Article

Spend Less, Brew More

There’s a persistent and mythical justification that revolves around homebrewing that I’m sure most of us have presented to our significant others, families, or ourselves at various points in our brewing career, and it goes a little something like this:

“Brewing your own beer can actually save you money!”

It can. But it usually doesn’t, because like any other hobby on which devotees like to geek out, homebrewers start tacking on all kinds of geekery-related costs that probably eat up any savings we might realize from brewing our own beer. Now, having said that, there are ways of cutting some of your brewing costs without sacrificing beer quality, and while it might not mean you’re operating in the black in your homebrewery, it can at least offset some of the absurd-but-necessary spending on that rare hop or cool piece of brewing equipment!

Whether we’re talking about recipe adjustment, process or equipment tweaks, or even the ways in which we choose to get our beer feedback or evaluation, there are any number of ways to bring our brewing expenditures down, and if it means more spare change for one more sack of grain and more delicious homebrewed beer, then it might be worth your time!

CUTTING INGREDIENT COSTS

Probably the most obvious place to start when we discuss cutting costs would be your ingredients. After all, equipment and other “sunk” costs aren’t something you contend with every month, whereas you may be buying ingredients regularly. Let’s knock out the easiest tip first: Do more all-grain brewing. Extract is more expensive, and you’re paying for someone else’s labor. Beyond that, we can look at this from three angles: Where (and how much) are you buying, how are you using what you buy, and how much beer do you actually need?

First, consider your suppliers. There are several local homebrew shops in my area and I shop at all of them — but that doesn’t mean that I won’t go looking for a deal, especially on more-expensive items. If I need an ounce (28 g) of Citra® hops, I’ll pick it up anywhere, since the price isn’t likely to vary that much. If I need pureed fruit, honey, or other specialty ingredients, though, I’ll definitely nose around a few different vendors’ websites and stores to see who has the best deal. Look for seasonal sales, discounts associated with certain events (homebrew competitions, customer appreciation or anniversary parties, etc.), and especially clearance on older ingredients (assuming they are still in good quality — not hops in an open container or grains milled long ago)! One of my favorite shops has a bin of “just past use-by date” liquid yeasts offered at half price. There’s still plenty of good yeast in there (especially if you’ll be growing up a starter anyway). I recently brewed two batches of beer (an imperial schwarzbier and a traditional bock) using a year-old pack of Munich Lager yeast, and both turned out just fine, with no noticeable off-flavors and the same fermentation characteristics I’d expect from a fresher yeast pitch. Does the risk of faults increase? Maybe a bit, but most brewing ingredients are pretty robust. If money weren’t an issue, then I’d always take the freshest ingredients available, but as a tactic for reducing cost there are a number of brewing ingredients that can greatly reduce per-batch spending while adding an acceptable level of risk.

At the same time, consider how much you’re buying at once: There’s great savings in buying in bulk, and brewing ingredients are no different. Grains by the sack are roughly half the cost-per-pound as grains bought to weight. The savings can be as much or greater for hops, especially if you catch a good “new harvest coming in, gotta clear out last year’s” sale! Not long ago I picked up a pound (0.45 kg) of pellets (nitrogen-flushed, cold-stored, and vacuum-sealed) of Cascade hops for $5. That’s 31 cents per oz./28 g instead of up to $2. You’ll add some one-time storage equipment costs, but it will still be worth it as long as you have the space for your grain and a freezer for your hops! When I did the math, even in my first year (counting an outlay for buckets, jars, shelving and such) I spent as much for 25 batches as I would have for 18, and in succeeding years I was saving about 60% compared to my per-batch purchasing costs. When you factor in the added convenience of being able to brew any time you want and having the ingredients on-hand, it is all the more attractive!

Second, think about your recipe design. To start, consider a gravity reduction across the board. I’m not arguing for converting every beer into a session beer, but reducing your final ABV by half a point on every beer will add up to some significant savings, especially when you consider that it will also mean lowering costs on yeast and hops, both of which are pegged to gravity (utilization, balancing IBUs and alcohol sweetness, pitching rate, etc.). Some recipes can be more-significantly reduced than others: You might only be able to shave 0.5% off of that best bitter, but why not scale down your 11% Baltic porter to a “warm and pleasant 8%,” which is still a solid sipping-by-the-fireplace beer? You might even like the results: Alcohol toxicity makes yeasts’ lives harder, and they may perform better in a lower-ABV neighborhood, yielding fewer off-flavors and better beer!

Then take a look at your hopping. For starters, much like we can bump down ABV without much noticeable impact, the same is often true for IBUs. If you reel in your original gravity (OG) you’ll already see a reduction (if you’re adhering to the same bittering unit-to-gravity unit ratio and accounting for the better utilization rate at lower gravity), but think about pushing them even lower. A few IBUs won’t likely be missed, but if you do you can take up the slack in other ways: Bump up CO2 for a bit more bite, add a touch of roasted malt to dry out the palate, or tinker with your water chemistry (a bit more sulfate, perhaps?) to add some balance, as needed. We can also adjust how we use our hops — particularly late hops additions. If you’re planning to dry hop anyway, consider cutting back (or shifting to a cheaper, less-exotic hop option) on your whirlpool and flameout additions. The grassy and resiny impact of dry hops will drown out a lot of the subtler aromatics of these additions anyway. You don’t need to eliminate them completely, of course (though I have, in a number of beers), but every 14 oz. (7 g) you save can be used elsewhere! Finally, when adding 60-minute (or earlier) hops, have a good American high-alpha hop on hand even for styles that don’t take to our colonial ways: Flavor contributions will be negligible, and you’re probably wasting your money bittering with that 2.3 percent alpha acid Saaz.

You can also find economies when it comes to yeast.For example, dry yeasts have come a long way in terms of variety and quality, and cost about half of what liquid yeast pitches do. With dry yeast, you may also save the expense of dried malt extract for a yeast starter as they do not require building up the cell count with a starter. Even if you don’t convert for every beer, I’d recommend trying out a few varieties and seeing if there are any that you prefer, and use those for their appropriate styles.

Last, and I know this is going to be controversial, but think about a batch size reduction. How much beer do you really need, anyway? And before you give the knee-jerk, “MORE! MORE BEER!” reaction, ask yourself how often you’ve stumbled across old bottles or the dregs of a keg of a beer that’s past its prime. Maybe that’s not you, but if it is, then at least think about cutting back. There’s no law that says you need to brew in 5-gallon (19-L) increments, and my 4.25-gallon (16-L) batches suit me just fine. Smaller batches mean fewer ingredients and less money (or, realistically, ingredients I can now use on another batch).

GET EQUIPPED

Ingredients are an obvious starting point, but equipment costs are where a lot of brewers lose their fiscal sanity. Here, too, we can look at savings based on both where and what you’re buying, as well as how you’re using what you’ve bought (and whether you actually need it). It should be stated at the outset that many popular brewing toys add very little value to your process. Equipment purchases should always be approached cautiously, as good brewery design and practice can make equipment-oriented solutions unnecessary. Paying for a sight glass (instead of a marked spoon) may or may not be worth it; paying for a good, accurate thermometer almost certainly is, though.

Shopping around for ingredients will pinch some pennies, but doing the same for equipment will rake in dollars. Not only are bigger-ticket items a better target for sales, coupons, and promo codes thanks to their higher purchase price, but contingent factors like shipping costs and customizations will create significantly different prices even on virtually identical items. I was recently in the market for ball-lock Corny kegs, and prices ranged from $35 for a bare-bones used version (in need of O-ring replacement and, likely, several acid and cleaner baths) to $140 for a shiny new version, and with a wide range in between. Some shopping around, coupon codes, buying-in-a-set, and free shipping offers later and I had four brand new kegs at a cost of $68 each. Decide what you need, and then shop aggressively for the best place to get it. You might also consider taking your best offer to your local homebrew shop to see if they will match the price. They’d probably rather turn a smaller profit than lose your business to the internet! When it comes to kettles, look around at home goods stores, especially if you’re brewing batches of less than 5 gallons (19 L). My brew kettle is a 20-quart (19-L), pleasantly-thick-bottomed stock pot from Target that I picked up on sale for a whopping $42. One step-bit drilling session and a weldless ball valve fitting turned it into a perfect boil kettle. If you need something larger, consider a restaurant supply store, where larger pots can be had for surprisingly good prices. Sure, they won’t have integral thermometers or sight glasses, but those can be added after-market without much trouble.

Mash tuns, too, can be made cheaply and easily. Most any beverage cooler can get the job done, and if you choose one with a drain plug you probably have a ready-made channel and outlet for your lautering and sparging! A DIY manifold and ball valve are all that’s needed, and if those are beyond your skills you can always buy the ready-made parts and screens and assemble for yourself. I’ve had the same Coleman Xtreme cooler mash tun for nine years, and she’s never let me down yet, despite her sub-$100 cost.

When it comes to heat sources, burners and elements can vary widely in price and performance, and the two don’t necessarily correlate. Do your homework on BTUs and efficiency, and especially when it comes to electric elements don’t buy into brand-name hype. Induction elements use simple technology, and even professional kitchen-quality units can be had from a restaurant supplier for far less than the shiny name-brand versions that are meant to impress the neighbors. Consider your energy budget as well as your dollar budget, and choose a unit that does what you need in a time you’re willing to wait. This is also a great place to hit up your fellow homebrewers who might be upgrading, downscaling, or otherwise modifying their breweries and be happy to see old equipment go to a good home, often for free! It’s also worth considering a shift from propane to natural gas, which is not only cheaper but (especially if you have a dedicated outdoor line for a gas grill) often more convenient.

