Coming in from the Cold - 6 Tips for Better Cold Weather Brewing

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Brewing outdoors is an enjoyable experience, and brewers living in warm climates are fortunate in that they can do what they love year round, but for those of us who live in cold climates winter puts a damper on outdoor brewing. When temperatures plunge below freezing, and sometimes below zero, it's not so fun standing around a kettle.
In Minnesota, where I live, winter tends to come early and stay late. I do BIAB over a propane burner in my attached (but unheated) garage, with the door open for ventilation. I don't have a warm place I can brew with a gas burner. Running water for chillers can be problematic in extremely cold environments.

Image Courtesy of runkelia
Every winter I go through this same conflict: I want to brew, but I don't enjoy it when it is freezing cold and the wind is blowing. Some hardier types don't seem to mind and there are many who think nothing of brewing in bitter cold conditions. I'm not one of them, which also explains why I never took an interest in ice fishing. I don't brew very often--about once a month on average--but winter usually "cheats" me out of 2 or 3 brew sessions. If I am lucky, and can turn on a dime, I can capitalize on a "warm" weather weekend, when it gets above freezing. But with starters and such, it's hard to plan out a brew day in advance when the weather is unpredictable.
Before I continue a word of caution, I often see discussions on HomeBrewTalk and other sites, where someone will inquire about operating a propane burner indoors. Usually, members will jump in and warn against this practice. I will too. Unless you have some kind of vent hood, or very reliable flow-through ventilation, operating a propane burner in your home is extremely dangerous. Unlike gas stoves, which are finely tuned to burn cleanly, propane burners of the type we use will generate unsafe amounts of carbon monoxide. Be safe; don't operate your gas burner indoors.
Doing A Winter Work-Around
Why should a few months of bad weather keep me from enjoying my pastime?
This winter will be different, and I have decided to look at this in a different light. I have given thought to a number of possibilities, and plan to try out some of them this winter. There are lots of alternatives and I will highlight a few ideas.
Back To The Stove - Small Batches
Who says we have to brew full-sized batches? I still have my trusty 5 gallon brew kettle, the one I bought with my first brewing kit. With brew in a bag, I can mash and brew a 2.5 gallon batch on top of my stove. I can take advantage of the oven to place my kettle and maintain mash temps. I have a couple 3 gallon glass carboys, so why not brew a half batch? All-grain recipes are easy to scale down to any size. Sure, the time commitment is about the same, but brewing one case of beer is better than brewing none at all.
This would also be a good opportunity to delve into 1-gallon brewing. I haven't done this yet, but it has a great amount of appeal and I have given it a lot of thought. I could still brew 2 or 3 gallons on the stove, and then experiment by splitting the batch between 2 or 3 one-gallon jug fermenters. Try different yeasts, maybe dry hop one, add fruit, spices or oak chips to another. Winter could be the perfect time to discover what works well and what doesn't, then make the successful brews as full batches come spring.
Of course, extract and partial mash brewing is always feasible indoors on a stovetop. Extract brewing is where I got my start, as did many other brewers. No mashing, less concern over water chemistry, and shorter brew days. Extract brewing simplifies things, which can be a refreshing change, especially when the days are shorter.
Cooperative Brewing
Maybe there is a brew club in the area where someone has heated, ventilated facilities to use. Or perhaps a brewer friend has a venue? Team up with someone who has a place where a full brew over gas is feasible and safe.
Wines, Meads and Ciders
Winter can be an ideal time to broaden one's brewing experiences by allowing you to make something that requires no mashing or boiling at all. I have made a few simple wines from store-bought fruit juices, and I have made 3 batches of EdWort's Apfelwein. I need to refill my pipeline of these beverages and so I plan some more wine and cider making this winter. Maybe try a batch of Skeeter Pee.

I have never made mead, but this winter will give me the chance to do that first batch. The aging times for mead are long, so starting one this winter may get some nice mead in my glass next fall or winter.

Other Means to Work around the Cold

You can always set up some kind of heater in a garage. Garage heaters like Modine and Mr. Heater units that run on natural gas are an option if you have the money to do it. Once again, there are ventilation issues to be addressed, not just from the heater, but also from the burner.
Of course, there is electric brewing, which brings your operation indoors with no worry about combustion byproducts. I am not familiar with this, as I have never built such a system. But it may be a viable alternative to consider if you're up for the challenge and there is extensive technical discussion of this aspect of brewing on HBT.

