So you wanna brew your own beer…

Disclaimer: In this article, I’m talking exclusively about all-grain brewing, because I’ve never done an extract batch and know nothing about it. There are good reasons why you might want to do extract brewing, and you can make good beer that way. But to me, the mash is the best, most rewarding part of brewing. You haven’t lived until you’ve been smacked in the face with the aroma of a happy mash.

Everyone I talk to who knows I brew my own beer eventually asks me if it’s hard to get started, if it’s expensive, etc. So here’s a post that’ll discuss it at a little more length. The short answer is “it’s not hard, it’s not expensive, and yes, even you can do it”.

Home Brewing is Not Hard

There’s hard, and then there’s expensive. In brewing, the two aren’t necessarily related. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to spend all kinds of money to get an easy-to-use system. Likewise, spending money on stuff can sometimes make your brewing life much harder than it was before you bought the fancy equipment. I can’t tell you how many batches it took us to finally make friends with our pump!

You don’t need fancy equipment. Most of what you need is probably around your house, or available at the local Home Labyrinth. If you’re not completely broke, home brew starter kits are available. At time of writing, morebeer.com has a starter kit for $69, and northernbrewer.com has one for $75. There is absolutely no reason you can’t make fantastic beer with either of them. Seriously, none. They even include instructions.

The instructions may or may not use some fancy lingo, but the basic steps in brewing beer are all things you’re familiar with already:

  1. Make oatmeal
  2. Drain the liquid from it
  3. Boil it
  4. Add hops, and boil s’more
  5. Cool, transfer to a bucket (or something), add yeast, and let it sit for a few weeks.

There you are. Brewing in 5 easy steps. The concepts are all cooking concepts. Things need to be at certain temperatures, for a certain amount of time. That’s all cooking is, too: heat, and time.

So, $75, maybe another $20-30 for ingredients (depending on what kind of beer you brew), and you’re all set to brew 5 gallons of your own beer.

Wait. That’s not quite right. For $75, you’re ready to make as many 5-gallon batches of beer as you want! Which brings us to…

Home Brewing is Not Expensive

In fact, home brewing is less expensive than buying beer in the store. Let’s prove that:

I live in NJ. Where I live, unless you buy Bud, Miller, or Coors, a 6-pack is $9. So, $1.50 per 12 ounces of frosty goodness. That’s 12.5 cents per ounce.

Now let’s say you spend $100 on ingredients and equipment to make a 5-gallon batch of beer. How does that work out?

5 gallons at $100 = $20 per gallon. That comes to about 15.65 cents per ounce, or about $1.87 per bottle and $11.25 for a 6-pack. But here’s the thing: that includes your one time $75 equipment purchase! If your spouse got you the kit for your birthday, it’s nothing. What’s the cost per ounce then?

5 gallons at $25 (ingredients) = $5 per gallon. That comes out to about 48 cents per 12-ounce bottle, or $2.88 per 6-pack.

So now the question is, if you bought your equipment yourself for $75, how much beer do you have to drink before this stuff pays for itself?

Well, we’re working with $9 vs. $3 per six pack (I’ve purposely put home brewing at a disadvantage in the equation for the sake of round numbers). That’s a savings of $6 for every 72 ounces you brew yourself. 72/6 = 12. So you have to brew 12 6-packs. How many gallons is that? 6.75. Your equipment pays for itself before you’re halfway through drinking your second batch of home brew.

It sounds so good it must be wrong. Let’s try it another way. Let’s add up the costs for the equipment kit, and 3 5-gallon batches of beer:

$75 for equipment

$75 for ingredients to make 15 gallons of beer.

That’s $150 to make 15 gallons of beer (and note, there are ingredient kits that’ll have you making beer for under $20, but I digress). All told, you’re looking at $10 per gallon, and it comes to $5.63 per 6-pack. Let’s call it $6 per 6-pack, for a savings of $3 per 6-pack. At a $3 savings, you now need to brew 25 6-packs to break even. How many gallons is that? 14 gallons, or less than three batches of beer. If you only brewed once per month, your equipment would easily pay for itself by Labor Day.

