't work too well, even indoors, in Texas in the summer. I had to tear down the kids' swing set/jungle gym due to the wood at the bottom rotting out, and I noticed quite a few of the planks were in really good condition. A light bulb turned on, and I designed my dual-keg fermentation chamber, what was based off of the son-of-a-fermentation chamber build here on HBT. After figuring out the fan (I'm a geek, fans I have plenty of) and controller configuration ($6 with free shipping from China), then adding in a $12 sheet of polystyrene from Lowes that I could double up to 1 for insulation, and I had a temperature regulated environment. It is very simple to maintain the proper temperature, I only need to change the ice every 12 hours.
My process of brewing cheaply:
A typical case of homebrew ends up costing me around $10. I end up taking a case to work every Friday to share with my coworkers. Not every beer that I make I think is good, however, they are apparently so used to BMC, they even like my "bad" batches. I'm always trying new recipes from the recipes section here on HomeBrewTalk and I enjoy experimenting to see what can be changed.
Brew Day:
My brew day starts by grabbing my five 3 quart Ozarka bottles from beside my fermentation chamber, my box of brewing equipment from the shelf in the girls' closet, my 22 ounce bottles from behind the upstairs bar, the bag of grain from the bedroom, and the remainder of the equipment from wherever I was able to find the room to stash it. My Ozarka bottles get filled with water from the fridge filter. I can't wait to get an inline filter that I can use on the sink, the fridge takes way too long to fill the bottles.

Preparing The Stove Top Mash
Once I have everything downstairs in the kitchen, nine quarts of water goes into my 16 quart pot. I use a candy thermometer to bring the mash water up to the appropriate strike temperature, which is usually 10F higher than the expected mash temperature because a typical batch is five pounds of grain.
Once I reach my strike temperature, I place my paint strainer bag into the pot, and gently pour my grain in while stirring lightly to keep it from clumping. I usually lay a folded-up towel on the counter beforehand for insulation, and place the pot on top of that. This is followed by putting the lid on, wrapping my pot with a blanket, and then covering it with my old military jacket. This has allowed be to only drop two degrees in an hour, which may be huge for some people, but my results have been pretty good so far. If the recipe calls for 154F, I hit 155F, and go from there.
While the mash is resting, I'm usually playing with the kids, or working on another beer crate in the garage. We have a seven-month old, so I keep pretty busy. After 55 minutes have passed, I start heating up a smaller pot with two quarts of water. By the time mash is complete, the smaller pot has hit 175F. This is my version of a mash out. Although it's probably not needed, my pot is too small to just turn the burner on without scorching the bag, so I just dunk it separately. I just threw out the first strainer bag that I bought in 2013, last month, so being overprotective has certainly helped. Do I need this extra step? Possibly not, but, it works for me, and its ingrained in my process now, so I just go with it.
I've usually let the grains drain into the pot for a minute or two while starting to bring it to a boil. Then I transfer the bag over to the smaller pot. I stir that around a bit let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes, then move the colander over and let it drain for another 5 to 10 minutes while I wait for the main pot to a full boil. I could probably be convinced a sparge isn't necessary, except for the fact that the water in the small pot looks nearly identical to the wort in the big pot. So I figure there must be some sugar in there in the end.
My hops get added once the remainder of the wort is dumped into the large pot, and the total volume is brought up to 3 gallons. I know I lose .5g per hour, so this will leave me with right around my 2.5 gallons post boil, once I take cooling shrinkage into account. My method of hop measurement is extremely precise, just eyeball it into even piles and there you go. If I need .25 ounces I just divide the contents of the one ounce bag into four. I have had a scale on my wishlist for about two Christmases. The beer gets to boil in about 20 to 25 minutes from flameout at which point I start my timer.
This is when the multitasking comes in. Once my boil starts, I'm usually bottling a previous batch. Typically, I wont use green bottles, but this was a cider, so I wanted to try something different. Plus, the LHBS had them for free in a pile. The owner has people donating bottles when they don't want to go through the work of cleaning them, or they have just started kegging. Then people like me get free bottles!

Sanitization! Here you can see a little of my ingenuity in designing a bottle rack out of the same lumber from the swing set, and some 3/8 dowels.
I always sanitize one extra bomber and a couple of little bottles, just in case my 2.5 gallon guesstimate was off a bit. Typically I get 13, 22-ounce bottles out of my batches.
I picked up a 2.5-gallon water jug from Wal-Mart that I have been bottling from for about a year and a half. I put my priming sugar (usually 1/4 cup) in eight ounces of boiled water. Then, I let it cool before adding to the jug. In this case, I also added six tablespoons of Xylitol (non-fermentable sugar alcohol). With the hose down, and the flow on, transferring begins. On the Mr. Beer fermentors, it is my experience that the yeast (I pitch half a packet, re-hydrated) stays on the bottom pretty well, so that I can tip it slowly to get the remainder of the beer, without getting sediment.
