smart spending

Brew beer and save a frothy mug-full

  • Premium microbrews are cheaper to copy than mass-produced brands when compared to pub prices.
  • It's surprisingly inexpensive for a start-up kit, and there are Web sites where you can save.
  • With two methods of brewing, you can choose between cost savings or shorter brewing time.

Does the recession have you contemplating the lifestyle of a teetotaler? It's arguably an unnecessary expense, but one of life's simple indulgences: a pint of cold beer.

If austerity doesn't suit you, yet cutting back on libations is a necessity, making beer at home can be a decidedly frugal hobby, especially for the high-end beer drinker favoring complex microbrews like porters and stouts.

"Brewing beer is about as difficult as making soup," says Lance Erickson, vice president of customer service at Northern Brewer, an online distributor of home brewing products with a retail store in St. Paul, Minn. "The actual process shouldn't be intimidating. You are just boiling liquid, cooling liquid down and then putting it into a container and allowing it to ferment for a few weeks. That's it."

Homebrewed beer is a practical and budget-minded choice that offers a quick return on investment, especially if you make frugal choices from the get-go and don't mind waiting a month for fermentation before taking that first sip.

In fact, of all the libations you could choose to make, beer offers the most practical, budget-minded choice. Starter kits run about $75, can be ordered online and offer everything you need for a debut batch.

"How many hobbies do you have that you can save money on?" says Charlie Papazian, author of "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing."

"With a small investment, you are having a good time and a beer, and the satisfaction of knowing you made it for 25 percent of what you would probably spend on it at retail," he says.

Papazian's recommendation for first-timers: Avoid top-dollar equipment right out of the gate.

"You should spend less than $100 and get basic stuff, and then once you've discover(ed) how much you enjoy it, parting with a few dollars to get the better stuff doesn't feel uncertain," he says. "The most sophisticated equipment you should ever buy is a bottle capper."

Perhaps counterintuitive, the hardest beers to brew at home aren't the pricey specialty microbrews, but the ubiquitous name brands like Budweiser. A good rule of the thumb: The cheaper the beer, the longer it takes to recoup costs.

"The craft beers are more flavorful, so if there are any mistakes, they won't be as obvious," says Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association, a 17,600-member organization based in Boulder, Colo. "For those just getting started, I suggest brewing a stout or porter ... because those beers can cover up small flavor flaws."


So how long will it take to recoup the initial equipment costs? Not long, especially compared with the typical beer tab at a pub or restaurant.

The cost of homemade beer

To analyze the cost of  home brewing, start thinking in batches, not six-packs. A batch equals five gallons of beer or nine six-packs.

For a premium microbrew -- such as a stout, porter or India pale ale -- that typically retails for about $10 a six-pack, you'll break even by the second batch using the extract method, even sooner when compared with pub prices. For instance, if you wanted to make a batch at home similar to a Stone India Pale Ale, which usually runs about $6 a pint at a pub, you'll break even on batch No. 1, spending just $120 for a five-gallon batch, compared with $240 at a pub.

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