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.
For a premium domestic beer that costs $5.50 at retail, you break even after the fifth batch. If Rolling Rock is a favorite, you’d spend about $250 before breaking even on homebrew costs, but would save a bundle compared with the typical pub costs.
Here’s where things get a little strange. If you wanted a discount domestic beer that retails at about $3.50 and is the kind of stuff you probably drank in college, you’d have to brew an astonishing 55 batches to break even. For example, to match the simple taste profile of Pabst Blue Ribbon, 55 home-brew batches later, you’d match retail costs at around $1,725, based on startup costs of $75 and batch ingredient costs of about $30.
The quickest path to break even is found with the trendy, pricey, hop-heavy craft brands that can retail for as much as $18 a six-pack. You’ll break even on batch No. 1 if you’re trying to match the biting and bitter taste of a Bell’s Hopslam Ale with an alcohol content of 10 percent by volume.
Most home-brewers do their brewing right in their kitchens because it doesn’t require a lot of equipment. “If you have a big pot for making soup or stock, you’re already halfway there,” says Glass.
He recommends purchasing an all-in-one startup kit, which runs about $75 and has a six-gallon fermenting bucket with lid, a hydrometer for measuring alcohol and 144 bottle caps. Bottles can be purchased separately. Prices for beer-making supplies tend to be better online than at retail brewing-supply stores. Some sites to purchase beer-making products include Northernbrewer.com, Austinhomebrew.com and Morebeer.com.
Extract vs. all-grain
If you’ve picked your beer type, it’s time to pick one of two brewing methods: extract brewing or all-grain brewing. For first-time brewers, experts recommend extract brewing. It requires less startup cost and can be done on a standard kitchen stove with a five-gallon stockpot.
In extract brewing, refined malt sugars processed from barley are combined with boiling water and hops, and steeped with other malts to create a wort, which is the liquid mixture boiled in a stockpot before yeast is added. It is then cooled and fermented. The entire process takes three to four hours.
“The vast majority of people are content to do this and can still make great brew,” says Erickson.
Even though all-grain brewing can save on time and supplies, especially if you team up with other brewers, startup costs to make 10 gallons run much higher — as much as $204 for a startup kit and $90 for an outdoor propane burner. A turkey fryer can do the trick but you’ll have to shell out another $120 for a kettle. All-grain brewing requires boiling the full volume of a batch and can tax a standard stove.
Saving time and money
If home brewing ends up too time consuming and the adage “time is money” rings true for your lifestyle, you might eventually want to go with all-grain brewing and buy a 15-gallon kettle for about $180 and an all-grain system startup kit for about $259.
“You could be making twice the beer per investment of time. You can make 10 gallons in just about the same amount of time you can make five gallons (of extract beer),” says Erickson.
For Chad King, a professor of environmental science at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio, all-grain brewing is a major timesaver.
“I think it’s a good hobby to get into as a joint venture with people to share equipment and have everyone brew on the same setup. You can split each batch you make and reduce costs even more,” King says.
Over the years, King has also found more ways to cut costs.
He prints labels on his home printer and uses milk as an adhesive, instead of ordering the pricey custom sticky labels.
King also grows his own hops. Starter plants run only about $5 and after a few years can provide a good crop of hops. It’s helped King to cut costs, especially as a worldwide hop shortage has driven prices to unseen highs of $4 an ounce compared with a normal range of $1 to $2.
King estimates his average bottle of homebrewed beer costs 40 cents or less and compares in taste and quality to retail beer that sell for $8 to $9 a six-pack.
Cutting costs further
The uber-frugal home-brewer can cut costs even more. Here are some suggestions:
- Save used beer bottles instead of buying bottles. Twist-off bottles won’t work though.
- Trim an additional $4 to $6 per batch reusing yeast, a method referred to as “repitching.”
Keep it clean
To avoid a big loss on ingredient costs and a pit of regret in your stomach, an unwavering fidelity to cleanliness and sanitation is a must.
“You don’t need a clean room and biohazard suits,” Erickson says. For sanitary purposes, never transfer beer in a moldy basement. If mold spores get into the sugar in your brew before the yeast does, you’ll literally end up pouring money down the drain after the batch turns bad.
Sanitation supplies are relatively cheap and costs run less than $1 a batch. A bottle of acid-based sanitizer runs about $15.50 and equates to 160 gallons of sanitizer. Sanitizer is used to rid bacteria from bottles as well as the rest of the brewing equipment.
If you’ve decided to pool resources by going in with a few friends eager to cut a ballooning beer tab, more savings can be found if your little cabal of brewers decides to buy supplies in bulk.