In an interview I once read in The Valley Advocate (a local Western MA arts paper), with regard to his experience starting Small Beer Press, Gavin quoted the following old chestnut: “How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large fortune.”
The same is more or less true of brewing beer. In the long run, it costs half as much to brew your own beer as to buy it, assuming you’re used to drinking beer of quality. But starting out as a brewer of small beer does require some investment in equipment. And the small fortune you accrue in savings over a long life spent developing the craft of making delicious spirits will be nothing compared to the matching spiritual fortune you will reap. The analogy to independent publishing begins to seem apt indeed.
In this episode I’m going to do some beer math (somewhat less accurate than tea math, but less jittery than coffee math, and more fun). I will lay out the financial requirements in gear and raw materials and graph that against the quantity and quality of the beer produced, in the hopes of helping you, the avid consumer of literary beer, to decide if you’re ready to brew.
(All pricing except where stated otherwise assumes a Western MA standard of living.)
- 1 5-gallon food grade bucket with lid aka PRIMARY FERMENTER – can be had for free if you know the right people, but otherwise $30
- 1 5-gallon glass carboy aka SECONDARY FERMENTER – if you’re cheap and don’t care too much about your beer, steal the pvc bottle off a water cooler, but otherwise $30
- 1 5-gallon stainless steel pot aka MASH TUN – $50, probably your biggest expense, entirely worth it. Nothing else will do. I mean unless you want a $5000 serious copper mash tun like they have in the front room at Amherst Brewing Company , but good luck with that.
- 1 large colander – you already own one
- 1 stirring spoon – likewise
- 1 thermometer – $10-$30 depending on how high-tech you want
- 1 hydrometer – thing for measuring specific gravity of liquids $10
- ~8 feet of clear plastic siphon hose with plastic bottle filler aka RACKING CANE, plus assorted optional plastic widgets that make it easier/more complicated to siphon liquid from one receptacle to another – $10-$20
- enough BOTTLES to hold 5 gallons of liquid – You can get these free, or at least, for the price of beer, if you just save, clean and sterilize used, brown glass, NON-TWIST-OFF beer bottles. You can also buy snazzy re-cappable wire flip-top bottles, but that will cost you, $2 a bottle. You can also head straight for the keg and kegerator, but we’re not going to go there just yet.
- 1 bottle capper – $10
- a bunch of crown bottle caps – $5 for many batches’ worth
- 1 kitchen stove
- 1 refrigerator
- 1 kitchen sink
All told, assuming you are in possession of or can gain temporary access to a kitchen and about three cubic meters of storage space, the equipment budget for the starting homebrewer rounds out at a reasonable $160. Just sell your printer, or your desk-reference copy of the OED, and you’ll be well on your way.
- Water — can be had for free, but if you don’t enjoy the taste of your tapwater probably should be bought or brought from somewhere where people do enjoy the taste of their water. I live in Sunderland. Town water here is pretty good and I have made from it delicious beer. Someday I will take my carboy over the town line into Leverett and take advantage of some mind-numbingly pure well water I know about, and then my beer will be really good. If you live in Northampton, or Easthampton, or heaven forbid, New York City, do yourself a favor and seek your H2O elsewhere.
- Grain — It’s possible to get some grains by weight in grocery stores or other non-beer-oriented retail establishments, but in my opinion it isn’t worth the hassle, because chances are they get their grain pre-cracked (which means it has likely lost some freshness in storage) and the varieties will only be the ones they presume you might want to eat with your granola. Anyway, it is somewhat of a pain to crack grain yourself. Better to get it from the brewery supply store, where they have what you want and can process it fresh on the premises. Price variable by recipe, $12-$20
- Additional sugar/starch-supplying elements such as malted grain, molasses, maple syrup, honey, sugar — variable by recipe, $8-$16
- Hops – You can grow your own if you have that kind of patience. As a crop, hops take a couple of years to set in before they yield. And even when they do, you are somewhat committed to using that one strain all the time, which is somewhat of a tragedy considering how many kinds there are out there and how wonderful they all smell. At the brewery supply store, they have an incredible variety of hops, in many forms, for oh $3-$10 per batch.
