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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Is Homebrewing the Cheap Choice?

In these depressionary times, the mind of the young beer drinker turns not to fancy, but cheap beer. But not any cheap beer--good cheap beer. Sales, mooching; good options both, but they require serendipity's intervention. The young beer drinker does not like to wait for opportunity, the young beer drinker makes his opportunity. And so too shall he make his beer, cheaply!

Well. While I encourage every lover of beer to take up the ancient art--it aids enormously in understanding and, by consequence, appreciation--don't be lured by the promise of cost savings. There are ways to minimize cost, but there's an initial start-up cost. If you're a modest drinker, you won't make back your initial investment for months ... by which time the recession may be long over.

Initial Investment
In order to brew, you need equipment. A brew kettle obviously, and a carboy for fermentation, but also a lot of smaller objects that add up quickly: thermometer, tubes and canes, fermentation locks, a funnel, strainer, bottle-capper, etc. Once you buy all that, you're in the hole for around 150 bucks minimum (starter kits, usually around $100, don't include a kettle). That's 19 six-packs, and we haven't even bought the ingredients for our first beer.

Ingredients
Brewers generally start with extract-based recipes. Extracts are cheaper more expensive than whole grains, so your cost is a bit higher (but you didn't have to spend money on a mash tun). You also need hops, specialty malt, and yeast. All together, you can expect to spend at least $30--and if you're going for a high-gravity beer with a variety of different hops, liquid yeast, and specialty malts, you could easily spend twice that. If you're at the low end, you've cut your per-bottle beer price in half (yay!), but if you're at the high end, you're barely breaking even (hmm). Let's say you're saving an average of $2.50 a sixer. At this rate, it will take you eight batches of beer to make back your initial investment. Actually, it's your 38th gallon where the savings start. But that's if you haven't been spending money on things like wort chillers and imported hops and additional carboys, which, if you've made it to your eighth batch, you probably have.

Time
All other things being equal, this is the real investment. Homebrewing is labor-intensive. You'll put in six or seven hours getting a batch from store to basement. A lot of this time is scrubbing and lugging. If you mash your beer, it takes even longer. Many homebrewers find their interest waning because they don't just don't have the time.

Efficiencies
Eventually, homebrewing can really save you money. You can plant your own hops, transition to all-grain brewing, even recycle your yeast. Your equipment costs start to drop away. If you did all of these things, you could bring your costs down to $10-$20 for even the most expensive beers (mainly it's the cost of malt). It's difficult to start out this way, though--you tend to get to this place by increments.

___

I am happy to be corrected on the following point, but it is my experience that no one who becomes an engaged, accomplished homebrewer does it because it's cheaper than buying beer in a store. If you take up the craft to save money, you'll instantly find everything working against you--it's expensive to get started, it's time-consuming, and it's almost a dead certainty that your first few batches will be inferior to beer you buy. (You aim for Pliny, you brew a murky paste. Tasty!) On the other hand, if you take it up because you have a fascination with beer and love tinkering with recipes, it will draw you in. Eventually, if you keep at it, you might notice that, hey, you're actually saving a few bucks. That's a pleasant by-product, though, not the real reason for the young beer drinker to brew. Go back to mooching if you just want to save money.

15 comments:

dr wort said...

Jeff,

Sounds pretty "right on."

Only one typo.... Extract is "MORE" expensive than Grain. You intended to say that, but flipped it around.

One "funny" thought... If you want to save money home brewing beer it can definitely be accomplished, but if the $150 start up cost is too much money... You probably should be paying your bills rather than buying or drinking any beers... ;-}

BTW, how does one "mooch" for beer? That sounds rather lowly and degrading, unless you're among friends. Of course, if your friends have beer, they must have money and job.... So, it might be better to ask them to get you job, then mooch the beer. Kill two birds with one stone! :-O

Fowl Birdwatcher said...

ehhh, the startup with good equipment and a first recipe for me was around $350. i do mini-mash, and bottle in 22oz bottles. Since i find myself buying a lot of Stone beer, and i have already made a damn good Stone IPA clone, it's saving me quite a bit - $60-70 for a hopped out the ass recipe where i can get 25 bottles versus $4.99-$5.99 for a single bottle is quite a bit of savings imo. It also depends greatly on the homebrew store in your area - Austin Homebrew is great. You can call them with any problems, and they can usually right the ship in no time. Plus the recipe instructions are very detailed, and their startup kits are great. My first batch was ok, but the ones since have been outstanding.

squeaks said...

