From barbecues to happy hours to the big game, beer is the world's most consumed alcoholic beverage. So many beer enthusiasts now brew their own that May 4 is celebrated as National Homebrew Day. Like home cooking and baking, home brewing has money-saving potential but primarily attracts people who know their palates and have a passion for creating and personalizing recipes.
"It's all about the art and the freedom of the craft," said Kevin McGhee, a beer expert who has judged home-brew competitions. "I can customize each batch as I wish."
Drinkers satisfied with Bud or Miller Lite probably would not find it worth the expense and effort to brew at home. Given the costs associated with ingredients and equipment, not to mention labor, the first batch of home brew costs quite a bit more per bottle than a good inexpensive beer. But while the ingredient outlays are ongoing, the investment in equipment is recouped over time. Enthusiasts who commit to the hobby and favor unique craft beers selling for more than $10 a six-pack can save more than 50 percent.
The cost of ingredients, of course, depends on the recipe and how much beer will be brewed. Beer recipes typically call for some combination of malt, malt extract, grains, hops, yeast, sugar, and flavorings. For beginners, home-brewing suppliers sell all the required ingredients in extract kits starting at about $30. A standard 5-gallon batch yields about 54 12-ounce bottles.
The Homebrewers Association details all the necessary equipment. Some DIY beer supplies may be waiting in the kitchen: a large kettle, funnel, stirring spoon, measuring cup, strainer, thermometer, and 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. Home brewers 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. Empty beer bottles can be reused for home brews after a thorough cleaning, but they'll need caps, a bottle capper, and a bottling tip. All told, figure on spending about $100, although used equipment is cheaper.
Spending $40 on the raw materials for a 5-gallon brew and $100 on equipment works out to $2.59 a bottle for the first batch, or more than $15 for a six-pack. That's even pricier than a highly rated Flying Dog Belgian-style IPA, which was selling for $13 a six-pack at a local market in New York City (and would almost certainly taste better). But subsequent batches cost about 74 cents a bottle, or well under $5 for a six-pack -- cheaper than Bud Light.
The time and labor invested in DIY beer (including cleaning the supplies) is not insubstantial. An intricate five-step process described by BeerSmith 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 said extract brewing takes two to three hours on brew day and another one to two hours for bottling (all-grain beer takes longer, and using a keg saves time).
Beginners unsure about the upfront investment and time commitment should consider a 1-gallon starter kit. Craft A Brew kits and Northern Brewer's Small Batch Starter Kit are available for less than $50. Each includes equipment and enough ingredients for about 10 12-ounce bottles.
Just beware the rising costs if this becomes a serious hobby. Zack Kinney of the New York City Homebrewers Guild said people who get caught up in the process inevitably wind up buying more and pricier equipment. "At this point," he said, "I don't think any of us are actually saving money."