It’s a Hobby!

This has been a good exercise. There are things that could add to your initial expenses. You might spring for a shiny new pot to boil in if you don’t have one already. There are things that could cut your costs too — go to a deli to get those buckets (that’s what their pickles are shipped in) instead of paying for the kit, and save bottles from parties so you don’t have to buy them.

Another thing that might justify the cost is that it’s a hobby, and people really should have hobbies, and no matter what your hobby is, it’ll cost money. Hobbies are good for your mental health, and brewing is a great hobby to get friends or the spouse involved in. Matt and I brew year round, and the wives won’t have anything to do with that, but in the summer, they’re out there with us. My wife and I brewed our first batch of beer together with Matt leading us along. It was great fun.

As time goes on, you’ll likely want to buy or build fancier equipment. Check out a book called “Brew Ware”, which has great ideas on how to save money by repurposing stuff around your house for use in your home brewery. Otherwise, northernbrewer.com and morebeer.com likely have anything you could ever dream of adding to your brewery.

Really, home brewing is as hard or easy as you want to make it. On the ingredient end of things, if you decide to study chemistry to understand your mash better, and microbiology to understand your yeast better, more power to you — but it’s not necessary to make awesome beer.There are also people who culture their own yeast (Matt’s starting to do this for the Bamf operation), grow their own hops (I might go this route this year), get deeply obsessed with things like kernel sizes of various brands of grain… It’s all pretty unnecessary. You can make awesome beer without this amazing depth of knowledge.

The equipment part of the equation can be as complex as you want as well. There are folks with all kinds of fancy electronics, heating elements, pumps, computers, etc. I’m a geek, but I kind of like the fact that brewing is my one break from geeking out (at least as far as computers are involved). When Matt first taught me to brew, we were using a coleman cooler for our mash tun. It was probably the same cooler his mom bought him for our fishing trips when we were in middle school, so… free to us.  Our sparge consisted of us taking turns ladling hot water over an upside down bowl sitting on top of the mash, so that equipment was around the house already. Our chiller was a counterflow chiller Matt made by putting some copper tubing through a garden hose. There are instructions on the web and in books on how to do that, and if you want to go even simpler than that, you can still just sit the whole thing in a tub full of ice for a while to cool it down.

Nowadays, we have added a pump, and a Shirron chiller, both of which we love. We’ve replaced our Coleman cooler with a converted (legally obtained) beer keg, and added another keg for a boiler, and yet another for heating sparge water (the “hot liquor tank”, or HLT). We also brew in 10-gallon batches now, and we do it outside on one of those cajun cooker propane burners. So, our equipment costs went up, but we brew, on average, 10 gallons every 3 weeks until we have no more vessels to ferment in, and our efficiency is greater than it would be in a plastic bucket setup, so our savings per batch is higher.

In the end, we still consider it a hobby, but it’s progressing, like most hobbies do, whether it’s model planes or stained glass. You get better equipment, you do more different things with it, you spend time and energy to learn more about it, you spend more money. At least the outcome of our hobby helps justify the cost in real dollars in addition to being incredibly satisfying.

2 comments to So you wanna brew your own beer…

  • [...] So you wanna brew your own beer If you’re not completely broke, home brew starter kits are available. At time of writing, morebeer.com has a starter kit for $69, and northernbrewer.com has one for $75. There is absolutely no reason you can’t make fantastic beer with …    [...]

  • [...] by admin on February 11, 2009 If you’re not completely broke, home brew starter kits are available. At time of writing, morebeer.com has a starter kit for $69, and northernbrewer.com has one for $75. There is absolutely no reason you can’t make fantastic beer with … View original here:  Bamf Beer » So you wanna brew your own beer… [...]

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