22 - 2009

Saving money by brewing your own beer

Late this winter, Mr. Cheap began homebrewing beer.

We’ve talked about brewing for a long time. In fact, he made a few batches 12 or so years ago and lost his brewing supplies in a move. So, around February, we hopped in the car one Saturday, hit the brew store, bought a kit and a recipe and went into business. (Not literally – Americans are allowed to brew for their own consumption, thanks to a 1978 law changed by Pres. Jimmy Carter [don’t you love him?], but not to sell.)

I took a bunch of photos of the process and intended to blog about it, but almost at the same time, Trent at The Simple Dollar posted a Walkthrough and Cost Breakdown of Brewing Your Own Beer. Check Trent’s take out here — he pretty much covers the bases, and sums up the financial picture this way:

The real question is what kind of beer are you replacing with homebrew? If you’re replacing great craft beers with your own homemade beer, your costs will in fact go down – and you’ll have found a very fun new hobby. However, if you’re content just buying some Miller Genuine Draft, homebrewing isn’t going to save you much money (if it saves you any at all).

He concludes that it does save some money, and I agree, although his costs are somewhat lower than ours. (For instance, his craft beer ingredients ran him around $35, whereas ours have typically cost around $50.) This might be a factor of his living in the Midwest, while we are in Denver, with a higher cost of living and near arguably the nation’s microbrew epicenter.

But Bankrate also recently wrote about saving money by homebrewing. Bankrate’s article assumes that most brewer are making craft beers, not trying to imitate American lagers (what Mr. Cheap calls “yellowbeer”). The article explains:

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 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.

The “extract method” means using a combination of dry or liquid malt extract, hops, other malts, water and yeast. Another version of extract method is beer kits that come in a box; brewing snobs will tell you not to bother, although your results and opinions might vary. The alternative is all-grain brewing, which requires a lot more water, a lot more malt and more time — this is the category of the guys brewing in a turkey fryer out on the driveway. All-grain is cheaper for ingredients but more complicated for equipment. (We’re doing extract or “partial malt” brewing.)

How to save even more

The Bankrate article offers a few more specific tips on how to save on your homebrew:

  • Share resources for all-grain brewing, which requires an investment of around $450 to purchase larger brewing kettles, but allows you to brew twice as much beer in the same amount of time.
  • Print labels on paper and use milk to glue them on instead of buying labels — We’ve heard of this, but haven’t tried it. So far, we’re noting a batch code in a log, storing the beer in our “cave” (a.k.a. the closet under our porch) in batches, and marked the code on the bottle caps in Sharpie. Simple does it – P.A. for pale ale, S for saison, S2 for saison, batch 2. If we start giving it away, we might want to do labeling, but at this point it sounds like another chore.
  • Grow your own hops – Mr. Cheap started some hops this year.
  • Save used beer bottles instead of buying bottles (no twist-offs) – New bottles cost around 20 cents to 25 cents each in this area. I posted a “wanted” ad on Craigslist seeking used bottles. One guy offered to sell me his (not necessarily clean) for 25 cents each — no thanks! Then a woman responded with 200 washed bottles with the labels scrubbed off (no small feat). She was willing to give us the bottles in exchange for our filling up some Grolsch flip-tops she had with homebrew. We got about $50 worth of bottles in exchange for giving her about $40 worth of beer (part of each of two batches). She lived right in our area, so we met to swap at the grocery store — easy and a nice way to reuse. I’ve also heard you can ask sushi bars to save large beer bottles — they accept regular bottle caps, unlike champagne bottles, which need a cork or a special cap.
  • Trim an additional $4 to $6 per batch reusing yeast, a method referred to as “repitching” – Mr. Cheap has also tried this, and it worked really well. You can also culture your own yeast, but this seems a bit trickier.

Other advantages

Of course, homebrewing has some other advantages from an environmental perspective:

  • You can try for organic. We haven’t seen brew shops carrying organic malt in our area, but several online retailers do offer it — I won’t link to them since we haven’t tried them, but if you want to offer a testimonial, feel free.
  • Even if you must have ingredients shipped to you, because you supply the bottles and the water at your location, the carbon impact of shipping is far lower. Even more so than the advantages of boxed wine over bottled wine in preventing shipping pollution.

Is nanobrewing next?

For those who want to take it a step further, MSN published this article on nanobrewing last week. That’s making small batches of beer (but larger than a homebrew batch) to sell to pubs. I’m not so sure about the legal red tape on that one, though.

What about you?

The more we talk about brewing, the more it seems that half of our friends have a carboy fermenting in their basement. Do you?

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