This is how we brew it!

Hilariously cheesy blog title aside, I wanted to take some time to break down a simple AFFORDABLE all-grain brewing system.  I’ve had a few people online and down at the store ask about getting into all-grain brewing, but being turned off by the obnoxious amount of money it would cost them.

So here is my guide, to an effective but affordable all-grain brewing system.  I will say the same thing I say down at my store all the time however, buying quality equipment even if it costs a few bucks more, is the only way to make the brewing process more enjoyable but also reliable.  With that in mind this cost efficient system, satisfies the need for quality brewing equipment while also keeping SWMBO happy.

The workshop

I’m writing this blog as I sit outside in a sweater!  I love brewing beer in the fall, I think it is the best time of year to brew.  Not to mention ambient temperatures are usually pretty good for fermenting a variety of different beers.  Today I am working on brewing 2012’s final batch of 11:11 Brewing Summer Vibe American Pale Ale.  This is my summer version of the APA, light and easy to drink, infused with some soft citrus flavors but malty enough to stay balanced.  You could think of it as a fuller bodied, meatier, less shandy-like version of a summer ale.  I’m brewing this beer today for two reasons.  One I am trying to hold onto the last inkling of summer and secondly this beer is named after a song by one of my favorite bands of all time Walk Off The Earth.  I’ve been talking to them and showing them photos of the beer named after their song “Summer Vibe” and I promised to get them a case of it when they came back into town…so it is time to hold up my end of the bargain.

Before we continue, here is a quick look at W.O.T.E. and the song that inspired this beer.

All right now that I’ve shared that with you, lets start breaking down the essentials…

Everybody who has brewed extract beer has most of the key basics but here is the list regardless.  If you don’t have any of these things then regardless of the style of brewing you are doing GO GET THEM!!!

Brew Kettle Stainless DSteel 20 qt. $49.95, (2) glass carboys 1-6 gallon for primary fermentation and 1 5 gallon for secondary $90 total, Hydrometer $7, auto-siphon $13, wort chiller $80, Bottling bucket w/ filler $15, capper $18, stirring paddle $6, dial thermometer $12, scale $15, stoppers airlocks and tubing $10.

My sanitizing station along with all of my hops yeast and tools set up for a day of brewing

My sanitizing station along with all of my hops yeast and tools set up for a day of brewing. Of course there is a beer poured!

So as you can see a complete extract setup is going to cost a little over $300 dollars.  Obviously there are more basic setups and you can find stuff used, but any brewer who is doing extract that is contemplating the jump to all grain should have all of these items in their inventory.

The next question is what else do you need to make the jump.  First let’s look at the brew kettle situation.  When brewing extract, more often then not we do “partial boils”, this means we only boil 2-3 gallons of wort and then add water into the primary to bring the total volume up to 5 gallons.  When doing all-grain we want the capability to do full boils, in other words boiling 6.5-7 gallons of wort that after evaporation will total 5 gallons.  In order to do this you are going to need a larger brew kettle.  I suggest a stainless steel kettle of 10-11 gallons.  This is large enough for the full boil and also has enough head space to make boil overs somewhat difficult.  A new kettle this size can be found online at the homebrew emporiums website for $105.  The good news is that your older kettle is still useful and can now be used as your HLT. (hot liquor tun) The HLT is used to heat up your mash and sparge water.  You may be wondering why you can’t just use the same pot to heat up all of this water, and the answer is quite simple.  After your mash, a brewer must drain his intial runnings before sparging.  Therefore those first runnings are drained into your new large kettle.  With wort now in that kettle, a second kettle is needed to heat up the sparge water.  That is where your old kettle becomes useful.

HLT (right) and brew kettle (left) MLT in the background

With a new brew kettle in the fold the next important item is a MLT or mash lauter tun.  This is where the grain is put to be mashed and turned into a liquid housing the fermentable sugars.  There are a variety of different things that can be used as MLT’s.  Stainless steel kettles and Keggles or converted kegs are two of the options.  However getting your hands on a keg and plasma cutter can be difficult, and stainless steel brew kettles can be expensive, so what can we use as a cheaper but just as effective alternative.  Enter the igloo cooler.

Many of us already have a 10 gallon igloo sitting around the house.  By simply making a couple of changes to it we can turn a basic cooler into the perfect home MLT.  Personally I prefer the cooler setup to other setups because they are insulated.  Unlike kettles and keggles which must be kept on a flame in order to hold temp, coolers can hold temps for extended periods without the need for flame or hot water.  Therefore while they aren’t as flashy as some other items they are extremely effective. These coolers can be found everywhere (I prefer the chest style) and with a little work $20 should be able to net you a quality cooler if you don’t already have one.

The Mash Lauter Tun

In order to convert a cooler into an MLT a couple of items are needed.  First a kettle valve will be required.  Ultimately a shut-off valve to allow the flow of wort from the MLT to the kettle, many people will try and sell you valves that are 50+ dollars.  While these valves are nice and well worth the price, quality valves that absolutely do the trick can be purchased for a mere $20.  To go along with these valves some sort of filtering screen will also be required.  False bottoms, braided coils and bazooka screens are the three most popular options.  For our cost efficient but still highly effective system I suggest the use of a kettle or bazooka screen.  These mesh screens come into two different sized fittings 1/2 and 3/8 and screw right into the interior portion of the kettle valve.  This screen helps prevent any of the grist from floating into the kettle valve and into your brew kettle.  A bazooka screen, like the valve costs about $20.  The only other thing that is needed to complete the conversion is a small shank, tailpiece and hex nut used to attach tubing to the exterior part of the kettle valve, allowing the wort to flow into the kettle.  All of those pieces together should cost another 10-15 dollars, making the grand total of the MLT with a little bit of searching about 70-75 bucks.

