By Olivia Lin, Cheapism.com
Whether enjoyed at a barbeque, happy hour, or the big game, beer is the world's most consumed alcoholic beverage (and third behind water and tea). Compared with other intoxicating drinks, a six-pack is relatively inexpensive. Is home brewing cheaper yet?
Well, perhaps. There are costs associated with ingredients and equipment, labor and time to consider. And then there's knowing your palate and your passion. "It's all about the art and the freedom of the craft," says Kevin McGhee, a certified beer judge who's been deliberating at home-brew competitions for five years. "I can customize each batch as I wish."
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The cost of ingredients, of course, depends on the recipe and how much you plan to brew. Beer recipes typically call for some combination of malt, malt extract, grains, hops, yeast, sugar, and flavorings. The Simple Dollar figures that $35 buys enough inputs to produce 42 bottles of porter, which comes out to $5 per six-pack.
How much you spend on the hard goods depends on your budget. Some DIY beer supplies may be waiting in your kitchen: large kettle, funnel, stirring spoon, measuring cup, strainer, thermometer, pot. Other items, including an airtight bucket, air lock and stopper, and siphon hose (an auto-siphon makes things easier), are available at local breweries or online. You can also invest in carboys (large glass jugs for long-term fermentation) and a racking cane, which is more efficient for transferring beer than a siphon hose. For bottling the beer you'll need clean bottles, caps, a bottle capper, and a bottling tip.
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All told, figure on spending about $100; used equipment is cheaper. (This checklist details everything needed for home brewing beer.) But beware the rising investment if this becomes a serious hobby, cautions Zack Kinney, president of New York City Homebrewers Guild. Ten cents a beer is certainly cheaper than $2 or $3, he continues, but DIY brewers who get caught up in the thing inevitably wind up buying more and pricier equipment. "At this point," he says, "I don't think any of us are actually saving money."
Beginners who aren't sure about making a substantial investment should consider a starter kit. We found two 1-gallon kits -- American Pale Ale Brew Your Own Craft Beer and Northern Brewer Small Batch Starter Kit -- for less than $50.Each includes equipment and enough ingredients for about 10 12-ounce bottles.
The time and labor invested in DIY beer (including cleaning the supplies) is not insubstantial. The intricate five-step process includes boiling the malt extract and hops, cooling and fermenting the mixture (called the wort) for one to two weeks, transferring the fermented beer to another container or keg for bottling, and aging the bottled beer for another two to six weeks. McGhee says extract brewing takes two to three hours on brew day and another one to two hours to bottle; all-grain beer takes longer. (Using a keg saves time, he adds.) While you're at it, you might as well brew a large batch. Kinney notes that it takes just about as long to brew six bottles as six gallons.
Ingredient costs are ongoing but the investment in equipment is recouped over time. Spending $40 on the raw materials for a 5-gallon brew and $100 on equipment works out to $2.40 a bottle for the first batch. Subsequent batches will cost about 74 cents a bottle. The cheapest store-bought beer we found at our local market in New York City rounds out to $1.17 a bottle.
The bottom line: If you're satisfied with an inexpensive six-pack of Bud or Miller Lite, it's probably not worth the expense and the effort to brew beer at home. If you're into unique craft beers that sell for more than $10 per six-pack, and you enjoy creating and customizing recipes, have at it.
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