Agreed, you shouldn't homebrew because it's cheaper, I try to tell everyone that gets into the hobby that you should look at it as something fun to do not something that is saving you money. If you are doing extract brewing you really don't need a lot to make batches, I think too many people get caught up in buying the prepackaged homebrew kits because it's easy but really all you need is a good sized cooking pot, a fermenting bucket, and a few odds and ends. Hell I've gotten people the proper equipment to brew for like $50. The other thing that is not true is that you "can't make good beer from the start" if you follow basic methods like the ones on howtobrew.com your sure to come out with a very drinkable beer from the start. If you want community help I suggest homebrewtalk.com it has to be one of the most comprehensive forums on brewing ever. All I'm saying is don't worry so much about the economy of brewing but also don't think you can't make good beer. By the way I do all grain and I can make a damn fine pale ale for under $20 for a 5gal batch. Cheers!!

Jeff Alworth said...

The other thing that is not true is that you "can't make good beer from the start" if you follow basic methods like the ones on howtobrew.com your sure to come out with a very drinkable beer from the start.

If you are an Oregon beer geek and your standard for "drinkable" is are the beers of places like Hair of the Dog, Double Mountain, Russian River, Cascade, Roots, etc, you're going to end up disappointed. I don't think there's any way of getting around the fact that a first-time extract brewer will fail to make beer like those world-class standards. Hell, I've been brewing for 15 years and I've only made a half dozen batches that meet that standard.

This is part of the trouble of living in Beervana; beer is really amazing, and the people brewing it now have decades of experience. Homebrewers can't--and shouldn't--expect to meet those standard right out of the gate. (No shame in that, either: I'm sure Jamie Floyd's first batch was murky paste, too.)

Bradley said...

I am waiting on the last few boxes from morebeer dot com, so that i can try my hand at brewing. Beers and meads, I have been sorta making meads at a friends equipment, so i said WTF i should get my own gear, and $825 later, i have put a big dent in my plastic, and should be making my own beer very soon. I hope this works out, if not i know i can sell of most of the gear to friends.

Patrick Emerson said...

I had a neighbor in Corvallis that equipped his garage with a pretty sophisticated home brewery and his brews went straight to kegs stored in a refrigerator. After the initial fixed cost of all of the equipment (he was a tinkerer and an engineer and hand built all of it), he was able to quite easily produce exceptional beer at a very low marginal cost, so it is definitely possible.

But, if you are just a dude in a kitchen thinking about brewing to save money, the start up cost of equipping, brewing and bottling is pretty high relative to running down to the store and buying some beer (that will definitely be better - great homebrew takes a lot of experience). Unless you really enjoy the process, I don't think it cost savings justifies the endeavor.

squeaks said...

Jeff, I do live in beervana just down the road in Salem. I still disagree with you, hell I have a pale ale that I as well as many others think is way better than anything they can get commercially. Sure I do all-grain but people should not be afraid of extracts and steeping grains. The trouble is that many people rely on old ways of brewing and myths that have been perpetuated over the years. You and I both know that there are a lot of myths in homebrewing and one of them is that you can't make good beer with extracts. Here is my recommendation, use the freshest extract you can (even go to dry malt extract as it stays fresh longer), use the late addition extract method, use fresh whole hops, and use a rinse free sanitizer like StarSan. I just got a Coworker into brewing (with extract) and she has been delightfully surprised at the results.

Jeff Alworth said...

Squeaks,

I'll admit, deep in comments here, the dirty truth: I'm an extract brewer. I have done all-grain in the past, but over the past decade, I've found it's too much work. With unhopped dry extract as a nice substrate, I can easily use specialty grains to create any style of beer. I agree that you can make exceptional beers this way.

Where we part ways is that a novice can craft world-class recipes. You just can't. It takes practice, inspiration, and experience. Eventually you get there, but you don't start there.

squeaks said...

Jeff,
I'll agree with you noobs probably can't craft world class recipes, that's why the rest of us craft these recipes. The ones that aren't capable or comfortable crafting recipes can just use our recipes and make good beer without the technical knowledge. The other thing is that there a lot of prepackaged kits these days from sites like Austin Homebrew that will clone a lot of your favorite brews. Now if your talking about "Kit and Kilo" kits, yeah your going to make unremarkable beer. Jeff I just don't want to discourage people that want to homebrew to not homebrew because they think they can't make good beer without years of experience. Also I just wanted to say that even as an avid homebrewer I still drink a lot of commercial brews to support our local economy, I think that's especially important as things are right now.

DR. WORT said...

Over the years, I've taught classes in home brewing. Beginners Extract to Advanced All-Grain brewing.

It's really a progressive hobby if a person is going to be serious about brewing. Dabbling in brewing will only get you so far.

I've seen people get into home brewing for the wrong reasons. Cheap beer is probably a bad reason if you want to make brewery quality beer.

Beginning Extract with some specialty grains will get you a fairly good beer and even though extract has come along way over the past 20 years, it still doesn't always produce the quality of beer people would compare to a real brewery. Not saying the beer won't be good, just not as polished.

"Drinkable" is a ambiguous term. I can make Lemonade that's too sweet or to sour and it can be definitely drinkable, but if I can't stand an overly SWEET Lemonade... It's NOT drinkable for me, so it's a failure. Fortunately, even basic brewing should give you "Favorable Drinkable" results.

