In June, my friend Garrett and I started brewing our own beer. In retrospect, I’m not sure why. I know it’s something we had been talking about for months, if not years. We both loved beer, to be sure. And we liked the idea that if we got good enough at brewing we could experiment with our own recipes and eventually come up with something original.
And then there was this post on Lifehacker, which certainly piqued my interest. The idea that brewing your own beer at home could actually save you money? That pretty much sealed the deal for me.
But is it true?
For those who’d rather not read the rest of this post, I’ll summarize my answer now: sort of, but not really.
Below, you’ll find a more detailed explanation. By the way, prices are as listed at Northern Brewer, the shop Garrett and I use.
Equipment and Supply Costs
First, let’s go through your basic equipment needs. I’m going to approach this post from the perspective of someone who’s interested in spending as little as possible — i.e. someone not interested in purchasing a $300 brew kettle, a conical fermenter or any other kind of advanced equipment.
Absolutely Necessary Brewing Equipment:
• “Basic” Homebrewing Starter Kit: $74.99
• Brew Kettle: $37.99
Not-Necessary-But-Incredibly-Helpful Brewing Equipment:
• “Better Basic” or “Deluxe” Homebrewing Starter Kit: $109.99 or $156.99, respectively
• Bottling Tree: $51.99
• Wort Chiller: $63.99
Basically, you can buy all the equipment you need for $121.60, after tax. If you’re willing to spend $334.67, however, you can get a much better setup that’s going to make brewing and bottling a lot easier — although it won’t necessarily produce better brews.
Now, let’s look at what you need to actually brew the beer.
Beer Ingredients and Bottling Supplies:
• Recipe kit (includes grains, malt extract and hops): $17.99 to $79.99, depending on type of beer
• Dry yeast packet: $1.10 to $6.75, depending on yeast variety
• Priming sugar or carbonation tablets: $1.15 to $4.50, depending on type
• Bottle caps: $3.25 (144-count bag, will get you through three-and-a-half batches)
• One Step sanitizer (5-lb. container, will get you through multiple batches): $23.99
• Beer bottles: $0 (?)
Cost Per Bottle
Now, let’s run through a scenario…
To keep the costs down as low as possible, let’s say we’re brewing a Dry Irish Stout. The kit costs $19.99 and the yeast $3.50. For priming sugar, let’s go with a packet of Munton’s Carb Tabs at a cost of $2.99. The bottle caps will cost $3.25, but let’s spread that out over three-and-a-half batches for a cost of 93 cents per batch. The cost-per-batch of the sanitizer is a little harder to calculate; I bought a 5-lb. container of the stuff several beers ago and Garrett and I have barely put a dent in it. To be conservative, let’s say we use brewing and bottling one batch of beer will cost us $3 in sanitizer.
After tax, ingredients and supplies for one batch of Dry Irish Stout are going to cost us around $35.23. From that, we get approximately 5 gallons of beer, which in my experience amounts to about 41 standard bottles (12 fl. oz. each). Your cost per beer, then, is going to be approximately 86 cents.
That’s not too shabby. Eighty-six cents per beer is equal to $10.32 per 12-pack. If you consider that a 12-pack of Fat Tire might run you $17.07 after tax at your local liquor store, you are saving as much as 56 cents per bottle. Of course, a 12-pack of Summit might only cost $12.90 (you’d save 22 cents per bottle), and a 12-pack of Miller Lite only $10.75 (you’d save less than 4 cents per bottle). Clearly, the amount of money you save by homebrewing depends on what kind of beer you would normally buy.
The Real Cost
Now we have to factor in the cost of the equipment. Even if you went with the cheap setup at a cost of $121.50, you can see that it’s going to take quite a while for you to break even. If you’re saving 56 cents per bottle (sticking with the Fat Tire comparison), it’s still going to take you until your sixth batch of beer before you start to see any actual savings compared to what you would have spent on the store-bought brew. Six batches is about 30 gallons of beer, or roughly 246 bottles. I hope you’re thirsty.
Of course, if you went with the more expensive setup at $334.67, you’re going to have to make 15 batches of beer before you break even — that’s 75 gallons of beer, or about 615 bottles.
This is basically the predicament in which Garrett and I find ourselves. The reality is, we’re not saving any money by homebrewing. I would venture a guess that nobody really does. Keep in mind, even the optimistic scenario laid out above assumes a number or things, i.e.: (1) that you’re sticking to the cheap recipe kits at the homebrew shop; (2) that you would normally buy an expensive craft beer like Fat Tire at a liquor store; (3) that you don’t end up with any spoiled batches of homebrew; and (4) that you’re not giving any of your precious homebrewed beer away as gifts to eager friends and family, which, let’s face it, you will be.
On top of all this, economically speaking, there is the opportunity cost associated with spending several hours every few weekends brewing and/or bottling beer. Of course, the brewing process is part of the fun — in fact, it’s pretty much the whole point of homebrewing — and that’s really the bottom line. Homebrewing is for those who have a genuine fascination with the brewing process. There are plenty of prepackaged options already waiting at the liquor store for those who just want to drink good beer.