One last recommendation...purchase a propane burner from Academy for $29 bucks and a refillable propane tank from HEB for $45. Do your boils outside and save the mess cleanup and angry vitrol from your wife if you happen to be married if you boil over. Outside all you need is a hose. Plus you can sit around and drink brew in the great outdoors.
After reading a lot of these posts I have the impression that homebrewing is going the way of golf and fishing. Guys are by nature, gadget or "stuff" oriented. Just as women are gatherers and subject to the depredations of the Home Shopping Network, us guys are always looking for the next self sharpening spear or one with a bit longer shaft in order to kill the cave bear more easily. The truth of the matter it is pretty easy to make good beer without $1500 in equipment. Do I have a lot of equipment I don't need? Absolutely. I have a pH meter, an optical saccharometer, two stainless converted keg brewpots and a stainless mashtun. But I also use an old home made copper tube immersion chiller I hook to the garden hose. I don't have a plate counter flow chiller or a recirculation pump or a $1200 three tier brew stand. Sometimes I think we are as bad as the women and certainly as bad a golfers when it comes to our suseptibility to getting the next high dollar gadget. Might it me "gadget envy" at work? lol.
In any event, you can do all grain brewing without a huge investment. The biggest thing is a large pot. I started out with one, a 15 gallon brewpot/ mash tun. I heated my water in two 5 gallon pots on the stove and did my mashing outside. I had to gather my runnings into food grade buckets after the mash and sparge, empty the grain then return the wort to the pot to boil. I then got the two converted kegs from N. Brewing Supply and now use one as my hot liquor tank and the other as my brew pot. I got a lot of equipment at a ridiculously low price on Craigs list in several lots from brewers who had gotten married, ending their brewing days (thisis a known hazard guys, so beware!). I got a mashtun, pot, bottles, hydrometers racking and siphon tubes, supplies, caps, capper and a lot of other stuff, for $200. Thats right. $200. I had a lot of the stuff already, but there were some things I didn't.
My point is there are sources of cheap equipment. When a store is the only game in town they usually over charge. Years ago I got several 6.5 gallon carboys at the brew shop in San Antonio for $20 and change, while our venerable shop here in town was charging $22 for the 5 gallon variety. Shop around on line. Even with the shipping you can sometimes find good deals.
Do the math. Will that $200 counterflow plate chiller REALLY do anything to make your beer taste better? Probably not. In fact, it is more of pain to clean than my home made $30 copper coil immersion chiller that I only have to hose off. It chills my wort just fine in about 15 min using probably about $2 in water if that.
I know we are all suseptible to the urge to upgrade, but even doing all grain, there is a break point at the home brew level where we aren't buying stuff to improve our beer, only to build our egos. lol.
It is better to look to the basics like water, mashing, fermentation temperatures and the like when trying to improve our beer. A new fancy $300 blichman brew pot is not going to make any better beer if you basics are flawed, no more than a $400 titanium custom driver will make your golf better if your swing is lousy. Putting crappy wort in that blichman is like putting lowtest ethanol laced gas in your new Porshe.
In the final analysis, it is the basics, not the equipment that matters. Make your own mashtun out of two 5 gal plastic buckets if you don't want to spring $50 for a cooler and another $20 on copper tubing for the manifold. I still use an old comforter to insulate my mashtun. It works fine. Nessesity is the mother of invention. desire is the father of improvisation. Yeah, we aren't Yankees but there is a lot of Southern ingenuity too.
I think this forum is mostly populated by homebrewers right now. I've been out of the game for a while, but I will be getting back into it soon. I'm thinkin of making a big stout and using the second runnings to make a dark blackberry beer.
Of course then you have a bulkhead. I used vinyl tubing (it fit through the cooler spigot nice and tight, so didn't need a bulkhead), with a cpvc valve on the outside. it worked flawlessly, but it was a pain. i needed two hands to open/close valve (since it was connected to vinyl tubing, it wasn't rigid, one hand to hold valve, other to open it)
So lots of the things you mentioned above, no they don't make the beer better, and i don't know anyone that would say that, however, they make your life easier. As of last brew, I spend the $35 for an all SS valve and bulkhead. It costs more than the mash tun itself, however, it makes my life easier. I can open/close it with one hand.
Same with blichman pots. they have sight glass, thermometers, valves, flase bottoms, sparge arms, etc.... all this makes your life easier, not your beer better. if you're handy and have tools, you can do almost all of this yourself for cheap. If you're not, you either spend the money, or do it w/o these luxuries.
I think next up, maybe feb-march, will be a grain mill so I can start buying 50 lb bags of 2-row and wheat.
Where was you lookin at a mill at? I've been considering the same thing, got a little more money right now than I thought I would have, and have been considering setting up large buckets to hold grain, and milling it myself. I want to become completely non-reliant on LHBS. Have to wait until spring to start growing some Cascades again tho. >_<*