Some people expect brewery quality beer right from the beginning at a cheap cost. They will probably be disappointed, unless they don't mind lowering the bar a few notches and some people are fine with that level of beer. Others get quickly discouraged and stop home brewing.

It's really depends on your expectations.

I remember teaching a group of well-heeled suits on basic home brewing. I started by giving them three different home brewed pale ales. All were basically the same beer, but brewed at different levels of brewing advancement; Extract, Partial Mash (Extract and some grain) and All-Grain.

I explained that their is a progression to the hobby... You start here and "can" go there. It depended on their preference.

They all wanted the All-Grain beers. That's fine, but they need to learn the basics before they jumped into all-grain brewing. Plus, there's a lot more science, knowledge, skill and costly equipement needed to brew all-grain beers. They all left and never took the class! But, they were all grateful that I explained what to expect from the different levels of brewing.

So, home brewing doesn't bring instant satisfaction in some cases.

It's a hobby that will cost money, just like any other hobby. The deeper you get into it, the more it's going to cost.

In addition to the cost and comfort level of beer quality, there is the process of brewing. It can be simple or can be very complex. It's a hobby that requires cooking, cleaning, lifting, measurements and learning the brewing process. A lot of people I used to teach thought there's just an A-B-C process to brewing. Well... There is, but "A" could mean that you open a can of extract and pour or "A" can be understanding the process of Mashing Grains and understanding Scientific Thermodynamics and effects of pH, Water Ratios, heat application and the like. This could included using a computer program to calculate effects of mashing temperatures on the mash, plus about a half dozen other calculations for Grain additions and Extractions. That's a BIG step "A"!

I would never detract someone from home brewing, but I would advise it's more than boiling water and throwing in some yeast. It's important to note, brewing is a science, as well as, a skill and an art. The end result will reflect on the effort, education and interest of the potential home brewer.

To conclude: Is home brewing a cheap choice to acquire beer? The answer depends on your personal preference on the quality of beer and the effort you're willing to put forth.

iggir said...

i'm under dr wort's essay so no one will probably see this ;)

one thing you forgot to factor in Jeff is the beer you drink while you're making beer (and bottling it), hah.

my wife and i made our first beer in November. we bought a starter kit from Steinbarts for $100 which included a "canned" recipe - in this case, an IPA. we spent another $50 or so on a stainless steel pot.

the recipe did not turn out to be anything close to an IPA, but after a month and a half (give or take) in the bottle, it's got it's own home-brewed mystique.

once i got over the initial disappointment that it didn't come out an IPA, i began to really enjoy it.

i gave a bunch out at work (west-side!) and it was roundly lauded as a "good" beer.

so, my first was a success...been dormant this month, but i plan on firing up a stout in Feb.

squeaks said...

Dr. Wort,
You make a lot of good points but I hesitate when it comes to all-grain being really hard and technical, it's really easy and can be done fairly cheap. Search for brew in a bag on homebrewtalk.com it really doesn't have to be complicated, hell I mash in a 10 gal water cooler and get 80% efficiency and hold a temp of 152 easily for an hour. Extract beers will most likely taste different than their all-grain counterparts but mostly people go all-grain to have more control, I still have a couple of bottles of a beer I made with extract some time ago and I can't tell the difference between it and my all-grain brews.

dr wort said...

I was curious, so I went to the homebrewtalk.com. It's a homebrew forum, but I found directions for simple Infusion Mashing Technique in a cooler. Is that your mashing method? Do you use a brewing program to figure out your Strike temp? Do you find the need for a mash out? What your Grist capacity?

Yes, an Infusion Mash is relatively easy and needs little additional equipment. I guess the science can be as easy or complicated as you make it. I guess once you understand the difference between Alpha and Beta Amylase you can pretty much make it through a mash.

....and a MAsh Water Adjustment calculator can get you through at least one Mash temp change or a mash out if needed.

Something I forgot to add in my last post:

Once you have an All-Grain system in place the cost factor drops off.

squeaks said...

Yep that's it, I do a single infusion mash in a 10 gal rubbermaid cooler. I have never used software to calculate my strike temp (I do have a spreadsheet for calculating efficiencies and mash water volume), usually what I will do is add 165-170 water depending on grain temp and weight and stir with a mash paddle if I over shoot at bit. I can generally hit 152 easily, the most grain I have been able to fit in my cooler is 23lbs (at a rate of 1.5qts of water per pound of grain) which will allow me to do 10 gal batches of 1.55 OG beer or higher gravity 5 gal batches, I may step up to a larger square cooler in the future to increase capacity. Some do a mashout but I have found it is not needed. I can expect to get 75%-80% extraction rate with a 1 hour mash fairly regularly on my equipment. Beta...Alph amylase......quite you might scare someone ;)

dr wort said...

Squeaks,

I just like to stir up some interest?

;-}

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