What I didn’t realize until doing the math today, however, was that the almost five gallons of lightly hopped winter ale now sitting in bottles in my basement also represent a break-even point. My expenses on homebrewing equipment and supplies now about equal what I would have spent to buy the same volume of beer at a store.
I didn’t quite think that would be possible, but the numbers line up. I’ve spent a total of $273.91 at the local homebew shop (called, surprisingly enough, My Local Home Brew Shop), for an average cost of $54.78 for each five-gallon batch. Each yielded about 50 bottles’ worth, or just over two cases.
(Five gallons actually equals just over 53 12-ounce bottles, but I usually pour a little more than 12 ounces into each bottle. Plus, you can’t get everything out of the bottom of a fermenting or bottling bucket–and if you’ve ever seen what collects there, you’ll know why you shouldn’t try.)
My retail alternative, as a beer snob, would be picking up cases of a good, reasonably hoppy ale. You do pay for quality; the cheapest options I could find in a little searching online today were Redhook IPA at $25.99 a case and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for $28.99. The former might be barely cheaper than my homebrew habit (were I repetitive enough to stick with the same beer over a year and change), the latter more expensive.
And from here on out, I could be in the black: The recipe kits I buy–with the grains, malt extracts, hops, yeast, priming sugar and bottle caps all in one box–average around $40. The equation could change if I start buying ingredients separately, something I’ve been thinking of doing. (The White House’s honey ale recipe is apparently pretty good.)
It’s true that I had the advantage of getting three necessary pieces of hardware for free: A five-gallon pot came from my brother as a gift, a friend who had given up homebrewing gave me a fermenting bucket, and I’ve been borrowing a capper from a homebrewing neighbor down the street. And the candy thermometer we got years ago suffices to check the temperature of the wort during the stovetop stage of homebrewing.
But I also probably could have saved money buying the equipment online instead of in a store. (Beyond those three items, you need a long paddle to stir the wort while it’s boiling on the stovetop, an airlock to let carbon dioxide escape from the fermenting bucket, a bottling bucket with a spout to pour the beer into bottles, a siphon to transfer the beer from the fermenting bucket to the bottling bucket, and a test jar and hydrometer to measure the specific gravity before and after fermenting, without which you can’t get an alcohol by volume estimate.)
Sure, if you want to factor in the time homebrewing can take up–about four hours on brewing day, then an hour and change on bottling day–the math might not look so positive. It’s also possible that I’m more likely to pop open a bottle of beer when I’ve got the equivalent of two cases downstairs, much as buying skis and boots eliminates the cost of rentals but then costs you money by leading you to ski more often.
But there’s also this intangible: the look of pleased surprise on friends’ faces when you hand them an unlabeled bottle of beer and they realize who made it.