The following guest post is from Billy Broas. Bill is a beer blogger at BillyBrew.com and lives in Denver, Colorado. In 2006, he had a “beer epiphany” when he tried a craft beer and was blown away by its flavor and complexity. Once he learned how to brew his own, there was no looking back.
Home beer making is undergoing a surge in popularity. I believe a combination of factors, including a rising interest in craft beer, more DIY attitudes, and the locavore movement, account for the upwards trend.
I’ve been homebrewing for 6 years, making everything from standard pale ales to beers with ingredients like chocolate, tea, and lime. Throughout this brewing journey, I’ve discovered a few ways to save money that I hope can help out other brewers or potential brewers.
I’ll say upfront that I never advocate getting into homebrewing just for the cost savings. You do it for the creativity, the love of good beer, and because it’s a ton of fun. Think of it more like golf. You do it for the enjoyment and thrill of achievement. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to save money, however.
Here are some of the best ways to save money on homebrewing:
1. Go all-grain
Almost all brewers start out brewing with malt extract, a syrupy substance that is easy to use and requires very little equipment. A step up from that is all-grain brewing, the way the pros do it. Whether or not all-grain saves you money depends on the brewer you talk to.
It will be cheaper for you to brew each batch because grains are cheaper than malt extract. Where those savings get erased, however, is when you start to geek out with equipment.
There are some all-grain systems that look like they were built by NASA. They are automated, pump-driven, and very expensive. It is difficult to pay back the cost of these systems.
On the other end of the spectrum you have the MacGyver systems, pieced together from old pots and coolers and requiring lots of manual labor. Don’t be fooled by these ragtag set-ups though, these brewers often make the best beer. They also pay back the cost of their equipment much quicker than the NASA brewers.
It’s also worth checking out the brew-in-a-bag (BIAB) technique, a newer method of all-grain brewing popularized by Australian homebrewers. The cost of entry into BIAB is dirt cheap as all you need is a pot and a large bag.
2. Buy ingredients in bulk
This is the Sam’s Club method of brewing, and mainly applies to buying grains and hops. Go to the homebrew store and you’ll pay around $1.60/lb for malted barley. You can save on that by buying malt in bulk, and can easily get your cost down to $0.70/lb.
Most homebrew stores will sell you grain in bulk. Here’s a directory to help you find a local shop. Prices can vary dramatically between stores, so shop around if you have that luxury. Another great place it look is a local brewery or brewpub. Go down there, order a pint, and ask if they will add an extra grain sack to their order.
As an example of the cost savings, if you brew 5 gallon all-grain batches that average 5% alcohol (riiiight) and brew once per month, you could save approximately $100/year by buying grain in bulk.
Hops can be bought in bulk as well. Buy them retail and you’ll pay in the range of $1.50-$3.00 per ounce. A place like Hops Direct will let you buy them by the pound for around $0.60 per ounce. Hop-head brewers who are fond of pale ales and IPAs will see some big savings here. You could easily keep another $75-$150/year in your pocket by buying hops in bulk.
You could even take things a step further and grow hops yourself. Growing wheat or barley is much more difficult, but there are the adventurous homebrewers who do it.
3. Reuse your yeast
Yeast isn’t cheap. Current prices are about $8 for a vial of liquid yeast from one of the main suppliers. Take a tip from the pros and reuse your yeast.
By reusing, you can turn one pack into dozens. If you brew once per month, you could save another $96/year on yeast alone.
From one yeast vial I typically get 4 fresh containers after harvesting. Each one of those containers can be used for another batch of beer, where the yeast can be harvested into four more containers. You can see how it adds up – you could easily have a fridge jammed packed with yeast!
If you need help with this technique, I have an instructional video on yeast washing.
4. Focus on less expensive beer styles
If you’re a hop-head like me, sometimes it’s good to take a hop detox. Hoppy beers like IPAs are hugely popular with homebrewers, but they can be expensive to brew. Buying hops in bulk is one option to save money, but you could also explore the many fantastic minimally-hopped beer styles.
Try a brown ale, porter, or German hefeweizen. The first two highlight the malt, while the last highlights the yeast. Here are some of my favorites from those styles:
- Brown ales: Avery Ellie’s Brown, Surly Bender, Sierra Nevada Tumbler
- Porters: Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter, Dechutes Black Butte, Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter
- German Hefeweizens: Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, Ayinger Brauweiss, Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse
I’m convinced that someday we’ll see a malt-head revolution. Maybe you’ll help lead it?
5. Embrace DIY
If you’re the handy type, you can save a ton of money by building equipment yourself. While you don’t need to know how to weld to homebrew, it’s a huge asset. Not so good with tools? I’m sure you have a beer drinking friend who is. Catch my drift?
Here are a few project you can do yourself to save some money:
- Mash tun
- Brew stand
- Kettle accessories (valves, sight glasses, etc)
- Hop filter
Besides saving some dough, there’s something really rewarding about making something that makes beer.
6. Brew smaller batches
The typical size batch of homebrew is 5 gallons, or about 50 12 oz. bottles. Sometimes that is just too much. I’ve made a few batches that didn’t turn out so hot and was stuck with 2 cases of crappy beer.
There’s no law that says you need to make 5 gallon batches, so try brewing 1-3 gallon batches. You’ll save money and if the beer stinks, you’re not stuck with a lot of it. This advice is especially useful for those “test batches” of some crazy beer idea you had at the bar.
7. Brew lower alcohol beers
There is a big cost difference in brewing a 12% abv barleywine and a 4% abv English brown ale. I usually brew on the lower end of the abv scale to save money and because I don’t want that much super strong beer. Try brewing session beers, a term used to describe beers that are lower in alcohol and are more quaffable. My favorite choices are the British ales like milds and bitters.
Homebrewing is a fun hobby I encourage all beer fans to give it a shot. Sure you could spend a fortune on it if you want to, but the cost of entry is low and anyone can make great beer without breaking the bank. Cheers!