Honestly, I could probably have a better way to bottle. Although there may be some aeration, I haven't had any noticeable effect as of yet. I try to keep it slow enough that it doesn't splash down the side of the bottle. Somebody in the Mr. Beer thread mentioned fixing a bottling wand to the inside of that spout, but I have yet to attempt that particular addition.
I let the bottles sit with the caps on loosely (pre-sanitized, of course), and I can usually hear the caps lifting up occasionally. Which I assume is CO2 off-gassing, which I hope helps as a way to purge the bottle for me. Although, that is a highly unscientific assumption.
I have 3 kids, who are 8, 9, and 10 years old. One of them is my assistant brew master each weekend, depending on who is feeling up to it. They really enjoy helping me out. Once we got past the whole washing-hands thing, and not picking our noses while handing me bottles, everything worked out great!
After finishing off with capping the beers using my wing capper, and putting bottles back in their box, it is time to move stuff out of the way, because my watch just buzzed saying 60 minutes has passed. I chill the wort in a good, old-fashioned ice bath. I stir the wort one direction, and stir the ice the other direction to keep the contact points circulating. I found I can get the temp down faster this way and it typically takes me 15-20 minutes to chill it down to 75F. If I find myself below 2.5 gallons at the end of the boil, I will add ice directly to my wort, until I get up to the right volume. When I freeze ice, I make sure the trays are covered, so nothing gets inside, in the event that I do need to add it to the wort. I sanitize the trays after brewing every weekend.

Chilling The Wort In An Ice Bath
This was actually my very first time using a hydrometer! Looking through the foam, and adjusting for temperature, I hit about 1.047, which was higher than the 1.044 I was expecting. For never using a hydrometer, and hitting 80%, I'm impressed, to say the least!
I did a wort direct to fermenter batch once. I had so much trub after fermentation was complete that I lost about half of a gallon from the finished product. Since then, I filter it all out using a hop sack with binder clips holding it to the opening of the Mr. Beer fermentor. I also think this helps me out a bit with aeration.
Going back just a little:
Prior to the chill, I start re-hydrating the yeast. I boil the water, then chill to room temp, then sprinkle the yeast on top. For best re-hydration practices, though, always consult the instructions per the yeast manufacturer.

Filling The Mr. beer LBK With Wort
After the wort is in the fermentor, I add my yeast cream, and tuck it away, nice and cozy, in the fermentation chamber. The $6 controller I bought was in Celsius, which was only slightly inconvenient. The bad thing is, I noticed that if you set it to say 18C, it turns on, but then takes it all the way down to 16C before it trips off again. This was definitely too far of a variance to have the probe in the wort itself. However, I learned that if the probe is just hanging in the open air, the temperature readout on the side of my keg reads a constant 65F. Is it the best? No, but it is certainly functionable. I'll work on making a better fermentation chamber when I have the room, and the resources.
Moral of the story:
Given enough planning and ingenuity, the stubbornness to find another way of doing things, and the good people at HomeBrewTalk, it is possible to still brew beer on a very tight budget. With a $12 SS pot, a paint strainer bag, and an LHBS that fine-crushes everything for you, you can be brewing all grain in no time. A lot of the stuff I had around the house already; like the blankets, coats, thermometer, etc. It doesn't take much to get started. As long as you pay attention to sanitation, and have some method of temperature control, you can make award winning beers all day long, without the $1000 budget.
Sean "Skitter" Wheeler is a father of four, and geek by general affirmation, in more than just the computer-sense. He likes researching everything he can find out about a subject before applying his new-found knowledge. Carpentry, brewing, computers, hunting, fishing, gaming, the subject typically doesn't matter. He enjoys knowing the "why's" of the world, rather than just taking explanations like, "it just is." This can be to his detriment, as well as, his advancement. Serving in the Air Force, he had to change careers one year after enlisting because he was benched off the flight line as a C-130 Crew Chief for asking too many questions straight out of training. Coupled with a near-photographic memory, social skills are not his forte. Inquisitive sponge sums it up rather nicely.
Skitt's Brewers Blog
// t=_self
If you're ever looking to upgrade, you can get an aluminum kettle. It's not fancy but is only 30-35$ for 8 - 10 gallons. And brew buckets are under 10 usually.
Good article. Stove top BIAB brewing can be very inexpensive and with good craft beer up to $10 per 6 pack, you really can save money. Buying bulk grains and hops by the pound was a major cost savings for me.
