Sure, making a starter is cheaper than buying multiple vials of yeast, but the accuracy, scheduling, and waste of fermentables bothers me. However, it may seem like a necessity to better approximate the pitch rate required if you don't have a microscope. I don't think any one will disagree when I say that yeast is a major cost contributor to the beer.
So what's a better way to get the ensure the correct cell count for your beer?
For a 5 gallon batch of a standard ale with an initial gravity of 1.060, 200 billion cells are required. There are several ways this can be achieved.
1) buy two yeast vials (2 x $8 = $16)
2) buy one yeast vial and use a 2 liter starter ($8 + ~$2.00 = $10)
3) buy one yeast vial and pitch into less wort. ($8)
With the third method listed the cost of yeast is half of what it could have been! Starters themselves are not as accurate as they may seem. Sure Yeast Calc and Mr. Malty give you three digits of precision, but I would be surprised if they are within 25% of the cell count predicted with a wide variety of yeast strains. (I'll be doing a post on that soon)
When pitching yeast, the important thing is to have the correct number of cells per volume of wort. Instead of increasing the number of cells needed for the wort, the amount of wort can be reduced to the appropriate volume for the number of cells you have. For the 5 gallon 1.060 case here, one vial of yeast has half the cells we need so these should be pitched into 2.5 gallons of the wort. The following day, once fermentation has picked up, the remainder of the wort can be added. Viable cell count can double within a few hours of the start of cell division. (blog post showing that coming up as well)
Viability of the yeast you pitch may be a concern. Sure, when the yeast left White Labs for your local home brew store it had very close to 100 billion cells, but what is the condition when you picked it up for your brew? Test I have conducted indicate that loss of viability is very slow with refrigerated yeast. In fact, I have seen no noticeable drop in viability over the course of a month of the slurries in my refrigerator. I would imagine that professionally packaged yeast would only preform better. (Blog post detailing this on this coming December 25th)
One concern you may have with this method is infection. Because a large percentage of the wort remains for 24 hours without being inoculated the chance that something else may get a head start is a possibility. However, if you make sure to sanitize everything, there should be no issue with holding the wort for a day before pitching.
On brew day sanitize two fermentors. Chill the wort and pour half into each one. Pitch the yeast into your primary fermentation vessel, and seal both containers. The following day, just like a starter, your yeast will have grown significantly. Pour the wort from the second container into the primary fermentation vessel. As a bonus, pour as vigorously as you like. Aeration is beneficial at this stage of fermentation.
An alternative to a second pail would be to keep the wort in your boil kettle and seal it up. My boil kettle is a pressure caner, so this is an easy task. If you are using a traditional kettle you may need to get creative. An alternative would be to pour the hot wort into a large expandable water container as done in the no-chill method.
It's that easy. No starter make or clean. No delicate scheduling to ensure you have enough cells on brew day. There is only one more thing to sanitize which should take an insignificant amount of time when done in parallel to sanitizing you primary fermentation vessel.
Apparently this is similar to a German technique known as "Drauflassen"
For discussion on this topic see this thread started on the AHA forum: