Homebrewed Beer: Make Your Own and Save Money?

By Marla Walters on 27 March 2010 (Updated 27 June 2011) 33 comments

A brewery has been born in my kitchen. There is a huge stockpot, with foam clinging to the sides, a giant thermometer, something that looks like a thermometer but isn't, mysterious tubes and tubing and oddly-shaped brushes. A bag of "carbonation drops" (which look just like lemon drops, except that they are white) sits in a box, along with bottle caps, a capping apparatus, and other small things I cannot identify. As I write this, I am looking at a six-gallon glass "carboy" (a huge, heavy, bottle) full of future beer in our dining room. For a while, our house smells like a brewery, but in a good way. (See also: 21 Great Uses for Beer)

My husband decided to give homebrewing a try last December, when a friend of ours served his homemade beer with lunch at their home. It was fabulous. We tried two types — a pilsener and an ale — and we were hooked. The most amazing thing, though, was our friend claimed it was cheaper than buying.

Wait, you say, not necessarily. Correct. My husband drinks what I'd consider to be mid-priced beer: Primo, Kirin Ichiban, Heineken, St. Pauli Girl, Corona. He likes some microbrews, but they are not usually in our beer budget. If he were a "Bud Light" guy, this would not be cost-effective. But at the price we pay per case (about $22 - $25), this should work out well.

Besides the flavor and the cost, there are intangible reasons to make your own beer. If you have not yet seen the documentary, "Beer Wars," I highly recommend it. As it turns out, fewer and fewer of those mid-priced beers we buy are independently brewed. Most of the beer in the world is brewed by two huge, growing conglomerates. Somehow, for us at least, that takes some of the appeal, or the intrigue, away from trying beers from around the world.

The process reminds me a lot of canning, in that there is a lot of work to be done beforehand, like sanitizing and boiling and mixing. There is also a lot of equipment involved, which is why brewing doesn't begin to save you money until you are several batches in. And, frankly, if you are someone who always has to have bigger, better, newer things for your hobby, it may never save you money.

For equipment, we started at a slight advantage, as we already owned the carboy, a food-grade plastic bucket, and a few smaller items. Trips to two different local homebrew stores rounded out what he needed, at a cost of just about $150. He purchased the homebrewer's bible, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing (Charlie Papazian) and I bought him The Home-Brewer's Answer Book (Ashton Lewis ), each of which retails for about $15, new. We had to save up sixty bottles to start the bottling which only cost us a nickel apiece that we didn't receive for recycling them. If you had to buy the bottles, that would cost much more — about $1 apiece. (Our neighbors obliged by drinking up and saving their bottles to help the cause.)

Roughly, the start-up cost was about $180. Had we needed to buy a carboy and a bucket, it would have been about $50 more. Of course, used equipment, which occasionally shows up on Craigslist, eBay, and at garage sales, could greatly reduce startup costs. My husband saw an offer of a bottle drying rack for free on Craigslist in another part of the country, with the note that a 6-pack of homebrew would be a nice thank-you.

A standard batch of homebrew is five gallons, which should make more than 48 bottles, or two cases of beer. At our usual $22 to $25 per case, that would be more than $44 to $50 worth of beer. The ingredients and consumable supplies for the first batch cost $31, so this represents a $13 to $19 savings on two cases. As you can see, it will take several batches to make back our initial capital outlay for equipment and supplies.

For a microbrew buyer, the break-even point would come much sooner. Like all such hobbies, though, one has to weigh the cost, plus the labor, against the benefits — both tangible and intangible — to make a decision. Yes, the labor is considerable, but the satisfaction of learning a craft, making something so satisfying, making it better than what we normally buy, and having something alive and slightly magical bubbling away in the house, outweigh that, for us. And hey, it's fun.

Day 1 Lessons

  • He started kind of late in the day. It is now 7:36 p.m., and he still needs to cool the batch to "pitch" the yeast in.
     
  • The dogs also loved the smell and have been underfoot, which is annoying. They should be banished outside, but it is pouring rain.
     
  • Give your brewmeister his space. (I totally understand this, because when I am canning, I want everyone out of my way.) I have kept my questions to a minimum.
     
  • He should have marked the carboy with gallon measurements beforehand.
     
  • He should have washed the giant stockpot in which he boiled the wort (water, hops, etc.) after it was emptied, not two hours later.

Beer-making, as it turns out, is also apparently a fantastic male bonding experience. They seem to like talking about beer almost as much as they like tasting it. There is also a local club he can join, which sounds like a lot of fun. They can apparently get together to share their latest creations and talk about brewing.

Being a huge fan of DIY cost-saving items, I am anxious to sample, but am told it takes about three weeks before it is ready to drink.

I will report back when we have our tasting. In the meantime, I feel a mysterious urge to make hot wings.

Disclaimer: Check with your state for laws regarding homebrewing.

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Guest's picture
Eric

I am a homebrewer as well. I enjoy it as a fun hobby and way to have "guy time" with my closest friends. I am a big fan of hard to find microbrews and imports, so this is a great compliment to my beer drinking hobby.

I did not take it up for the money saving reasons you outlined about, I do it for the love of beer. Historically, I have spent about $50-$75 per batch, which ends up being about $1-$1.50 per beer. That is a little less than what I probably would spend on a six pack, but I tend to drink more beer when I end up with 25 in the fridge after splitting a batch with a buddy.

Marla Walters's picture

I just read your comment aloud to my husband and he cracked up and said, "Excellent point - I might drink more beer!"

We noticed the top layer is starting to darken.  Supposedly, this means we're closing in on time to bottle?

 

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm not sure how accurate the "top layer is starting to darken" method is, but I know that taking specific gravity readings and seeing if they level off over the course of 2-3 days is. This is done using what is called a hydrometer. Not sure if you guys have one or not, it looks a lot like a frying thermometer, being a long, cylindrical tube of glass and weighted at the bottom to draw it down into the brew. Mine has 3 scales, one of them being specific gravity. Specific gravity is also something you can use to calculate alcohol content, if you know what the original specific gravity was (taken right before the yeast was pitched).

Guest's picture

Just a bit of a warning: Homebrewing is a very addictive hobby and will eventually cost quite a bit in the long run once you get very serious. I joke that sure my first kit cost $89 for the equipment when I started in 2001, but in total I spent thousands of dollars while constantly "upgrading" my brew equipment over the years.

That being said, it is worth it :)

Guest's picture

Ah, cleaning stuff. Well once the wort has been boiled you have to cool it down fairly fast after you done with the boil. If you have it automated you can leave it to and start cleaning.

Another easier way of brewing is to try ciders (you might call them hard ciders) and other simple alcohols. It costs me 5 euro to get enough apple juice to make 4 liters of cider plus a euro or two for yeast. Two weeks later I have something alcoholic, a month or two more it's a bit nicer :) Grape juice is a decent alternative for making wine.

Guest's picture
Guest

I've had a lot of luck getting my equipment and bottles on Criagslist a a significant discount. I don't think I have bought any equipment or bottles new. I set up a RSS feed for my beer equipment searches, that way I can jump on them quickly.

Ciders are a good way to go, too. I found a local farmer who sells me the raw cider at a discount at the end of the season. I met him at the Farmers Market. The local Bee Keepers have a Mead Maker special deal too.

Guest's picture
Guest

Excuse my ignorance, but is bottling necessary? Can't you store in a keg or some other larger container for home use?

Guest's picture
Guest

Yes you can. At the point you could bottle the beer instead you transfer it into a barrel like one of these.

One additional thing you need is a supply of CO2. Whilst secondary fermentation continues in the barrel its not always enough to keep the barrel pressurised especially after you pull a number in a row or get towards the end of the barrel. In the UK the home brew shops sell the CO2 cannister which you use - the adaptor on the cannister matches the one you can see on the top of the barrels in the picture. You only use 1 second burst to repressurise barrel, don't worry this won't leave you with fizzy beer!

Guest's picture

You'll be able to even get Fb to find you “lookalike audiences” which can be much like
your personal database. facebook marketing services

Marla Walters's picture

Guest, here is what Charlie Papazian (mentioned above) has to say:

"There are many advantages to kegging your beer . . . there are no bottles to wash.  Kegging beer is an incredibly simple process, but it does require an investment in kegs and tapping system apparatus.  The cash you will spend in order to get set up may bother you a bit, but once that expenditure is a memory, you will wonder why you didn't do it sooner.  There are no homebrewers out there who have ever regretted making kegging an option. "

So, yes, definitely an option.  However, it might not be necessarily a cost-saving one, initially. 

Guest's picture
sam

kegging is a good option, but bottling does have a few advantages:
1. portability - a lot easier to bring a six-pack of homebrew to your friend's house
2. less space - as you drink bottles, they can go away. Kegs stay the same size.
3. less cleaning - the lines, connectors and kegs accumulate residue that can harbor bacteria. Rinse the bottle when it's empty, store for the next batch, sanitize, fill, cap, repeat.
4. no refrigeration - you can pop a few bottles on ice as needed, no need to run a kegerator in the basement.
5. expense - bottles come free with every purchase of beer!

I'll do either depending on my plans for the beer (keep or give away) and how many kegs or bottles are around at a given moment.

Guest's picture

Interesting post...I think I might even consider doing this one day. But for now, I will probably just take the easy route...I do like the creative ideas on the posts as well...

Guest's picture
Eric

I have a mate who makes homemade "scrumpy" (british for apple cider), quite tasty really, it comes out at about 50c a litre. Of course the ultimate money saver would be to quit drinking beer and just drink tea instead:)

Guest's picture

An interesting post-- I guess its worth looking into depending on how much you drink the stuff.

I personally cut way back when I realized how much it really cost me, but I guess I would explore this if I ever started "partaking" regularly again.

Guest's picture
Guest

Honestly? Male bonding? I guess I should be grateful to live in a city in the upper midwest where craft beers and brewing aren't held as exclusive "guy time."

Guest's picture
HJackson

Maria and Spouse: I started home brewing in the 90's after taking a "Creative Activities Program" short course in brewing at the local university. My kitchen brewery has evolved into a dedicated brewery kitchen in a converted garage. I brew because the beer is (almost always) excellent. It's not a money-saver if you buy quality ingredients and things like temperature controllers, mashing systems, and wort coolers. It is, however, a satisfying hobby. A couple of tips: 1. Keep a record of your recipes and how well you liked the beer. 2. Cleanliness really is next to godliness when you're brewing. I've bookmarked your site and will be returning for your well-written updates. Good luck - keep us posted. Helene Jackson, McNeal AZ

Guest's picture
kooler

Alas I too became interested in the art during the 90s and began with a frenzy of brewing... The novelty has wore off some but I still enjoy home brewing and learned alot along the way... I recommend having a cylinder of CO2 with regulator on hand altho they're expensive brand new... But you can force carbonate your brew if you're kegging or purge bottles during the bottling phase.. It's real easy to get 'nasties' in your brew if any oxygen is introduced when filling bottles and purging with CO2 eliminates that possibility... My best brew was a brown ale with a packet of honey glaze that came with a ham... Instead of using on the ham I poured it in the wort during the boil... The hint of cinnamon was a hit... Hey, great subject Wisebread - keep up the good work CHEERS kooler

Guest's picture
Ryan M.

One day, when I'm not bound to living in apartments as a way to get by, I am going to look into doing this myself. I honestly am not even that big of a beer drinker, but the thought of bringing something like this to fruition just seems like it would be rewarding.

If I can make something good, it might help me appreciate beer more as well. Another thing to add to the list of "things to do when I have money."

