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How to Save Money Brewing Your Own Cheap Beer at Home With Online Kits

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By Ashley Watson, dealnews writer

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!


Ashley Watson received her MFA from Goddard College in January 2006. Upon completing her degree, she taught writing composition at the University of Arizona and began her career as a freelance writer. She is a contributor to the 2007 Teacher’s Guide to Living Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama, and she has published articles in various online and print magazines. She currently resides in Vermont.


Photo credit: Akasped

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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9 comments
ewalsh
I made 10 gallons of American Wheat, commercially like Widmer Hefeweizen beer. Got two 5 gallon kits from Norther Brewer. And I got one liquid yeast (got White Labs California Ale). I make starters so I can increase the size of the yeast to pitch to a 10 gallon batch, so that saves me some money. The beer kits where $16.99. So Total was: Two Beer kits(16.99 +16.99) + yeast (6.25) + S/H 7.99 = $48.22
Now I keg my own beer and don't need to bottle so save on the bottle caps and I buy corn sugar at local shop that adds a nominal cost to batch at kegging.
So cost is 3.7¢ per ounce or 45¢ per 12oz bottle. or $10.85 a 24 bottle case.
A 5 gallon batch gets you ~ 2.25 cases or in my brewing at 10 gallons its about 4.50 cases.
There is the cost of propane to boil the water for an hour, I use a cajun cooker. I get about 5-6 brew sessions per tank. And the cost of water, you use 11 gallons for a 10 gallon (you lose a gallon to evaporation) and I'd say 15-20 gallons to cool the beer down I use a immersion cooler. But I save the water in buckets for clean up, water comes out hot and does a great job for cleaning. I also know others who hook up to sprinkler and water lawn with the cooling water.
Home brewing can be very economical.
widmer
Really depends on how exotic you wanna get with your beer. If you just want to make a basic IPA, you're looking around $35-$40 for a 5 gallon kit. If you buy online that may or may not include shipping, just kinda depends on the site you buy from. Your local home brew store is your best bet for finding the cheapest prices.
MNealon
Given the title of this article, I was hoping for a "Cost Per Ounce" (similar to price per gig) comparison to the price one would pay for beer in the store. Hope that makes sense!
widmer
Kinda hard to explain the smell. A lil earthy maybe. Think of oatmeal cooking in a pot on the stove, if you're using any grains in the soon-to-be beer. It's not for everyone, but if you're into beer, you'll like it (I would guess).
dealguy
Thanks, widmer! What does it smell like while it's brewing? Beer? Yeast?
widmer
Are you talking like a MrBeer sized kit? Yeah, it's not very big at only 2ish gallons. However, you need to at least have a stove/burner to boil the wort. I personally enjoy the smell of the wort n hops boiling away. My wife, however, is quite glad that I'm outside doing my 5 gallon batches as she doesn't like the smell at all.

A couple of good books to read about home brewing are:
The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charles Papazian
How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time by John Palmer

And if you're into listening to beer talk, I've gotten a lot of good info from the Brewing Network's Sunday Session.
dealguy
Two questions: 1) Can these fit into a corner of a normal office? 2) Are there any smells that will bother your co-workers?
cs85b03
Just to note, you most likely will find a better deal on equipment kits at your local homebrewing store due to shipping costs. I get a kit similar to the "Better Basic Starter Kit" one listed here for $69.99+tax locally. The people there can help you with any questions you may have, too.
ewalsh
Check out http://www.morebeer.com and http://www.williamsbrewing.com for more brewing choices.
All shops mentioned in article and the two I added are good places.
I've been home brewing since 1990, it becomes a fun hobby that you can grow into and I have never made a bad beer. Also, this is a hobby that you can creative with. You can make 1/2 the stuff you need. And if you get into all stainless like I did, and need welding services, you can always barter service for home brew. You will be surprised how much you can get for your home brew. Just made Sunday 10 gallons of a Watermelon American Wheat beer myself. Will be ready to drink in 4 weeks. Just ready for Baseball Opening Day. Let the summer begin!.
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