In my previous post, How to Save Money Homebrewing: Yeast, I mentioned that overbuilding a starter is a great way to multiply your yeast so that you can keep some of it for a later brew day. Well today I wanted to mention one way to reduce the cost of that starter even more. Instead of using dry malt extract (or DME) we’re going to make a starter using a small amount of super cheap grain!
OK let’s get the elephant out of the room here first. DME is an EXTREMELY convenient way to make a starter. Literally add to water, boil and you’re done. This approach, by swapping DME with real grain, will most certainly be more effort and it will definitely take longer. However even though DME is relatively cheap, the point here is to save even more money not time. If you wanted to do both then I highly recommend looking into collecting extra brew day wort or even canning wort for future use instead.
Alright with that out of the way what do we actually need to do here? Essentially a starter is really just a small unhopped beer and we already know how to brew big all grain beers so we just need to scale that down significantly. I’m going to be aiming for a 2L sized starter which should be more than enough to not only bring some stored yeast back to life but also let me split it 50/50 for use on my brew day beer while saving the other half for future use.
In order to get 2L of wort at an ideal starter OG target of 1.020-1.030 I figure I need approximately 1lb of base malt. Any base malt you happen to have lying around can be used for this but I chose 6-row because that’s the cheapest malt my LHBS sells.
Now in an ideal world you could use the Brew In A Bag (BIAB) method for this but in the spirit of being cheap, and because I don’t actually have a brew bag, I decided to just use a simple cooking pot and lid.
I added about 2L of water to my pot and placed it on my stove top, brought it up to my strike temp of ~165F / 73.8C, then I cut the heat and added in the grain making sure to stir and break up any clumps just like you would with a normal mash. This gave me a mash temp of about 152F / 66.7C. I put the lid on top and let it sit for an hour.
While that was happening I dug out some left over yeast I had in a mason jar sitting in my fridge. This gave it a chance to warm up a bit to room temperature while I continued to prepare the starter.
An hour later I added about 250ml of 170F / 76.6C water as my sparge liquid and stirred that in. I like to let it sit for about 5-10min because I find that gives me better efficiency.
The last step for this mini-mash was to simply drain the liquid into a different pot, straining as much as possible so you keep the grain out. And there you have it wort for your starter!
A quick boil and cooling step later I transferred the wort to my sanitized flask. At this point the only thing left was for me to do a quick decant and pitch my yeast.
So did it work? You bet!
OK, OK so was all of this work really worth it? Well at my LHBS I can pick up 1lb of DME for about $7. Standard advice is a ratio of 10g of DME to 100ml of water so to make a 1L starter means you’ll need 100g of DME. Some more quick math tells us that 1lb = 454g meaning you can get about 4.5 x 1L starters out of one package of DME, or in dollar terms $1.55/L starter.
Now, doing the same thing with grain requires about 0.5lb of grain for a 1L starter. Again using my LHBS prices and 6-row as my base malt that equates to $0.56/L or about 1/3 of the price of DME. Put another way, spending the same $7 on grain will get you 12.5 x 1L starters and all of that assumes you aren’t even buying grain in bulk!