About a week ago, I posted an article on how to save money with a board and card gaming hobby. That article came pretty directly from the heart, as board and card games are one of my primary hobbies (along with reading and… well, home brewing).
Naturally, several people wrote to me asking about my other interests. How do you cut back on the costs of a home brewing hobby? How do you make a reading hobby cheap? This week, I’ll address that first question (and tackle the second one later this month).
So, let’s dig in, right from the beginning.
What Exactly Is Home Brewing?
Home brewing is simply brewing beer at home. You start with basic ingredients – water, yeast, and some sort of grain – and allow the yeast to feast on the grain, producing a small amount of alcohol right in the water. That’s what beer is, at the core. All of the different varieties – and there are tons of them, all of which are simply variations on that core recipe – boil down to that core mechanism. Just put some grains in water, add yeast to the mix, and wait for a while and you’ll have some kind of beer.
Of course, you’re going to want to make something that’s palatable, and that means using particular grains and particular types of yeasts and particular additional ingredients to make something tasty. You’re also going to need containers for the stuff to ferment in (it produces gas while fermenting and you also don’t really want to leave the surface exposed to air, either) and containers to store the beer when it’s finished. Depending on what you’re making, other equipment is needed as well.
The truth is that home brewing is definitely one of those hobbies that can be as expensive as you want it to be. I can make decent beer in a plastic bucket. On the other hand, I have friends that have their entire garages devoted to elaborate home brewing setups with thousands of dollars worth of equipment, kegging systems, and other things that push them right up to the edge of being a microbrewery business. (You can make 200 gallons of beer per year for personal use in a household with two adults, which adds up to an astounding 2,133 bottles of beer.)
For me, it’s firmly a hobby for personal enjoyment. I enjoy the process of making small batches (around five gallons) of beer once in a while, mostly to be shared with family and friends. I definitely do things on the cheap side, but it could get really expensive really quick if I allowed it to.
So, how do I keep it relatively inexpensive? Here are some strategies that I use.
Start With Very Simple Gear and Upgrade Only When You Have a Reason (or Need a Gift Idea)
My first several batches of homemade beer were made in a five gallon plastic Culligan water jug that someone gave to me. I attached a one inch piece of clear rubber hose to the top to serve as a blowoff hose. I bottled the beer in bottles I saved over a long period of time and capped them using the cheapest caps and cheapest bottle capping tool I could find from the home brewing supply store.
All told, my initial gear added up to about $10 for the cheap capper and the little bit of rubber hose. It was far from perfect, but it did the job just fine.
Over time, I slowly upgraded that equipment. I moved to a glass carboy from the plastic Culligan jug. I started using an airlock instead of the blowoff hose. I got a better capper eventually (after breaking the first one) and added a few additional pieces of equipment here and there.
The key thing to keep in mind is that all of these upgrades weren’t strictly necessary. As I became familiar with the process, I began to see how certain upgrades were useful and I eventually made those upgrades. However, many of my gear upgrades came as a result of my wife searching for Christmas gifts for me, to tell the truth. Home brewing has provided many, many gift ideas over the years.
Use a Lot of Kitchen Gear You Already Have
Many useful items for home brewing are things you already have in your kitchen. As long as you thoroughly clean them both before and after using them for brewing, there’s no need to buy separate equipment.
For example, I often use a stock pot for cooking my grains (for those unfamiliar, heating grains up causes them to brew like tea, emitting much of their sugar and other compounds into the water, some of which the yeast later transforms into alcohol). It’s just an ordinary kitchen stock pot that you can get at pretty much any store, and we use it for other things, too.
You don’t need to duplicate anything that you already have in your kitchen. When you’re learning how to home brew, look for things you already have and use those. Just make sure to keep everything very well cleaned.
If you already have a stockpot at home, there’s no need to buy a separate one for home brewing.
Make Your Own Equipment
Some home brewing equipment for specialized beers can be quite expensive. Trust me – you can spend a lot of money on equipment for various purposes. However, most of that equipment is actually really simple stuff and you can make it yourself for much less money without a whole lot of effort.
I’ll use a mash tun for an example here. A mash tun is simply a container used in one type of brewing to extract sugars from the grains. You use it when you want to maintain a certain temperature for a long while. It basically needs to be a large insulated container with a false bottom and a spigot at the bottom to let the sugary liquid out at the end of the process.
You can buy these from home brewing supply stores, of course, but it’s not hard to make one. Just find a used five or ten gallon insulated water/beverage cooler. Just replace the spigot with a better one – you don’t want to have a typical water cooler spigot emitting near-boiling water – and simply put a piece of steel mesh from the hardware store on the inside of the spigot to filter out the grains. A beverage cooler with maybe $10 worth of modifications is the same as a $200 home brewing mash tun.
There are lots of pieces of equipment you can make on your own in this way. The easiest way to learn about them… well, here you go!
Join a Local Home Brewing Club
Almost every city of reasonable size has a home brewing club of some kind. Home brewing clubs are amazing resources for learning how to home brew, try the things others make (usually by just swapping, but home brewers are usually very generous), and learn about techniques for saving money like building some of your own equipment. I’ve participated in two groups over the years and still would be if it were not for scheduling conflicts (my kids win out, believe it or not).
Most home brewing clubs are completely free to join. Some have small membership fees that usually go to pay for events or some shared resources.
If you’re interested in finding one, there are several places to look. The two most likely places for finding such a club are meetup.com or this directory on the American Homebrewers Association website. Both tools will help you find clubs near you.
Get Involved in Group Buys of Supplies
One of the big advantages of being in a home brewing club is that people will often get together for group buys on specific materials for home brewing. They might collect enough money to make a wholesale purchase of barley or hops, for example, and then get together to split up the goods after it comes in.
These things are usually pretty ad hoc and they also tend to somewhat restrict what your next few batches of home brewed beer will be like, but the cost of the ingredients ends up being very low when this type of bulk buying happens. You can get pounds and pounds of grains or hops for less than what a single pound might cost you from a store or an online seller.
It’s the bulk buying principle at work. If everyone gets together so that they can purchase something at a wholesale price, whether it’s a specific kind of hops or a specific barley, everyone involved saves money. Sure, it might restrict your home brewing a little bit, but that’s just a convenient excuse to experiment.
Use Yeast Across Multiple Batches
Yeast is a key ingredient in making beer. It performs the magic of turning some of the sugars into alcohol, turning grain-flavored water into a delicious drink.
However, buying yeast over and over again can get expensive. If you want to save money on yeast, one method is to simply stretch one yeast purchase over a bunch of batches of beer.
This process is called washing yeast, and it’s described in this great article from BeerSmith. Basically, all you do is take some of the sediment from your current batch, add some water to it, slosh it around, and then just keep the water, leaving the sediment behind. After a week or two in the fridge, a sediment of yeast will form in the bottom of the jar, which is exactly what you want. Just add some sugar to the jar the day before you brew and the yeast will be ready to go to town. This procedure can stretch one packet of yeast across five (or so) batches of beer, saving you some dollars.
Freeze Extra Yeast, Too
When you follow the above procedure, you’ll often find yourself with more yeast than you intend to use. I often wind up with huge amounts of yeast, far more than I need for a batch.
The thing is, you don’t have to dump the excess. You can just freeze it in a small freezer bag and it works like a champ. All you have to do is save some of that precipitated yeast from the above procedure in a pint-sized freezer container. When you want to use it, let it thaw slowly in the refrigerator for a few days, then slowly bring it to room temperature by leaving it out on the table. Add it to some warm water in a sanitized container and give it some sugar to eat and you’ll find yourself with tons of yeast for your next home brewing experiment.
You really can stretch a single yeast packet over years if you’re careful. (Of course, you’re also the strange guy with containers of yeast in their freezer, but that just means you have something in common with avid home bakers, too.)
Re-Use Sanitizer a Few Times
I use Starsan when I sanitize my equipment. Starsan is a very common sanitizing agent for getting rid of the things that can contaminate your beer.
The thing is, Starsan is actually reusable, so when I use a little to sanitize an item, I’ll pour it back into a small bottle and use it again. I usually get two or three uses out of Starsan.
One friend I know has a “second use” and a “third use” bottle of Starsan (each of which are original bottles that Starsan came in). If he uses Starsan fresh from the original bottle, he’ll dump the used Starsan back into the “second use” bottle; if it came from the “second use” bottle, he’ll dump the used Starsan into the “third use” bottle; if it came from the “third use” bottle, he disposes of it properly according to the instructions. He keeps them separated with a little piece of masking tape on the “second use” and “third use” bottles.