Guest's picture
fairydust

I thought it would be fun to try home brewing since DH is/was such a beer drinker and always enjoyed trying new beers. We got a Mr. Beer kit for Christmas one year, and for awhile it was a fun couples thing to do. I'm not entirely sure it actually saved us any money at all, but we enjoyed the experience. After awhile, though, it became MY task to do everything while DH continued to drink the end product. I got pretty fed up with all the work involved and eventually sold everything off on ebay. So, yeah, it's fun, and if we'd had a bigger kitchen where 2 people could move around without constantly bumping into one another, it might have continued as a project for both of us to enjoy. :)

Guest's picture
Nick

Welcome to the addiction that is homebrewing!

A couple of quick comments:

Maria said:
"He purchased the homebrewer’s bible, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing (Charlie Papazian) and I bought him The Home-Brewer’s Answer Book (Ashton Lewis ), each of which retails for about $15, new."

Charlie Papazian is a God among homebrewers as his book was the big reason why many of us picked up this hobby in the the first place. That being said, "The Complete Joy..." is a woefully out-of-date book and I would recommend John Palmer's "How to Brew" for a updated treatment of the topic. Even better, an earlier version of Palmer's book is available online, free of charge!

http://www.howtobrew.com/

I would also encourage you to also check out online discussion boards for some updated procedures and recipes. A lot of the ingredients mentioned in Charlie's book aren't even made anymore.

Maria said:
"Being a huge fan of DIY cost-saving items, I am anxious to sample, but am told it takes about three weeks before it is ready to drink."

I will tell you that that three weeks from brewing to drinking is way too short of a time and you may be very disappointed with the results. This would mean your beer would ferment for a week, be bottled and left to carbonate for two weeks (if I remember the time-line advocated in The Joy of Homebrewing). The resulting beer will be very "green" if you drink it at this point and could probably use further time to age (Months, preferably!). The general consensus among homebrewers these days is to leave the beer in the fermenter for three weeks, then bottle.

Patience is key, and I think many new homebrewers are turned off by how long is actually takes to make drinkable beer.

Good Luck!

Guest's picture
jgi

Just two weekends ago I sampled my very first homebrew. It was one week in the fermenter and two in the bottles for carbonation. The beer was an English Brown from a kit. It was one of the most excellent beers I had ever drank, not just because I made it... but because it turned out great!

This past weekend I bottled my second brew (a porter) and brewed another (Scottish ale). The porter fermented for one week and was then bottled, the Scottish ale I'm planning to ferment for two or three weeks and then bottle just to see what happens.

I love this hobby. My girlfriend and I got into it as a cost-saving method and a bit of a "team-building" exercise. After the initial investment (about $200), it's pretty cheap to brew compared to buying six-packs at $10 each. But other posters are correct about how it becomes a bit addicting; I'm already pricing glass carboys, bottle trees, and other homebrewing accouterments to make my experience even better. Ultimately, we always want to have homebrewed beer on hand (if we can keep from drinking it all) and eventually move on to wine as well. After doing this, and researching how many questionable ingredients go into some larger "corporate" beers, I'm so glad we've gotten involved.... mostly for our health!

So if you're on the fence about this... jump. Once you start, you'll wonder why you didn't get into it years ago.

Guest's picture
Jeff

Beer can be brewed anywhere. I have brewed it in apartments and my house. It really doesn't take up much space. A simple ale kit is almost fool proof! The keys are to keep everything sanitized and keep the beer out of sunlight (Both fermenting and bottling). Ales and Bocks are my favorites. Good luck!

Guest's picture
aylaeh

i bought a friend of mine a mr beer kit several years ago. he had some fun making his own beer. for those of us who don't like beer there is also a mr rootbeer kit.

Guest's picture
Evan

I tried the Mr. Beer Kit when someone bought it for me at Christmas time. I had NO Idea what I was doing, and ended up with a brew that was less than good lol.

I forced through it and drank most of the gallons it made by myself because the friends refused to drink "Evanweiser"

Guest's picture
Guest

and I still save a ton by home brewing with kits.