Going from hot to cold, let’s talk chilling and temperature control. If you want the ultimate in cash-saving on chilling . . . don’t chill. I know lots of folks who have adopted the no-chill ways of our brothers and sisters Down Under, and the awards and accolades they’re racking up show that rapid chilling is often unnecessary to produce great beer. If you’re like me and just want the job done quickly (because you’re afraid you’ll forget to pitch the yeast, for example), then a DIY immersion chiller is a solid option that most people can handle, or you can invest in a smaller plate chiller (which is more than up to the job of chilling most homebrew batches).

Once that beer’s in the fermenter, you’ll want to keep it cool. Keep an eye out on websites like Craigslist or community message boards. You’d be surprised how many are willing to give up a refrigerator in exchange for having someone haul it away! Keep a close eye, too, on curbs for discarded freezers. When they start to get quirky and won’t keep things frozen, they’re often discarded, but they could have years of chilling potential in them! Add on one temperature controller (the Inkbird and UNI-STATs are, popular, affordable options), and voila: Fermentation fridge. After all, we don’t need them to go to 20 °F (-7 °C). If they can get to 50 °F (10 °C), now you’re in the lager game for little to no money down! You can also manage temperatures by taking advantage of evaporation or storage in a cool basement, especially if you’re brewing “with the seasons” (French saison in summer, lagers in the winter), cost-free. I’d also like to talk about pumps. While I appreciate the speed they can add, I find them entirely unnecessary and an extravagance for most homebrewing. Homebrewery design that takes gravity into account can easily get the job done without pumps. I feed from my mash tun to my kettle, through my plate chiller, and into the fermenter using nothing but gravity. Total lifetime spending on pumps: $0.

Finally, take advantage of the great DIY guidance you can get from brewing publications like Brew Your Own to cut your costs even on expensive equipment. Hop spiders, sparge arms, stir plates, and more can all be built even by novices at fractions of the cost for new ones with a trip to the nearest hardware store and some trial-and-error.

HOW ARE YOU BREWING?

Brewing is always going to require a certain amount of energy and effort, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to get more from the same effort.

I always make a yeast starter – but I don’t ever do it to meet the demands of a pitch rate calculator. For one thing, I find these calcualtions to be highly conservative and risk-averse: They don’t really tell you how much yeast you need to make your beer, but rather how much yeast you need to absolutely guarantee you won’t underpitch. Many find my pitching rate “unacceptable” on its face, so I decided to see just how far out of the “normal” range it was. I went to the Brewer’s Friend yeast pitch rate calculator to see just how much yeast I was putting in, since they break out all of the numbers automatically. With a stir plate, six-week-old yeast in a 1-quart (1-L) 1.040 starter and a growth rate of 1.4, going into 4.5 gallons (17 L) at 1.100 gravity, I get a predicted pitch rate of 0.60 million/mL/°P. According to John Palmer (writing in BYO), the “operating window” for a complete fermentation (for either ales or lagers) is 0.50-2.0 million/mL/°P. So even at what one would call an “extreme” gravity situation, this is within that range, albeit at the lower end – and it does so while assuming a growth factor lower than what Palmer says you’ll get out of a 1-L starter (1.4 to his 1.7). That’s a pretty robust test, and it’s still not “too low.” So why make the starter? Because that way I take that one pitch and double it in size, then use it to ferment two beers, and all for the added cost of 200 g (7 oz.) of dried malt extract. Yeast cost cut in half.

At the same time, you can get more beer by doubling up on your mashes. Brewing up one beer from first runnings and another from second runnings not only gets more beer-per-pound out of your grain but still lets you make quite different finished beers, so long as they share a similar base grist.

OUT AND ABOUT

Once your beer is brewed, there are still opportunities to cut down on costs. Depending on your process and practices, there may or may not be an apparent financial advantage to bottling or kegging, but in either case you should evaluate your consumption and distribution needs and let that guide you.

Once finished, though, you might then want to get feedback on your beer: It’s time to enter competitions! But doing that has associated entry costs, to the tune of $7–15 each. Rather than paying that price, consider finding a good homebrew club near you — most are home to a number of certified judges who will give you their opinions for free (whether you want them or not). You won’t get medals and ribbons for your wall, but the information is still valuable, and comes at no cost other than the occasional ribbing when you bring a beer that needs some work! Not only will it save you entry fees and (depending on your location) shipping costs, but you’ll also get to keep your bottles and reuse them.

CHEAP BEER ISN’T (NECESSARILY) BAD BEER

Saving money, doesn’t have to mean you’re making lower-quality beer. Process is still king when it comes to brewing. What makes for good beer is usually brewing good beer, not how much you spent on it. You can’t buy your way to great beer, in most cases, and the inverse is also true. Reducing your brewing costs will mean more beer and brewing, and will also buy you credibility (pun intended) when you are making the case that yes, you really do need that trip to Belgium to research Trappist beers. Enjoy the trip — just go in the shoulder season to save some money for the beer you’re going to be hauling back!