I've brewed many extracts but want to get into whole grain brewing. What equipment do I need? Any recommendations for beginner / low-cost grain mills?
I personally don't mill my own grain, my local homebrew shop has a mill and I use it regularly and have produced great beers with it.
I understand that it's better to mill your grain as close to brewing time as possible, but I would suggest, if possible, delay the purchase of a grain mill a bit. I think you'd be better served by getting a great mash tun or a wort chiller (if you don't already own them)
I've got a Victoria Grain Mill. It was about $50. It looks like a Corona mill, but I've read that they are better suited to grinding malt than Corona mills. I don't know if that's true or not, but this Victoria mill works great. The closest store to me is a couple of hours away, including a ferry ride, so I'd much rather be able to grind my own grain. I was a little worried just after I bought it, but it has been great.
I suggest grinding your grain a day or a few days before brew day. An all-grain batch is a big process, and removing this one self-contained part of it makes brew day easier.
I also suggest grinding out-of-doors if possible. Just the dust produced by dumping your grain out of the sacks justifies this, but the grinding will make more mess.
A grinding session, including getting everything out, weighing, grinding, and putting it all away takes me less than an hour. The grinding itself is maybe 20 minutes. My kids love helping with the grinding -- I have to give them a time limit of a minute each at a time. Outside, on the deck, in the sun, handling and smelling the wonderful grains -- it's a great time.
As has been said, the cheapest option is to use your Local Home Brew Store's mill. Or see if there is a local brewery near by that you can befriend.
I found that moving away from the LHBS' mill was a huge benefit.
If you venture out into a more expensive home mill, there are a couple of things you will want to consider:
After googling around a bit I found three vendors in the running for my mill:
I ended up going with the Monster Mill 3 roller w/ 1/2" drive but my gut is any of these are fine products. I "motorized" mine with a Dewalt 1/2" corded screwdriver (12amp hammerdrill). These can also be fitted with a set of wheels and belts to do a more permeant installation.
If you brew by yourself, I recommend getting a good size hopper and rollers big enough for the job. I just put the mill on top of a bucket, dump a whole bucket in the hopper and then crack those (while my water is coming up to strike temperature).
Also, check the gap on the mill ever couple of grinds. Even though I have marked (sharpie) the spot where I have set the mill gap, it does not take much to get out of position. I use my VW's feeler gauges for this.
FWIW, We have been very happy with getting the mill and cracking the grains right before dough in is not problem.
I have a MaltMill and it really gives me a consistent crush which gives me a fairly high malt extraction efficiency percentage. Around 70-80%. It's definitely a higher end mill at around $150.
You can get a Corona grain mill for around $40-50 with some Google searching. That will work pretty well, but not great.
If you get either of the mills, make sure you modify them to work with a drill or a motor so that you don't have to spend 30 minutes cranking away.
Or just do what Nathan suggested and just get it milled as close to brew time as possible.
Have fun with All Grain!
I bought a corona mill for 40 euros (58 USD). Not cheap, but I couldn't find anything else in Madrid and wanted it immediately.
The mill works pretty well, although it is probably not really designed for the coarse grinding we want for malts. It is more for making finer flour. I couldn't get enough separation between the two grinding plates so I had to loosen the lock pin (see image, pin on far left) which made the whole thing wobble about a bit.
However, I have used the mill quite a bit and the grind comes out fine. Or, at least, I usually seem to hit my target gravities with an extraction efficiency of ~70% which is fine by me.