An inside look at the MLT showing you the setup of the bazooka screen

So we have added a new brew kettle, an MLT and the fittings to go with it to our brewing setup.  Ultimately that is everything that is needed to start all grain brewing.  So for less than $200 the cross from extract to all grain brewing has been reached.  This is a giant difference in price than what a lot of places will tell you the upgrade will cost.  Lots of places suggest spending between 700-1000 to move into all-grain brewing.  While the equipment that consists of is great and works incredibly well, for most of us it is financially unfeasible.  No one should be scared of moving into all-grain brewing because of price.  While the brewing process is more involved and takes more time, effective equipment can be purchased and set up for a very affordable price.

I will throw a quick add-on to this post, and share with you a few other items that would enhance your all-grain experience.  While all of these “toys” are helpful they are not necessary to getting started with all-grain brewing.

Complete Brew Day setup

Refractometer: ($60-100 for a good one)  These tools are somewhat similar to hydrometers as they allow the user to read sugar content and decide what the beers gravity is.  There are a couple important differences between this tool and a hydrometer which make it superior however.  First this tool reads in plato/brix instead of gravity.  Secondly, these units are ATC or auto temperature corrected.  Therefore you can take your brix reading at any temperature, and don’t have to worry about letting wort cool or dealing with temperature corrections.  Finally, only a drop of wort is needed to get a reading with a refractometer as opposed to needing enough to fill up a testing tube.

a traditional refractometer

The only real negative to a refractometer, is that it is not accurate once alcohol has been created.  Therefore a refractometer is ideal when reading pre-boil and original gravity, but a hydrometer should still be used when reading final gravity.  While that may appear as a big negative, the ability to test hot wort prior to beginning fermentation is absoultely a dream come true when it comes to brewing, and the refractometer becomes a very useful and enjoyable tool.

Digital Thermometer: ($30)  Dial and lab thermometers take forever to get a reading and must be calibrated.  Infra-red thermometers are cool, but honestly, I don’t trust them.  This leads me to my recommendation of a digital thermometer.  You can get accurate readings in 5 seconds.  Can change between celcius and ferenheit with the click of a button, and most of them have magnetic backs allowing you to attach them to brew kettles for easy use.  With all-grain brewing, temperature control becomes your best friend.  Between getting the right water temp for mashing and sparging, to making sure mash temp is correct and holding, the ability to take fast accurate readings will ensure quality results with an all-grain batch.

Stainless Steel Mash Paddle: ($35) I’m not talking about a little paddle, or even worse a spoon, I’m talking about a big, sturdy stainless steel mash paddle, with a paddle big enough to easily stir through the densest grain beds.  Dealing with plastic spoons or paddles with very little surface area can become tedious.  Having a paddle that allows you to stir out cold pockets in your mash quickly and easily will not only make life a little easier but will help with a more effective mash.

Tiered Burner System: ($150)  Now there are obviously much more expensive tiered systems out there, but a basic simple two tiered system, such as the one I have, made by King Cooker makes the all-grain process much easier, and, in case you are interested in doing multiple batches in a single day, helps you expedite that process.  The king cooker system comes with two burners, a 105,000 BTU burner and a 60,000 BTU burner.  These two burners along with a stand to hold your MLT will put you in a great brewing situation.  For those looking at one of the king cooker systems I suggest taking a peak on ebay.  While they aren’t designed specifically for brewing they do give brewers a cost efficient way of having a multi-tiered system.

This thing is fairly inexpensive, durable and does a great job when it comes to brewing.

Starter flask and stir plate: ($110 for both)  Yeast starters are a great way to prep your yeast prior to fermentation.  It gives the yeast cells time to multiple making the yeast culture more prepared for introduction into the beer.  It checks to make sure the yeast is viable and healthy and when making a big beer (high ABV) makes sure that the yeast doesn’t get shocked when being mixed with to much potential alcohol.  Flasks are a great vessel for making starters and generally are heat friendly.  Stir plates, while a luxury, allow the starter to be placed on a magnetic plate.  By introducing a small stir bar (magnet) into the starter the plate spins the magnetic helping introduce oxygen to the yeast and get it to start multiplying.  I will suggest that if using a starter a foam autoclavable stopper should be used instead of a conventional airlock.  Yeast needs oxygen and the foam stoppers allow enough oxygen to seep into the starter helping create a healthy culture.

Notice the flask and stir plate on the right side. (also shown scale, refractometer and important chemicals.

March Pump and Cold Plate: ($230 for both)  Cold plates are amazing.  They cut the amount of time to cool down a batch of beer incredibly.  Depending on how many plates the chiller has, (you can find a 30 plate chiller for around 80 bucks) the time it takes to cool 5 gallons can be between 5 and 15 minutes, instead of the usually 45 minutes a wort chiller takes.  Most of the available chillers can be used with a gravity feed, but the cooling time takes longer and the process is much more tedious.  If possible these chillers should be paired up with a march pump which will push the hot wort through the chiller at a quicker rate allowing you to maximize the capabilities of the chiller and cool down the wort as quick as possible.

A “30” plate chiller. There are connections for water (in and out) and for the hot wort that is being chilled.

March pump, used to push the wort through the plate chiller.


Obviously there are a lot more toys, but that is a look at a few upgrades that any all-grain brewer would be happy to have.  While all of those toys are great, the important thing to take away from this blog was the intial startup fee it would take to do an all-grain batch.  While there is a small startup fee, the money that will eventually be saved on ingredients, and the satisfication you get from having complete control over your beer cannot be replaced.


Categories: Beer

1 Comment

Leave a Reply