I have a hand grinder on my wish list as well for the grain, one that can be updated to a motor later, but I'll probably end up buying the fully motorized version as the cost/benefit is higher. Just need the funding :)
Non-BIAB does not imply three tier system. Like you, I try to control my costs as it is way to easy for a middle aged guy to spend way too much. (I promised my wife I would get everything for half price. That implies research and shopping around)
I use Denny Conn's converted rectangular cooler (although I sprang for the bazooka screen after my attempt at a CPVC grid lost too much efficiency.)
I use 10 & 15 G pots as HLT & boil kettle. but could probably get by with just the larger. Neither is ported yet. I'll do that myself.
My fermentation fridge is a 30 yr old dorm fridge, some left over foam board and a $20 temp controller.
My goal is to spend money when not doing so discourages me from further brewing. YMMV
Great article man, makes me want to try my hand at some stove top biab i still have my lbk i should get on this.
Jack schmidling sells a barebones maltmill for DIY. It's a real good mill. Nice article.
While an ice-bath is an OK method of cooling, a simple 25' immersion chiller would be much cheaper in the long run and work very well for batches this size.
@ zowen88 - I used what I had on hand, the 25' immersion chiller is on my wishlist :)
@andrhamm - I spray it down with sanitizer prior to use and make sure the bottles have plenty of foam in them during their drip phase, I know it's not the best idea, but it's what I have :)
Fun reading, thanks for sharing. One point you didn't mention is that your hydrometer is temperature-sensitive. Your reading should be temperature-compensated.
Put 4 or 5 coats of polyurethane on your bottle drying rack. That should solve sanitation issues
@Hey StringGuy - Yes that is part of my process, I did mention it though.
@kmckiou - Good idea...
Well done! I really need to give all grain / BIAG a shot in the next round or two...
(btw, your brewing blog link is borked... it looks ok on mouseover, but actually opening it adds an extra http and breaks the link, and checking the source html, it's not right)
@MarshmallowBlue wallmart now has 32 quart pots for 23$. And have you thought about collecting the yeast? It's really easy. I use empty jelly jars to keep it in. that will save you a few more $ each brew. Read the article here All you need to do is have a few clean sanitized jelly jars to catch the yeast. Put em in the fridge, then when your ready to use, take them out, let them warm up, pour off the top clear liquid, then pour the yeast cake in your wort. Dry yeast is fairly cheap, but with a 20-25$ limit, every buck counts. This would allow you to use a better yeast possibly spreading the cost across a dozen brews.
Also if interested, you could look into the Charlie Papazian mash tun. Using the white home depot buckets (food safe), you could do this for under 15$.
Kpbrews - ill get that fixed shortly... Your the only other one I have seen use borked...
Nice article and best of luck on your future gift lists being satisfied!
I see hartles beat me to it- harvest yeast, and with your pc fans you have sitting around a stir plate is super cheap to build. All in you'll only save ~$1/batch but it's also the fun of it! Then if you can get in on a group buy and ask someone to share a sack or two, you'll bring costs down further. And hops by the pound cuts hop costs in half! Oh and look up Biermuncher's Blonde- very cheap and tasty beer the BMC crowd will love.
Great article. I love seeing stuff like this, hopefully it helps remove some barriers for people to get into the hobby.
Nice read OP - very crafty setup you've got going on. I do admit to chuckling a bit at the wooden sanitizing rack :)
Here's my take on harvesting yeast. I was harvesting yeast from the finished beer but IMO Gavin's practice of harvesting yeast from a giant starter is not only a better practice (i.e. the yeast will be way healthier harvested this way) but also a lot easier, as least for those of us who use buckets, carboys, etc. (basically anything that's not a conical with a port to dump the yeast). So if you end up harvesting yeast (which is a HUUUUGE savings when you're doing 2.5 gallon batches on an ultra tight budget - as a stove top brewer who's going back to school right now I can relate) you might want to consider using Gavin's method of building a giant starter and harvesting off of that.
My method is similar to one mentioned on this forum... Scoop it into jars and go to the fridge lol
I like the frugal approach - I've been doing low gravity (1.040-ish) 5.5 gallon BIAB batches in a 20qt pot, the mash/boil volume is approx 3 gallons, chill in the sink and then add cold water which helps cool to pitch temperature. Using a high-alpha hop and saved yeast makes for pretty cheap batches ($12 or so).
I rode my home build bike (motor, no pedals for this guy) to the brew shop for a homebrew demo day, gonna hang out and with my friends from the shop. There was a guy there who pulled up with his fancy Harley, and he started talking to me about how he got brewing and jumped in with both feet, explaining this fancy equipment that had to cost thousands. He asked about my set up, and I described the handme down turkey fryer, keg shells from my college years and a pulley system. He He gave me a look like I was beneath him and then started talking about his bike and how great it was. Funny, more people came up to me to talk about my bike that day and I think it ruffled his feathers a bit. a lil home build bike next to a very nice Harley. You can buy a lot of fancy equipment, but our setups are a part of us. We have built them ourselves and they are unique snowflakes that only we know how to operate them to make good beer.
