Homebrewing is a hidden secret for craft beer lovers to save money. Here’s how it actually works, and how much money you can save.
I love craft beer.
What I don’t so much love is the price—which is tough, since I live in Fort Collins, Colorado, one of the major craft beer hubs in the United States.
That’s why I was so excited when my husband launched my homebrewing hobby with a just-add-water brewing kit one Christmas. I learned not only how to make cheap tasty beer, but I also learned a little bit more about taking things slow and enjoying life.
How do you make beer?
Brewing beer isn’t rocket science. But there are a lot of steps, and a lot of waiting in between.
Brew day: Part I
It all starts with getting your equipment in order. You can buy quality, cheap homebrewing kits for $150 or less online or from your local homebrew supply store (yep, they do exist).
Pick out a craft beer recipe from a homebrewing book, or find one online and buy the required ingredients. Then, sanitize the heck out of your equipment so no bad bacteria or fungi infect your batch of beer. (If you thought a sinus infection was bad, wait until you see a whole five-gallon batch of beer get infected.).
Next, we’ll actually brew the beer. Most recipes call for some variation of the following: heat up 2-3 gallons of water with some flavoring grains, such as crystal malt or roasted barley, in a giant teabag. Pull the grains out before it boils and add in a small bucket of liquid malt extract (it looks like molasses)—this is the sugar that will later turn into alcohol. Boil this solution—with hops added in—for about an hour or so. What you’ll have at the end is wort (pronounced “wert”), or unfermented beer.
Brew day: Part II
To get the fermented goodness that is beer, we’ll need to add some microorganisms. You can also buy live yeast at your local homebrew shop, or get dried powdered yeast online (but the fresh stuff is so much more satisfying for some reason).
Add the wort to your fermenting vessel, top it off to the five-gallon mark with cold water, and let sit until it’s room temperature. I like to use a giant glass carboy mostly because it makes me feel like a mad scientist, although a five-gallon bucket with a sealing lid works just fine too.
You’ll need to take a specific gravity reading with the hydrometer that comes in your brewing kit. This tells you how dense the liquid is, so you know when it’ll be done brewing. Finally, add in the yeast (a process the homebrew nerds call pitching) and seal the fermentation vessel with a fermentation lock that allows air to bubble out, but not in.
You’ll see a roiling swirl of bubbles and foam over the next few days as the yeast consume the sugar and turn it into alcohol. The fermentation lock will be babbling away like a small brook as carbon dioxide is released (it’s a nice noise, actually). Gradually, over a few weeks, it’ll slow down. That’s your signal that it’s almost done brewing.
Bottle the beer
You’ll know the beer is done brewing when you take another specific gravity reading and see that the beer is less dense (sugary liquids are more dense than alcoholic liquids). In fact, you can even calculate the ABV of your beer using some neat formulas in this way!
If you’re like most people, you prefer carbonated beer to flat beer. So, to add in carbon dioxide, we’ll bottle-condition the beer. This is different from how the big beer companies force-carbonate their beer, and it adds a nice homey touch to your brew.
All you have to do is boil some sugar with water according to your recipe. Make sure to measure it exactly. If you add in too much sugar, you can create exploding beer bombs if the yeast get carried away and produce too much carbon dioxide! It happened to a friend of mine and she did not have fun cleaning up that mess.
Add in the sugar water to a second bottling bucket. Then, siphon the beer out of the fermentation vessel into the bottling bucket. From here, use a bottling wand (alas; not as fun as a magic wand, but close) to fill up each bottle of beer. Use a capping machine to add a cap on the beer, and voila!
Condition the beer
Let your newly-capped creations sit in a cool dark spot for a week or two to develop carbonation. Your beers are now ready to drink. Pour out each beer carefully and leave the last ½ inch or so in the bottle, since this will be full of yeast residue from the bottle conditioning process.
Distilling down the numbers
Believe it or not, homebrew beer is incredibly cheap. A standard batch of ale costs me around $40 to make, and I can get eight six-packs out of it. That boils down to just 83 cents per craft beer!
In contrast, the cheapest I can get a craft beer for is at Costco, for $1.33 per bottle—and don’t even get me started on what a local craft brew from a tap room costs (even if it is also equally fantastic).
I get a lot more out of my handcrafted beer than just a lot of cash savings, though. It takes a lot of steps to make, but the results are oh-so-worth it.
There’s something about the process of making beer and watching it bubble away while fermenting that is almost primal. Like making bread, knitting, or hunting. In today’s fast-paced digital society, it reminds me that some things are worth taking it slow and methodically. Now, excuse me while I go crack open a cold homebrew.
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