- Yeast – Worth devoting a whole episode to at least, but then so is everything else in this list. I will not spend a lot of time on it here. Yeast turns sugars and starch into CO2 and alcohol, and imbues a great deal of flavor in the process. Most chocolate stouts don’t have chocolate in them; they just use yeast that makes beer taste like chocolate. Likewise with coffee porters. The fruitiness in wheat beers comes from the yeast. And so on. You can actually ‘grow your own’ yeast. The undertaking is comparable to that of caring for a plant crop such as hops–and the result is the same. You’re more or less required to brew with that yeast all the time. Life is too short. I buy mine, and will likely continue to until my output volume gets to a level four or five times what it’s at now. (I brew one batch every two months or thereabouts.) Yeasts cost $4 – $12
Tallied, the ingredients for one five gallon batch of beer average out around $40, though costs can go much higher if you want to get fancy, and can be kept as low as $25 if you’re content with simpler fare.
What you get out of it:
Obviously, the 50% savings I claim above depends on what your drinking habits are like when you don’t have homebrew ready to hand. One batch makes about 52 12-oz bottles. Call that two 24-packs or eight 6-packs, for which, if you’re drinking anything Sam Adams level or better, would cost you $60 or more at the liquor store (at least if you live around here). Me, I shop around a lot, try new things often. Once a year, around midsummer, I indulge the proletarian roots of my now-highfalutin beer snobbery and buy one twelve-pack of Miller High Life longnecks. Other than that, though, my preferences in beer totter to the the expensive side. I buy growlers, weird wine-sized bottles of barleywine and ale-on-lees, 22-oz singles from limited runs, obscure imports, and of course pints at the pub. So the cost to get me the equivalent of 52 12-oz bottles of beer, via the direct exchange of money for goods, can easily reach $100 if I’m not careful. Not that I entirely nix those habits while I do have homebrew put by to skim from. But assume, for the ease of beer math, that I’m being economical this month, and my batch of homebrew allows me to reduce my total beer expenditure from $70 to $35. Well, I’ve saved $35. Judging from a purely volume-to-expense standpoint, I can recoup my initial equipment costs in just five batches–and eventually save enough to let me advance my operation into kegging, draft beer at home, cellaring, mead–heck, maybe even one day I’ll be able to afford one of those massive copper mash tuns.
Unfortunately, the above calculation has not yet taken time into account. It takes me ten minutes to go down the street to the Spirit Shoppe and exchange $12 for a six-pack of the Paper City Winter Palace Wee Heavy and a 22-oz Lost Sailor IPA from Berkshire Brewing Company. To brew my own fine strain of Scotch Ale, on the other hand, takes approximately three hours of active labor over a one-month period. It takes patience, dedication and attention to detail. This part of the equation is a lot harder to tally. Some people value time more than others. To me, time is way more important than money, because it allows me to acquire things that money can’t buy: knowledge, experience, enlightenment. Homebrewed beer is one such commodity. If your life’s ambition is to climb the corporate ladder–or, for that matter, to write enough weird, unclassifiable fiction of sufficient quality to keep you from having to hold down a “real” job–then maybe you don’t have time for brewing. If such is the case, I am sorry. And if it’s any consolation, I will gladly share a homebrew.
The final element of the small beer equation is quality. I can’t tell you the first beer you brew is going to stand up to, say, a Stone Smoked Porter or a Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA straight out of the gate. But the great thing about brewing your own is that with a little bit of practice, some trial and error, and some refinement, you can make a damn good example of any style of beer you want, any time you want, instead of having to hunt down a specialty pub like The Moan and Dove or a specialty liquor store like The Spirit Haus in order to get it. Take Kolsch, for example. Kolsch is a light-amber, German-style ale, balanced, so easy to drink it warrants the use of a fine verb like “quaff”, excellent for summer. But it’s very hard to find a good Kolsch in this country, at least partly because German export law technically prohibits referring to any commercial brew as Kosch unless it is made in the city of Koln, on the banks of the Rhine, where the style originates. Harpoon makes a Summer Ale they refer to as Kolsch-style, but it’s terrible. Local brew pubs sometimes keep an attempt at Kolsch on tap in the summertime (Amherst Brewing Co. has one), and I always try them, but they never really stand up. Saranac makes the only commercial Kolsch I’ve ever loved, but you can only get it two bottles at a time in their summer mix packs. And that is a tragedy. I am often tempted to break open the mixers in the liquor store and shuffle them around so I get all Kolsch. I haven’t done it yet–and the reason I have not yet stooped so low is that for the past three summers I’ve been making my own. And it is wonderful.
The bottom line:
To brew your own small beer, you must begin with the investment of only the smallest of fortunes, to the tune of $200 for your first batch and $40 for each batch thereafter, plus 3 hours of work, a month of waiting, and the sacrifice of some storage space. But the benefits from such investment will be legion, and limited only by your patience, dedication, ambition, and the breadth of your palate.