Starsan can actually be used over and over again until the pH gets too high, but to be on the safe side, I only use it three times at most.
Brew ‘All Grain’ Style
Many people get started in home brewing by using kits that come with all of the ingredients you need to make a particular style of beer. Most of the time, these kits come with malt extract, which is very convenient but also fairly expensive. Malt extract is essentially what you get from boiling grains in water, straining out the grains, and then boiling the sugary water down to a syrup.
Once you move on to trying your own recipes, there’s really no need to keep buying expensive malt extract. Instead, just buy the grains – they’re way cheaper – and simply boil the grains yourself at home.
The easiest way to get started with this is to try the “brew in a bag” method, something I hinted at above. With this, you essentially make a “tea bag” out of your grains using a small mesh bag and simply boil that bag in a few gallons of water. It’s harder to perfectly control the temperature when doing this, but it gets the job done.
When you’re wanting to move on to beers that require more specific temperature control, you’ll move from “brew in a bag” to using a mash tun, which is a piece of equipment you can make yourself, as described above.
Shop Around for Grains
I’m often surprised at the kinds of places where I can find great prices on grains for home brewing. I’ll find bins of barley and other such items often where I least expect them.
For example, my local food co-op often has the best prices locally on several different kinds of barley, so I’ll usually go there for many barley types and only visit the local home brewing supply store for specialty grains.
Take a look at the grains available in the bulk section at the grocery stores you shop at. They often sell barley and sometimes sell several varieties of it. With barley being such an essential ingredient in making beer, if you can find a cheap source for the type of barley you need, you’re going to be money ahead every time.
Use Your Own Grain Mill
If you do choose to go the “all grain” route, one challenge you’re going to face is the need to grind your own grains. Barley needs to be ground down so that the insides are exposed in order to brew effectively, and the only real way to do that is with a small grain mill.
Of course, many home brewing supply stores have a grain mill available for customers to use, but the problem there is that it restricts you from buying from any store that doesn’t offer a mill. You can’t buy whole grains from online stores, for example, and they will make you pay more if they have to grind it for you. Over a large number of brews, that can end up costing you quite a bit.
A simple mill is very inexpensive. You can get a manual grain mill like this one for less than $20. Of course, the amount you can spend on such a device is practically endless, with all manner of electronic devices that grind your grains for you, but a basic mill like this is all you really need.
Grow Some of Your Own Ingredients
If you’re a gardener, you can actually grow some of the ingredients needed for home brewing in your own garden.
Growing barley, for example, is actually fairly easy – and growing them yourself lets you experiment with heirloom barley and specific varieties. Here is a great article from Mother Earth News on growing barley for home brewing. Hops can be grown as well, but they require more work.
You can also grow other ingredients you might use in specific beers. Elderberry, nasturtiums, hibiscus, and many other flowers and herbs (and even some vegetables) can be grown in your garden and used for making beer.
Buy Less Craft Beer
Home brewing produces a product that’s a good replacement for craft beer that you might already purchase, so rather than increasing your beer consumption, just decrease the amount of beer that you buy.
I was never a heavy beer buyer or drinker, as I’m the type of person who might enjoy one or two flavorful beers on some evenings, but making my own beer means that rather than increasing my total consumption, I’m simply decreasing how much I buy.
These days, my craft beer purchases are often in the form of single bottles or mixed six packs so that I can try a bunch of different things, figure out what I like and don’t like, and use that as input for my future home recipes.
That means that most of the money spent on funding my home brewing is actually money that I might have otherwise spent on craft beers.
Home brewing is a wonderful hobby, one that has left me with a lot of great memories and enabled me to enjoy some amazing creations produced in my own kitchen and garage.
However, there’s no denying that it can be an expensive hobby. You can certainly dump a lot of money into home brewing if you’re not careful.
My best suggestion? Start off cheap and brew until you understand why you would want to upgrade your equipment or materials. Everyone has a somewhat different setup and somewhat different needs and skills, so take things at your own pace. Only upgrade if there is a real, tangible reason to do so.
Good luck, and enjoy!