Wood Stove Courtesy of Instructables.com

Keep An Eye On The Weather

I mentioned earlier about pouncing on those rare days when a warm spell hits. If you have all the ingredients on hand, and a packet or two of dry yeast, you can be prepared to pull off a last-minute outdoor brew when a warm front comes through your area.
Be Adaptable
Everyone has their own level of tolerance to cold weather, and there are always those who will be happy brewing in almost any conditions. But if you are like me and want to bring your brewing "in from the cold," there are many ways to improvise.
Happy brewing, and stay warm!
I'm in North Dakota and I'm getting ready to brew later today. Normally I do it all outside. In the winter I'm forced to do everything inside except the boil. Cold weather doesn't keep me from getting a good boil, but wind can be a pain.
Starters an issue? Keep a few packs of dry yeast about. Even if you aren't a dry yeast fan, it's better than sitting on your ass instead.
I'm in Northwest Ohio and the winters aren't as bad as MN but we get major cold as well. I have a side door on my garage and leave that open the entire time. My garage is also not insulated and has a lot of ventilation on the roof due to the age. I have to bundle up nicely but it keeps most of the wind out.
To each their own just don't brew inside like you said without some ventilation. I'd brew inside if my wife wasn't pregnant and didn't despise the smell of grains.
What part of MN are you in? I'm in Minneapolis and do my winter brewing in my front porch. Even with a couple of the windows open for ventilation it gets plenty warm in there to play some cards while the wort's boiling.
Now that I'm in Pgh, and it's winter, even in my garage with the door partially open wind can be an issue...rigging up a windscreen with tinfoil around the base of my burner stand helps. I'm thinking of springing for a new burner like the Blichman Top Tier where the burner is more contained...
One good thing: frigid ground water temps! Immersion chiller gets wort to pitching temps way quick compared with even the coldest ground temps in NC!
I live in ND and brew in the garage. My main issue with cold brewing is supplying water from the hose bib for chilling the wort. 20 feet of hose through snow and frigid temps doesn't do well. But it will chill the beer fast with minimal amount, i keep the run off for clean up. I usually haul water from indoors for the MT and HLT.
Really good article. Read this yesterday late morning. I had Bob Marley in my head for 2 hours and had no idea why. I came back to comment on the article and realized it came from the title of this article. Well done.
I am a newbie with 5 batches under my belt. I started with full boil extract out on my patio. I am in the Northeast and although winters are much tamer then MN, I plan on moving to the detached garage. Good news there if I blow it up, the house should be okay. I snagged 2 Mr. Heaters from my father's garage and have an outdoor fire pit. Should be interesting. Really looking forward to getting the wort to pitching temp in no time!
I bought a heat stick from Bobby_M; use that with my kitchen stove & biab. The kitchen sink is right there, no frozen hoses to mess with; nice & toasty!
In the last few years, electric brewing has come a really long ways. Between ebrewsupply.com, Kal's legendary website, bobby_m's latest inventions, etc... its much easier to get into it, especially for those with fewer tools and DIY experience.
One thing to try for those surprise warm weekends: go ahead and brew, store the finished (boiled) wort in sealed plastic containers as you might for a no-chill method. https://www.homebrewtalk.com/wiki/index.php/No_Chill_Method
Then you can do a yeast starter, and pitch when the yeast is ready.
No need to avoid brewing because your yeast wasn't started in time.
We are also in Minnesota. I have been mashing and batch sparging indoors, heating the water on the stove. Doing the boil outside on the deck just steps from the kitchen, then bringing the pot inside to use the wort chiller Other than having to carry a heavy pot it works well, this also saves propane.
Did a Christmas stout the other day. It was -10c outside, took a 85,000 BTU burner on full to keep 7g boiling. Tried in the garage but crazy humidity on everything. Better off brewing more in the fall and have beer on hand for the winter.
Eh as long as it isn't raining or snowing too hard I am brewing. I have an electric rig that is well insulated. Just can't brew inside do to condensation.
Most reason why we mostly brew outside/garage in first place is because our significant other hates the smell the wort leaves in the house
On cold days I mash indoors using my stovetop to warm my strike water. I do biab and when mash out time comes the operation moves outside. This cuts my outside time in half.
When it is cold out, put water bottles outside to freeze to use in an ice bath or with a recirculation systems for cooling wort. I just crack the roll up door on the garage a bit and brew out there. It is warmer in the basement, but I worry about CO buildup using a burner down there...
In North Dakota as well. I figure if I can fish in the winter, I can brew in the winter! Yes I do make some modifications to my process. I use the garage with the windows open and door cracked as my "fish house" to stay out of the wind. It stays plenty warm in there with those propane burners fired up! Instead of filling up the HLT with filtered hose water, I use 5 gallon water jugs. And who needs to run a wort chiller? It is literally freezing out! A few minutes in the snow bank and its down to pitching temp.
After using natural gas for years to fire up my kettle I made the move to electric brewing. I resisted doing so for a very long time but moving to a new place forced the issue. Now that it's done I couldn't be more happy with electric brewing, it really is quieter, more efficient and cleaner than propane or natural gas.
So now I'm brewing indoors in an insulated but unheated garage with the garage door open about an inch to allow fresh air in to feed the exhaust hood. The garage stays warm and the fan removes moisture and brewing aromas and everything is out of the wind, rain and snow.
I live in Australia and would love to have the type of conditions you're taking about to brew, cleaning up would be a pain but chilling would be a dream!
Pretty much "no-chill" the majority of brews I make (unless it's an IPA with a heavy hopping schedule) because chilling takes so long and wastes so much water in a land where we are pretty water conscious.
The grass is always greener I guess! ;)
I simply do everything inside and just setup my propane burner/kettle right outside my front door (which is next to the kitchen). The only 2 times when I have to use the burner is to bring the mash water up to the right temp and for the boil. These 2 tasks can be done pretty much unattended. So I spend almost no time outside. Just pop out quickly when it's time to add the hops and other additions to the boil. I cool the wort in my kitchen sink with the wort chiller connected to the faucet.
the apple ciders are super easy and great to make and remember if its not sweet enough just add a few frozen apple juice concentrate cans until you like it! :) works great for all my ciders at the end!
@fab80 Here in SoCal you can brew year round, but you trade one problem for another: It's rare a day is too cold to brew, but in the heat, cooling the wort becomes much more difficult, and water consumption becomes a huge problem due to the drought!