Why You Should Homebrew: Great Taste, Less Spending

Did you know that in Australia, you can make your own alcohol (conditions apply)? So why are you still buying it from the supermarket?

To put that into perspective, 800 litres will fill roughly 1000 standard 750mL bottles of wine. You can't sell it, that's illegal, but you can drink it yourself. While setting sail on a river of beer might seem enticing, many people are wary of homebrewing because it appears to be overly complex and scientific—but the truth is that basic beer and winemaking isn't much more difficult than making soup. And the best part is that doing it yourself can have you enjoying a better quality of beverage at a substantially reduced cost.

Ingredients With both wine and beer, your finished product is only as good as your ingredients. As a beginner, I urge you to stick with all-in-one ingredient kits until you are ready to branch out into more complex recipes. These kits are cost effective and include all of the ingredients and instructions to make a particular style of beer or wine. For example, I recently purchased a Hefeweizen kit (with liquid yeast upgrade) for about $US40. Throw in 20 litre jugs of spring water and I'm going to end up with about 50 bottles of high quality beer for about 85 cents apiece. Even the cheapest beer costs around a buck a bottle when purchased at a store.

Wine kits work in much the same way and will usually run you between $US70 and $US200 on average. So, if you were looking for an everyday wine, a $US70 kit with a bag of corks and six gallons of spring water (for the concentrated grape juice) would yield 30 bottles of wine at less than $US3 a bottle. It's not going to be a world-class wine or anything, but its probably going to be on par with bottles you would pay twice as much for in a store. Keep in mind that ingredient kits are sometimes bundled with starter equipment kits, which could mean greater savings.

Sanitation and Water Outside of the main ingredients, various sanitary compounds and bottled water will usually be your only other repeat purchases. Near obsessive compulsive sanitation practices are of the utmost importance, so you will definitely need compounds like One-Step no rinse sanitizer or Sodium Metabisulfite (wine only). These compounds only cost a few dollars for a decent supply and can be bought in bulk if necessary.

Homebrewers are fussy about their water and there are a lot of contradictory opinions floating around about what type of water you should be using. Generally, the rule of thumb is spring water for beer because it lacks off odours and flavours and it possesses nutrients that feed the yeasts needed for fermentation. Some claim that distilled water is best for wine because of its purity while others claim that it should be avoided because it has been stripped of nutrients. As far as I'm concerned, spring water is probably your best bet in both cases. Obviously, buying this in the store will bring your overall costs up—but tap water is going to be fine as long as it is thoroughly filtered.

Equipment There is a startup cost associated with this hobby of course, but your investment will eventually pay for itself if you are brewing in any significant quantity. As I noted earlier, the ingredients and various sanitation compounds that you will be buying again and again are inexpensive when compared to a finished product you buy at the store. Most homebrewing stores or online merchants will offer a starter's set that will provide most if not all of the necessary gadgets and equipment for up to $US100 (without ingredients). Plus, basic beer and winemaking can be done at home with (mostly) the same set of tools. You may even have some of this stuff lying around the house already. Standard Beer Starter's Kit: • 25-litre plastic fermenting bucket • Bottling bucket with spigot • Airlock - Allows gases to escape during fermentation without air exposure; comes in several varieties • Triple-scale hydrometer - Lets you take measurements on sugar percentage, alcohol potential and specific gravity • Bottle capper - There are several varieties, but most kits will come with a standard handheld version • Racking stem - Part of the siphon system that is used to "rack" or transfer wine/beer into different containers • Siphon tubing • Spring-loaded bottle filler • Cleaning brushes • Rubber stoppers

