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.

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.

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.

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.