I also love Bass Ale, Heineken and Kirin Ichiban, so I save even more when brewing knockoffs of more expensive beers.

And I do it all with $15 beer kits, $15 of DME and cheap 4 gallon bpa free water jugs I bought at Sam's Club. I do a split batch, 3 gallons in each jug, using an airlock.

If you sanitize properly, I use vinegar and water, it's about as difficult as making soup. Sometimes I don't bother to carbonate, and it still tastes fine. Other times I go the extra yard and brew more expensive beers, or even use raw ingredients (hops, malts) to brew a St. Patrick's Day Guinness knockoff or my personal recipe Xmas brew.

My cost per 12 oz beer is approx. $0.47 for the daily beer and usually no more than $0.75 for the more elaborate.

The strange thing is that after drinking my usual kit beer for over a year, a mexican cervesa or one of any number of ale kits, bottled corporate beer tastes like soda pop.

Guest's picture
Tim

I am also a homebrewer and I love the hobby. A quick word of caution since you said you have dogs. You should keep them away from the kitchen when you are brewing because if the consume any of the hops it will hyperthermia in them and they will probably die.
Other than that, it is a great and rewarding hobby!

Guest's picture
Guest

I have started to brew beer, but the shop near me can get kind of pricey for raw ingredients. Does anyone know of a place online where I can purchase cheaper ingredients? maybe in bulk?
thanks

Guest's picture
Guest

We've had luck at http://www.northernbrewer.com/ and http://www.williamsbrewing.com/. Not sure how "bulk" the ingredients are but the service is great and the prices are good. You can buy kits or individual ingredients as well.

Marla Walters's picture

Normally, I like to respond to more of the readers' comments than I have in this post.  Since I am working on a follow-up post, I didn't want to re-hash a lot of stuff.  However, I did want to say THANK YOU to those of you who have chimed in.  What a lot of great, helpful information -- plus some that has just made me laugh really hard (like "Evanweiser"). 

Thank you for ALL of your helpful comments thus far.  I hope you read the next post to read about our home-brewing results. 

Guest's picture
Holden022

Consider all grain brewing - where your crushing the grains yourself rather than buying extract.  It can save you even more money and drive down your per case cost event further.  In fact, you may want to consider kegging your beer.  If this is a long term hobby you can buy Cornelius kegs to store your home brew and over the course of time this will be more cost effective than bottling! 

I'm a former homebrewer and had an all grain setup and your definitely right ... buying on Craiglist and other such sites is a great way to go.  Somebody got a steal on my equipment (much of it customized ... as I was doing 10 gallon batches). 

Anways .. interesting article and good luck with the hobby!  It's a great way to save money on beer and best of all ... with time and practice, you should be drinking much better beer! 

Guest's picture
Guest

As a student living on my own with a friend, we have transformed our house into a small brewery with the help of a few friend for almost free. We sell the beer under the table to people and it actually brings in a lot of profit. Brewing beer pays for the rent which is relatively cheap most importantly it pays for my tuitions. I recommend brewing your own beer as it is easy to make stronger beer with a good taste which gets you more "hammered" and i guess that s what my generation is looking for in beer these days.

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm a home brewer. I turned to home brewing when I decided that I cannot afford to drink the kind of beer I like. I prefer those high-end micro brew specialty beers that sell for either $16+ a 6-pack or $12+ for a wine bottle full. I do all grain brewing about as cheaply as it can be done. The technique is called BIAB (brew in a bag). I spend, on average, about $19 per batch. My beer, with time and experience, is always as good or better than the the stuff I used to buy. If you are like me, the savings from brewing your own is incredible. If I had to buy beer like I'm making, it would cost me over $120 for that case of beer I made for only $20. However, if you feel that Bud Light is the best beer in the world, don't bother with brewing your own. You won't save money.

Guest's picture
Marc

In Canada a 24 of beer is around $40 so it really does make a lot of sense to homebrew.