Homebrewing on a Budget

April 30, 2013

Every year, homebrewing enthusiasts across the country celebrate National Homebrew Day on the first Saturday in May. If you'd like to be one of them, you can start your own homebrew while still being financially responsible.

Equipment
You can pick up a starter kit that brews a decent batch of beer for around $65-$70. If you’re on Living Social or Groupon, occasionally Midwest Supplies will offer an equipment and ingredient kit (including an instructional DVD) at about a 50% savings.

As you become more comfortable with brewing, you may find that you want to purchase more equipment that is helpful on brew day, but this is really all you need to get started.

Essential equipment:

  • Brew kettle (at least 20 qt, can be either aluminum or stainless steel)
  • Fermenter with lid or airlock (usually a plastic bucket or Better Bottle)
  • Bottling bucket
  • Thermometer
  • Hydrometer
  • Strainer
  • Auto siphon (this generally is not included in the cheaper starter kits, but trust me, this will be the best $15 you’ll ever spend)
  • Bottle caps
  • Bottle capper
  • Sanitizer

A lot of kits come with bottles, or you can buy them separately. Another option is to recycle older bottles, provided they’re not of the twist-off cap variety.

Ingredients

OK, so you’ve got your equipment, now what?  Obviously you’ll want something to actually brew, so ingredients come next.  Keep in mind that there are only four basic elements to beer:

  • Malt
  • Hops
  • Yeast
  • Water

How you combine these ingredients is what makes all the difference in terms of the taste and quality of your beer.  Homebrewers today have many more options than they did even 15 years ago, as there are a number of websites and iPhone/Android apps that provide easy to follow recipes, such as BeerSmith and iBrewMaster. If you’re not feeling quite that industrious your first time out, there are a lot of companies that sell kits that include all the ingredients and step-by-step instructions.

I’d highly recommend purchasing a kit, as the most important thing starting out is to understand the process. 

Where to Buy

First, in terms of the Local Homebrew Store (LHBS) there’s a lot to consider.  One important consideration is variety – some stores offer a huge supply of a lot of different options, other stores offer a few of the big items, some ingredients, and that’s about it.  Location is important too – you may have a homebrew supply store that is close to you, but it may specialize in winemaking (with beer homebrew kind of an afterthought).

Another thing to consider is the level of assistance the store is willing to provide.  Most homebrew stores employ people who are the right fit for their job --  i.e., they understand brewing and LOVE talking about it.  He/she is an indispensable commodity when it comes to sorting through all the homebrewing jargon you are likely to read. I’ve saved myself a lot of angst this way, so I consider it worth the trip to the LHBS -- as long as you seek out the employees willing to help. If you’re not sure, go ahead and check on Yelp, as I’ve found that homebrewers tend to be fairly candid about their experience.

Interestingly, one area that I haven’t found a lot of variance on is cost, as it seems like most LHBS are somewhat comparable.  However, some stores feature loyalty programs and offer discounts to people for, say, subscribing to their e-mail newsletter.  These are generally pretty good deals, and definitely worth considering.

Ordering from online suppliers is a great option if you have the time to shop around (as, unlike the LHBS, there can be a significant difference in terms of both variety and price), as well as the time and patience to wait for your products to be shipped to you. 

Suggested reading:

How to Brew by John Palmer
The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian

Links

Williams Homebrewing
Austin Homebrew Supply

Are you a homebrew aficionado? Share your tips by leaving a comment!

This post was written by Derek O. Dye, a manager in the Benefit Services Division at Colorado PERA.  

(Would you like to write a guest post for The Dime? Email us at dimecontact@copera.org.)