Just a small nitpick, but it's a good idea to dry the sink water off the outside of the kettle before pouring. Could be a potential source of infection if some of it drips into the fermentor.
Another good tip is go to lbs events and talk to other brewers. I got my 10 gallon pot and burner for less than the guy paid for the pot. He moved up to 10 gal batches and I asked about the equipment. My one friend at work who brews had to downsize to his in laws place(poor guy) and gave me a 6.5 and 5 gal glass carboy for a six pack of homebrew!
As a Dutchman cheapskate I appreciated the gist of this article, but one thing that I have found over the course of brewing 30 odd batches is that my time is worth money, too. Once you have the investment in equipment, it takes more or less the same amount of time to brew 2.5, 5, or 10 gallon batches. Five gallon batches are the sweet spot for me as far as the time/volume ratio. I like a variety of beers and it would take too long to to through 10 gallon batches. I can appreciate the author's reasons for small batch brewing, but I'd rather have twice as much beer for my time(to each his/her own on that call).
Along these lines, the upgrades that I've found to be most valuable are the ones that save me time. A nice burner is probably #1 (shaved 30-45 minutes off a brew day), and a nice immersion chiller is #2 (shaved 15-25 minutes). A stir plate and fermentation chamber were the upgrades that made my beer better, though.
@kzoostout - I am stuck where I am at for the time being until I have more space. I need to be able to temperature control the batches and my current setup fits the 2.5 gallon LBK's. Until I have the space to build what I want, stuck with what I am at. I mostly wrote this for people wanting to get into AG brewing, and helping them realize it's not as daunting a task as it seems, regardless of batch size.
Great write up!! I did 2.5 gallon biab batches for over a year when I switched to all grain. It is indeed a cheap way to brew great beer!
I bought a cooler on sale at Dicks during the winter a couple years ago for about 20 bucks and slowly saved up the for the hardware to make a mash tun. I still do 2.5 gallon batches in the winter on the stove but I can do 5 gallon batches now too in the summer. Brewing on a budget takes forever to get up to a 3 tier system but brewing 5 gallon all grain batches when you need to or want to makes it worth the wait.
After my initial equipment investment, grain by the sack and bulk hops are what really saved me $. A well hopped 5 gallon batch of 6% pale ale only runs me about $15 if I'm reusing yeast. Propane included. Even the biggest beers, a dipa, 12% barleywine or ris rarely hit the $25 mark.
Great article. I hope to never be constrained to your type of system, but if i lived in an apartment and had no money I would do this. This is the kind of thing people need to be doing all the time. sooooo easy
I used to cool my wort very fast. I used an ice bath like you but i also used ice in the pot. What I did was take a milk jug and wash it out. Then boil a pot of water. I rinsed out the jug with boiling water to sterilize it, then filled it up about 1/3 full and capped it and put it in the deep freeze. With a clean knife i would cut out the block of ice and drop it in the pot with the cooling wort. I got a very quick cool down with a great cold break. This resulted in an extremely clean clear beer usually with out any clearing agents.
No reason not to just go hand grind. I still use a hand grind Phil Mill II 20 years and hundreds of gallons later.
@zowen88 Unless like me, you don't have a sink faucet that the connectons for a wort chiller will fit on which would involve an additional cost for the new faucet :)
I downsized from 5gal. Living alone in my old age, I don't drink near as much as I use to. That's why your article on 2.5 gallons cauught my eye.
I really love this.
I actually spend a lot on homebrewing gear (and pro-brewing gear) but I am also a minimalist at heart. In fact, living in Japan, away from all my primary gear in Australia, I have found myself going right back to basics!
You can see my own website in my email address. Please check out my site (and search the terms 'minimalist!)
Cheers to you sir :)
Probably not the best idea to use an aluminum kettle. The problem is aluminum is a reactive metal, and when any food or liquid that doesn't have a neutral pH, so anything slightly acidic or alkali, is in contact with it metallic and other off flavors can be produced. The reason being because what you basically create is a primitive battery, and really, who wants to drink battery acid? Although, I know some of my brews have ended up tasting like battery acid regardless of the type of kettle, haha.
Anyway, it's best to go with a "non-reactive" pot/kettle. So, Stainless steel of course is the best option. Technically anodized aluminum, and can definitely work, it's just finding one of the right size can be problematic.
I hope this info helps a bit, and that I haven't come off too much like an arrogant ass. Haha.