If I think about how much money I've spent on beer over the years, the total sum would probably make my house payments for a year — not because I pound pints as if every day were St. Patty's day, but because I'm a self-proclaimed beer snob. Sadly for me and my ilk, microbrews and other premium beers cost twice as much those "stepchildren of the beer world," as Wise Bread's Paul Michael colorfully calls them. Even though I agree that PBR does deserve its blue ribbon, I still prefer top-shelf beers and saving money.
What's a better way to save than by brewing my own? Making your own beer at home is cheap and easy, according to many homebrewers. However, most experienced brewers agree that you don't want to venture into home brewing without having all the proper equipment. So that means finding the right start-up kit is essential for any beginner; finding one within the budget is essential for any bargain hunter.
To gear up for St. Patrick's Day, the one day of the year when everything is green (including the beer), I compared the prices of popular beer kits and asked people what they thought about them. Here's a list of starter kits used by seasoned beer brewers who were willing to share how they saved some green by crafting their own quality brews. They may not share the same opinion on the best kit, but they certainly share a passion for beer.
Mr. Beer Deluxe Home Microbrewery Kit, $29.99
This is by far the cheapest, most basic kit and can be found on Amazon.com; its reviews are mixed. Ashley Miller bought this kit from Amazon about six months ago, and now she says she wouldn't recommend it to anyone. "I knew when purchasing this kit that it would not work as well as real brewing equipment," she says, "but I didn't expect it to be so bad." Miller said she had to throw out the entire batch and suggests investing in quality equipment if you expect quality results.
On the other hand, David Eads found a Mr. Beer kit on clearance for $15 at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and he says that he was pleased with the kit, since it was a cheap way to see if he really wanted to get into beer making. "The Mr. Beer kit makes very small batches," Eads says, "but it's good for newbies that don't want to lug 5-gallon buckets and waste $30 worth of supplies if they mess something up." After a few batches, Eads decided his skills had surpassed what Mr. Beer could offer and upgraded his equipment, but he doesn't regret buying the basic kit first.
Better Basic Starter Kit, $119.99
Zack Adams has been brewing at home for three years, and last year, took home a medal at the Boston Homebrew Competition. He recommends the Better Basic Starter Kit, which you can order online from Northern Brewer. "In any kit, you want to make sure it follows a process that somewhat resembles what a commercial brewer is doing," says Adams. Although it's more costly than some of the other kits out there, you can find less expensive kits on the Northern Brewer site. No matter which kit you decide to use, Adams recommends that you make sure it includes the following: at least one 5-gallon food-grade bucket, a 5-gallon carboy, an auto-syphon, a hydrometer and a capper.
Brewers Best Beer Making Equipment Kit, $59.95
I found this kit at homebrewit.com, and it includes all the equipment you need to get started, plus a few extras. Janet DeGras, who writes recipes for Mosaic Kitchen, started brewing beer two years ago using equipment she already had for wine making. She highly recommends using Brewers Best Ingredient Kits for your malts and hops, which allow the home brewer to "make subtle adjustments without needing to be fully versed in the finer points of the process."
Her last batch — made with 100% maple syrup from Quebec and a Brewer's Best kit for Scottish Ale — resulted in a medium ale (see picture), which she describes as "distinctly smoky with creamy consistency, subtle chocolate overtones, and a hint of sweetness." She named the finished product Snow Bank Scottish-Canadian Maple Ale because on brewing day, she chilled the wort (liquid extracted from the mashing process) in the snow behind her house instead of using ice. DeGras also says that kits tend to be cheaper at local brewers supply stores, where they also offer advice and host events for homebrewers.
AHS Brewing Equipment Kit (2 Stage), $123.99
If you think you're ready to brew with the big kids and want prize-winning beer in return for your investment, this is the kit for you. Sarah Zomper, a homebrewer based in Austin, raves about this kit, arguing that it has the best value, even for non-locals because of the free shipping offer at Austin Homebrew Supply. "While the kit is more expensive then other homebrew kits on the market," she says, "the quality and quantity of beer we have produced has been significantly better than others."
Compared to the amount of money she would spend on purchasing the same amount of beer at the store, Zomper found that she could get back her investment after just a few batches. More importantly, the AHS Brew kit has all the equipment needed to make quality microbrews at home, except for a stockpot (sometimes called a kettle kit), which most people already have, and a plastic bucket opener, which Zomper purchased for $3.99. Not a bad price, considering Zomper's final plug: "If you want to make beer just to say you made it then go with one of the cheaper kits. If you want to make good beer you are really proud of, have enough to share with friends and do it again, then this is a great kit."
If you still aren't sure you want to invest $100 in a kit, I heard from a lot of brewers who got started by finding the basic equipment at bargain prices, or for free. You can ask restaurants or your local grocers if they have any empty 5-gallon food-grade buckets, or ask them to save one for you. I used to work in produce at the local co-op, where we gave away tofu buckets every day to customers. I have to agree with Zomper that getting the lid off is a pain, so you'll want to invest in an opener. One word of caution from Janet DeGras about plastics — they retain odors, so you want to be careful what type of plastic container you choose. For instance, don't use something that had vinegar in it, or switch between beer and wine if you choose to make both.
A small group of my friends in Burlington, VT, who make cider, beer and wine, have a sort of 5-gallon carboy cooperative, since it is the most expensive piece of equipment. You can also always find retired brewers pawning off their brewing supplies for extra cash, or giving it away. Remember to check craigslist or a local brewers supply store for deals. DeGras also recommends Old West Homebrew Supply for deals on brew equipment and ingredients.
Lastly, don't forget the bottles. Save all your old beer bottles to re-use, but make sure they are not twist-off bottles. David Kaiser says one of his earliest mistakes was using twist-off bottles in addition to putting in too much sugar to carbonate the batch. Because of this combination, every bottle in the batch exploded. "There was shattered glass embedded in the opposite wall, like shrapnel from a grenade." David says the best bottles to use are Sam Adams bottles because of their strength and standard size.
Aside from the threat of explosions and skunky beer, brewing your own can be easy and affordable if you just put a little effort and thought into it. Experienced brewers, as I've learned, are always willing to offer advice or even let you help with one of their batches if you really want to see the process.
Wishing you the luck of the Irish on all your brewing adventures. Happy St. Patrick's Day!
Photo credit: Akasped