Necessities That Might Not Come With Your Starter Kit: • One big-ass brew kettle - 20 quart is fine, but I urge picking up a 30 quart that allows you to brew up more wort (unfermented beer) without worrying about boil over. Stainless steel is recommended. I was able to purchase the kettle above for $US75 at my local brewmaster store, but you might be able to find something even cheaper at Walmart or on Craigslist. • Floating thermometer - These are only a few bucks at Walmart. • Long Handled Spoon - You probably already own something that would work. • Around fifty 12 oz brown glass beer bottles, forty 16 oz bottles or thirty 22 oz bottles for a standard 5 gallon batch - Start saving your empties now, because these are a ripoff to buy separately. • A long, shallow plastic bin - These are great for sterilizing your instruments with a minimum of water and solution. You may also want to consider a large, deep bucket if your sink isn't big enough to properly fit your kettle and icewater when it comes time to chill the wort. If you don't already have these on hand, both should only set you back $US5-$10 apiece. • A funnel - Useful in both beer and winemaking, you probably have several lying around in your home right now. Larger sizes for racking and filtering beer can be found for $US10 or less.

Standard Wine Starters Kit: A wine starter's kit comes with just about everything that a beer version does. The differences are that the fermenting bucket may be a bit bigger, the bottling bucket will be replaced with a 20-litre glass or plastic jug known as a carboy (though some beer starter kits do include a carboy) and the capper will be replaced with a corking instrument. There is no need for a kettle since wine is not boiled, but the other extras will definitely be useful. Again, remember to save your empty bottles—about 30 for a standard 20-litre batch. You may also need to buy a set of 30 corks, which usually run less than $US10.

Gadgets You Might Want To Consider: Although not necessary, you will probably find yourself looking for these time-saving gadgets somewhere down the line, mostly regardless of whether you're making wine or beer. • Drill-mounted stirring rod - Takes the armwork out of stirring liquid in the fermenter or carboy and its excellent at removing or "de-gasing" CO2 from wine. Also good for aerating wort to promote yeast action. These can usually be had for around $US20. • Auto-siphon - Racking wine or beer requires you to create a vacuum that will transfer the fluid through the siphon assembly to another container. An auto-siphon handles this with a simple pump action. It's also great at preventing sediment from going along for the ride. These run $US10 to $US15. • Wine or beer thief - Used for cleanly extracting samples of your brew for hydrometer testing—some even double as a hydrometer tube. You can get proper instruments at a homebrew store for under $US10, but a turkey baster will work just fine in most situations.) • Floor corker - If you are making wine, you may not be satisfied with hand corkers. They are super easy to use and insure a proper fit every time, which reduces the chance of oxidation. These usually run from $US50 to $US120, but can be rented for a day at most brewmaster stores. • Bottle sterilisers/rinsers - Makes the job of sterilising bottles easier and it uses less water. Basic versions can be found for $US20 or less. • Carboy handles - Glass carboys are slippery and fragile. If only I had one before I broke a 20-litre carboy full of wine all over my kitchen floor. It was epically bad. Less than $US10 will save you from this horror. Plastic carboys are also available.

As you mature as a homebrewer, you will find even more ways to cut costs down—experienced brewers can make bottles of beer for 50 cents or less). However, in the beginning it pays to stick with kits for ingredients and equipment. It also pays to look for quality bundles—there are an endless array out there that range from starter sets to super deluxe packages. Just make sure to shop around at local stores and online before you buy.

Because of all the factors involved, determining how long it will take to recoup your equipment investment is hard to say. Even time is a factor: Many kit beers are drinkable in a month's time while basic kit wines usually take at least three to six months—longer if you want improved quality. If you are comparing the cost of your craft beer and wine to the cheapest of swills, the craft brews will lose every time. It's about quality—and quality beer in the store is going to probably run $US9 or $US10 for a six pack. If you are producing beer of a similar quality at home for less than a dollar a bottle, the math works out well. Plus wine and beer use basically the same set of tools, so I get the most out of my equipment by producing both throughout the year.

Many of you readers are homebrewers and winemakers too. How about sharing your own tips for saving money while expanding your beverage horizons?

Taste Test is our week-long tribute to the leaps that occur when technology meets cuisine, spanning everything from the historic breakthroughs that made food tastier and safer to the Earl Grey-friendly replicators we impatiently await in the future.

Top Image via Spewing Obscenities

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