Building Your First All Grain Brewery (Part 2)
Let’s Get Started
Hopefully in Part 1, I was able to convince you that you should start with something basic, and plan to upgrade when you’re ready and know what you want. Even so, what’s cheap to one of you may be expensive to others, so I’m going to give some options. The option you choose shouldn’t be based on the most you can afford, but should be based on a cost that you’re comfortable with, knowing that you’ll be replacing some or all of the equipment in the future. Note that I’m not saying you should trash your “starter brewery” when it’s time to upgrade; instead, “pay it forward” by giving (or selling) it to another aspiring all grain brewer.
All of the following assumes you have at least a large enough pot to boil the full volume. If you don’t, you can get a 10-gallon aluminum stock pot for about $40. I promise you, aluminum is fine. There are many who will tell you not to use it, but now you know different. I brewed in an aluminum kettle for years and made some amazing beer, and not once did anyone notice metallic off-flavors (not even BJCP Certified Judges). I’d still be using it had I not given it away when I upgraded to 10 gallon batches with a converted keg as my kettle. If you still believe the “aluminum causes Alzheimer’s” myth, here’s a link that should ease your mind: http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_myths_about_alzheimers.asp (See point #4).
So, let the others continue to buy expensive stainless steel, while you save a lot of money by going with aluminum. Another option is to check out used restaurant equipment stores – most large cities have at least one – and restaurant equipment auctions. You can find some great deals there. I’d also very strongly suggest getting a wort chiller and an outdoor propane burner as soon as possible.
The Basic Setup
So let’s start with the most basic setup. If your budget is really tight, but you want to get into brewing from all grain, here’s the equipment I recommend. You can literally get started for less than $15 if you shop around, under $25 regardless. Also, if you’re still trying to figure out how much to budget, just start with this! Here’s what you need:
- Large grain bag – about $6: This should have a draw-string to close the top, and the opening should be large enough to fit around the top of your kettle (or bucket, if you prefer)
- Optional 5-gallon bucket – free-$10: Don’t use your bottling bucket here; you’re likely to scratch the inside of it, making it difficult to sanitize later. You can get them at most hardware stores new, just be sure that it’s labeled “food grade” or “food safe”. A great source for used buckets is donut shops, but make sure that they haven’t used it for anything other than food. Don’t use pickle buckets, unless you want your beer to taste like pickles.
- Floating dairy thermometer – $6
- Total: $22
That’s it! You’ll mash in your kettle using the grain bag. Heat the water, put the bag in and put the opening around the top of your kettle. Add your crushed grain. Stir, make sure the temperature is at your target mash temp +/- 1° (generally somewhere between 148° and 155° F), then close up the bag, cover and wrap with blankets, sleeping bags, whatever you have to keep it warm. Alternatively, put the bag and grain into your bucket, and pour the pre-heated water in. Proceed as above. After about an hour, lift the bag out and allow it to drain until most of the dripping stops, then open the top and dump out the grain into the trash or compost bin.
The Next Step Up
Maybe you’re comfortable spending a bit more. If you have a budget of up to $250, I’d use a converted cooler to mash in. If you just want a minor step up from the previous setup, at a lower price point of about $100, you can use an unmodified cooler along with a grain bag, but eventually you’ll want either a false-bottom or some type of manifold. Here would be my equipment list:
- 10-Gallon Converted Cylindrical Cooler – $153 – Yes, I’m recommending 10 gallons instead of 5. It gives you more flexibility. You can still brew 5 gallon batches, but when you decide that you’d like to get twice as much beer for the same effort, you’ll be ready. You’ll also be able to brew 5 gallons of barley wine or imperial stout with this. This converted cooler has been modified with a stainless steel ball valve to replace the plastic valve, and a false bottom to allow the wort to drain, leaving the grain behind. For $47 more, you can get the same setup with a thermometer mounted through the side of the cooler – very convenient.
- Mash Paddle – $26: You’ll want this to stir the mash.
- Total – $226 with thermometer
- If you have more time than money, you can build this same type of setup and save some money. The cooler will run about $60 (as of May of ’12) for the type used here, but others will work as well, including rectangular. Shop around. You would then need to replace the valve that comes with the cooler with a ball valve. Also, you’d need a manifold of some type to allow the wort to drain while leaving the grain behind. See the video at the bottom of this article for how to do this with a rectangular cooler. You should be able to do this for less than $100, but it wouldn’t have the thermometer, so you’ll need to buy a probe thermometer ($6-$40).
With this setup, you’ll heat the water in your brew kettle, then transfer it to the cooler. Stir in the grain, then check to make sure you hit your target temperature. Close everything up, and leave it for an hour.
The Deluxe Starter Setup
Finally, if you’re ok with spending as much as $500, you can get a really nice setup, and you may decide never to upgrade. This setup could also be your upgrade from your starter all grain brewery:
- 10-Gallon All Grain Brewing System with thermometers from MoreBeer! – $400: this consists of 2 10-gallon coolers, modified for use as a mash system. One will be the mash tun, and has a false bottom and ball valve. The other will be the hot-liquor tank, which will hold your sparge water, and includes a ball valve and a sparger that sprinkles hot water gently over the mash.
- Weldless spigot for your kettle – $36 – Not necessary if your kettle already has one, otherwise you’ll really appreciate this addition. Makes it much easier to get the wort to your fermenter.
- Weldless Sight Guage for your kettle – $53 – Not essential, but I really like having one. It’s a glass tube inside a stainless steel sheath that goes on the outside of your kettle so that you can see the volume of wort. I etched marks in the stainless for each gallon. As you sparge, you can see when you have your target wort volume in the kettle, and you can also see how much you’ve lost to evaporation.
- Total: $489
- Once again, you can save money here by putting a lot of this together yourself. Shop around for coolers. If you’re not in a hurry, you can wait until the price is right. Generally rectangular coolers are a bit cheaper. I prefer round as it’s easier to stir the mash, and the grain bed will always be deep enough whether I’m doing 5 or 10 gallons. With a rectangular cooler, smaller batches can result in too shallow a grain bed, which makes it difficult to get a clear runoff when sparging. You’ll need to decide if that’s going to matter to you. For the hot liquor tank, it makes no difference whatsoever. As for the “sparger”, there are a lot of clever ways to keep your sparge water from disturbing the grain bed. One of the simplest is to use about 2 feet of ½” soft copper tubing bent into a circle and connected with a copper T. Use a hacksaw to cut slits into what will be the top side of the tubing, about ½” apart, all the way around. This will rest on top of the grain bed, and will be connected to your hot liquor tank with plastic tubing. As your wort runs off, adjust the flow of sparge water so that you keep your homemade sparger submerged by about 2″. Simple and effective.
So you’ve got options, and you should be able to get started right away. If you are still unsure where to start, again, start with the cheapest option. You’ll learn the process, and you can take your time reading and searching for the setup you really want (a Brew Sculpture?). Have fun!