Full Batch All-Grain Brewing in a Small Space

My brewing obsession began when a friend invited me to his house to make beer with him. He had a large house with a basement where he kept all his beer equipment, and his setup was impressive. He had one of those computerized brew stands with three burners, a mash tun, hot liquor tank, and boil kettle with pumps leading from one kettle to the next. Brew day was so easy. The pumps did most of the work, and the equipment monitored everything for us. At the end, he had a beautiful plate chiller that cooled 5 gallons (19 L) of wort in just a few minutes. I brewed my first extract batch of beer on that amazing system.

I immediately fell in love with brewing. My wife, foolishly, bought my first homebrew equipment as a Christmas present. It was just a boil kettle, the basic homebrew kit you buy from any homebrew store, and some glass carboys. (Don’t worry, honey, this is all the equipment I’ll ever need. Ha!) At the time, we were living in a large one-bedroom apartment with a storage unit in the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois. I kept all my brewing supplies in the storage unit, which had space for a fermentation chamber for my two carboys.

Then, we decided to move to a smaller one-bedroom apartment near downtown — it totaled a whole 800 square feet (74 m2). Many people would balk at the idea of living in a place this size even without brewing gear. I wasn’t opposed to the tight quarters, but I wanted to make sure that I could brew, and brew all-grain, in this apartment. But that would take some planning. How do you brew full-scale, all-grain batches in a small-scale apartment?


The typical all-grain homebrew system is too bulky for small apartments. You start with a hot liquor tank that holds the hot water for the mash and the sparge. From there, you pour the water into the mash tun, usually a rectangular or cylindrical cooler. The wort drains from the mash tun into the boil kettle, and the hot liquor tank supplies more hot water for the sparge. After the boil, you transfer the cooled wort into the primary fermenter followed by secondary fermentation shortly thereafter. On bottling day, you transfer beer from your fermenter into the bottling bucket for packaging.

That’s a lot of equipment. It works for many homebrewers who have a space that can look like a laboratory all the time, where they can store hoses, tubes, coolers, and kettles on bare-bones shelving. They can brew in the backyard with a propane burner and a three-tiered brew stand, because there’s enough space to store it without
interrupting everyone’s lives.

When you live in an urban center, you almost never have the luxury of extra space. I know several people who moved from their suburban homes into the city center and left their brewing equipment with a friend. They promised that they’d brew just as regularly, but it is so much more effort to drive out of the city just to brew. It never happens. Chicago’s CHAOS homebrew club found an imaginative solution. They maintain a brewhouse, and their members pay a monthly fee to brew and ferment there. However, I wanted to be able to brew without needing to travel, which means brewing right here in my small apartment.


The most important thing for an urban homebrewer is to find an apartment that can handle homebrewing. It isn’t about how many square feet you have but about how it’s laid out and your fixtures. Check the apartment to see if there is enough storage space for your equipment or enough space to build storage.


A good heat source makes beer brewing much better. No one likes to wait for their water or wort to heat up. Brewers who have more space might opt for a specialty burner that they can set up in the backyard. Without a backyard, however, you need to find an apartment that has a gas stove. An electric stove might suit everyday cooking, but it is nearly useless for brewing. In Chicago, gas stoves are rare in rental units, so it might take some effort to find one where you live. When my wife and I went apartment hunting, we didn’t even look at units with electric. We were persistent, and found a stove perfect for brewing. My boil kettle goes on the left side, and fits over both burners to give maximum heat.

When you are looking for an apartment in which you can brew, bring along your measuring tape and the measurements for your brewing equipment, especially your boil kettle, to make sure it fits everywhere you need it to. Measure the clearance space between the stove and whatever is above it.


When you are brewing in an apartment kitchen with limited counter space, the best possibility is having the kitchen sink close enough to the stove so that you can hook your immersion chiller up to the sink without having to move the pot from the stove closer to the sink. However, that’s often not possible. In that case, you want a counter that can withstand the heat from a brew kettle so you don’t have to worry about protecting them. Most countertops are made from Formica: It’s cheap and pretty durable, but it can’t handle heat. If you set a hot pot on it, it will scorch. There are numerous heat-resistant materials for countertops. The most common is granite, but you can find wood, stainless steel, quartz, and others.

If you do have Formica and have to place your kettle on the counter, there are options. You can buy an inexpensive slab of granite from a home improvement store, cover the counter with a few layers of towels or blankets, or get a heat-resistant cutting board. Just make sure what you use is large enough for the bottom of the whole boil kettle so it’s easy to set it down correctly and safely. Landlords don’t take kindly to scorched countertops.


The kitchen sink is the water source for a brew day in a small apartment. You’ll use it to get water for the mash, for the sparge, and for cooling your hot wort. A normal kitchen sink can’t accomplish that on its own. Most sinks don’t have the clearance to fill a large enough vessel for the mash, and they don’t have hose hookups.

The only way to get the kitchen sink to work is to attach an adapter to it so you can hook up a hose. Even sinks with an extending spout won’t work with an immersion chiller. When you look for an apartment, make sure that you can unscrew the aerator on the spout and that there is some sort of accessible threading on it. You can easily find adapters that will fit at your local homebrew or home improvement store.


Once you have found an apartment with the right equipment, the next challenge to brewing in it will inevitably be the size. The standard brewing system has too much equipment and takes too much space, both in storage and in the kitchen on brew day.

Brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) is the easiest way to reduce the amount of all-grain equipment you need. Brew-in-a-bag is a way to combine your mash, hot liquor tank, and boil kettle into one piece. The basic BIAB setup starts with a boil kettle. You place a bag made out of a food-safe, mesh material in the kettle, preferably something that washes easily. Fill the kettle with water, and heat it to the strike temperature. When the water hits the right temperature, add the grain, and mash. After the mash is over, pull the mesh bag with grain out of the kettle and drain the remaining wort from the wet grains. Some brewers add a sparge step here, but it’s not necessary. Boil, cool, and ferment. The method is perfect for a small apartment, because it reduces three vessels to just one by eliminating the mash and sparge vessels.

To do BIAB, I start by placing a vegetable steamer insert on the bottom of my boil kettle. I prefer this to buying an expensive false bottom, because I can cook with the steamer. I don’t have space for single task tools.

I line the boil kettle with a mesh bag that gets filled with the grains for the mash, and then add the water and heat for the mash. When the mash is over, I use the stove burner to get the mash up to mashout temperatures. The vegetable steamer keeps the heat from scorching the bag, but you still need to stir frequently so the whole mash gets even heat.

Most boil kettles are stainless steel or aluminum, and both are great at allowing the heat from the stove to move quickly through the metal into the mash. It also means they lose heat quickly. I use a cheap sleeping bag (again, a nice dual-purpose piece of equipment) to insulate it for the mash (take the kettle off of the stove while the sleeping bag is being used to avoid the risk of fire). Most of the time, the mash temperature doesn’t drop more than a degree or two during a 60-minute mash.

While many brewers like BIAB because you don’t have to include a sparge step, my equipment isn’t large enough to do a 5-gallon (19-L), no-sparge batch. When the mash is done, I pull out the bag and let it drain. I move the grain to my bottling bucket, pour the heated sparge water over the grains, and stir a few times. After about 10 minutes, I remove the bag, drain, and add the sparge liquid to the boil kettle.


After the boil is complete, I carefully move the kettle to the counter next to the sink and use an immersion chiller to cool the wort to fermentation temperature. The water in large apartment buildings is never very cold, so it can take a long time to chill 5 gallons (19 L) of wort to the right temperature. After the wort drops below 100 °F (38 °C), I fill my bottling bucket with ice water and tuck my hose in the cold water to pre-chill the water before it circulates through the chiller.

Since I have so little storage space, it might seem like the immersion chiller is just another piece of equipment. Why not cool my wort in an ice bath in the sink? The chiller doesn’t take much extra space, because it fits snugly inside my bottling bucket along with the other large tubes and hoses. More importantly, brew day engulfs the entire apartment, so no one can use the space for anything else. To keep the family happy, the clutter of brew day needs to get put away as fast as possible, and I’ve found the immersion chiller cuts some valuable time that would be left waiting if I went the ice bath route.


Of all the steps I have taken to improve my brewing process, fermentation temperature control has produced the most dramatic improvements in my beer. It is fundamental to producing quality beer, but it also takes equipment and space.

In a small apartment, fermentation control needs to be both the right size and inconspicuous. It can’t make too much noise or be too ugly, since my wife has to live next to it. Most fermentation control solutions don’t do that well. A modified chest freezer or refrigerator takes up too much space, and no one wants that in their living room anyway. A swamp cooler, which is a T-shirt draped over the fermenter and set in ice water, is both unappealing and messy. Glycol and water chillers require a water source, pumps, and space. They are all too large or too noisy to sit in my living room.

I use BrewJacket’s immersion cooler pro. It is an immersion cooler that draws heat up an aluminum rod and disperses it into the air. It fits everything I need for a small apartment. It is small. The rod fits inside the fermenter and the cooling unit is smaller than a basketball. It also comes with a black cooling jacket, so it isn’t as much of an eyesore as other solutions.

You can also get fermentation insulation jackets that have space for frozen water bottles. They are nice enough looking that they can sit in the corner of a room or in the back of a closet, and they are small enough that they are easy to store between batches.


Storage was the most important piece for brewing in my small apartment. When apartments are small, the closets are too. We have one small bedroom closet with just enough space for most of our clothes, but there is no space for homebrew equipment. Closets and cabinets in the rest of the apartment also have no availability for homebrewing gear. So, that means I have to store everything in my kitchen or living room — which, again, means it needs to look nice. An open shelf showing all the tubes and hoses just wouldn’t fit with our decoration scheme.

Our solution was a wardrobe from Ikea. It is large enough to store everything I need, from bottles to boil kettle, behind a nice looking door. We set up the wardrobe in a corner of our living room, and it looks like just another piece of furniture.

If you pack your equipment efficiently, you can get everything you need into one of these wardrobes. The bottom level stores my fermenters, since they are by far the heaviest item in the brew cabinet. As you can see in the picture, there’s enough space for two FastFerment conical fermenters, their insulated jackets, and my immersion cooling units on top.

On the next level up I have my boil kettle, sleeping bag, and bottling bucket. I store most of the equipment I need for the brewing and bottling process — the tubes, hoses, and small tools — in the boil kettle along with the bag for BIAB. I store the larger implements, like the wort chiller and auto-siphon, in the bottling bucket.

There’s a shelf for bottles, both filled and empty. I learned the hard way that you can’t store all your full bottles on one shelf as they condition. While it’s inexpensive, the compressed wood shelves can’t handle a lot of weight. The shelf bowed, so now it holds mostly empty bottles with my filled bottles scattered throughout the wardrobe. The top shelf stores my miscellaneous equipment, extra parts for the fermenters, chemical additions, and various other equipment.

When I tell people I brew in my small, city apartment, most don’t believe me. With a little creativity and the right place, it can be done. Even better, with everything neatly organized, I have ample space to entertain friends for a homebrew party, complete with food and beer. Homebrewing takes a lot of equipment, needs an accessible water supply, and plenty of heat. While a lot of space may be ideal, with a little creativity you can still find a way to brew full-scale batches in a small-scale apartment.

Issue: November 2017