The Beer Hacker: Brewing on the cheap: The $20 beer challenge

This is the latest in a series of articles about the economic impact of brewing your own beer at home.

One of the things that inspired this series was a sort of challenge I had in mind: Would it be possible to walk into the Brew Shop with only a $20 bill and walk out with all the necessary ingredients to brew a five-gallon batch of beer?

Why $20? Well, at one point when there was a bit of belt-tightening going on, it seemed like a reasonable price point to support my beer habit: the equivalent of a case of beer for $10, cheaper even than the alternative—canned macro lagers which run around $13-15 per case. Could I really produce beer cheaper than on-sale PBR? The more I thought about it, the more I decided I had to explore it.

Of course, you can brew some pretty awful stuff for pretty cheap, so of course one of the requirements is that it has to be good beer—flavorful and enjoyable. So, for less than the retail cost of any beer on the shelves, can it be done?

There are some guidelines and assumptions to keep in mind:

  • As I mentioned, the beer needs to be a quality brew: flavor, character, more enjoyable to drink than cold canned lagers. Otherwise, what’s the point?
  • $20 won’t buy much, so heavier, higher-alcohol beers are out of the question.
  • There’s nothing wrong with raiding the pantry for adjuncts and additions: anything you have already in the house can be considered “found” ingredients that don’t count against the $20, particularly if it’s something that doesn’t have a “high turnover rate”—in other words, it’s not being used (much) and won’t need to be replaced any time soon.
  • You should already have all the equipment you need to brew your beer—this isn’t a challenge to see how cheaply you can put together a basic brewing system.
  • Prices I quote are the current ones at my local Brew Shop. Your mileage may vary.

Since I’m (currently) an extract brewer, I approached this challenge in an extract frame of mind. But not to worry: I’ll also tackle the all-grain perspective as well.

Extract

Obviously the biggest expense in the beer is going to be the fermentables: malt extract, either in liquid or dried form (DME). We can immediately discount liquid: the seven pound container costs $18, and that would leave me with only enough money left over to buy a packet of dried yeast.

Fortunately the Brew Shop sells DME in three-pound and one-pound packages at cheaper prices: $11 and $4.25, respectively. That makes it easier to work with, but it’s still apparent that we’re probably looking at about four pounds of DME as a maximum: $15.25, which leaves some wiggle room for hops and yeast. And possibly a few ounces of specialty grains.

Knowing this informs us better of our end target: three to four pounds of DME by itself will give you a starting gravity in the range of 1.027 to 1.036 for five gallons of beer, which can get you in the range of 2-3.6% alcohol by volume in the finished product. That certainly makes for a light session beer, but if you want something stronger, the cheapest way to add strength is by adding sugar.

Gasp! Adding sugar as an adjunct! Isn’t such a thing strictly verboten?!? Hardly! Belgian brewers use sugar as an adjunct all the time, and forget the old myth about sugar adding a cidery character to your beer—it just isn’t true. Stan Hieronymus has done a good job debunking the sugar myth, both in his book Brew Like a Monk and on his blog. Adding sugar (corn or even table/cane sugar) to the fermentables bill will add strength, lighten up the body, and won’t cost much at all.

I wouldn’t recommend more than 20-25% of the fermentables as sugar, though, which means at most a pound in addition to the three or four pounds of DME. Keeping those numbers in mind, here’s a table with some approximate gravities and alcohol expectations for a five-gallon batch of beer:

Fermentables Original Gravity (OG) ABV range Cost*
3# DME 1.027 1.9 – 2.5% $11
3# DME + 1# corn sugar 1.034 2.9 – 3.4% $12.25
3# DME + 1# table sugar 1.036 3.1 – 3.6% $11 – 11.67
4# DME 1.036 3.1 – 3.6% $15.25
4# DME + 1# corn sugar 1.043 4.1 – 4.6% $16.50
4# DME + 1# table sugar 1.045 4.3 – 4.8% $15.25 – 15.92

* These costs are based on our previous charts—in particular, corn sugar costs $1.25 per pound. But guess what? You likely already have table (cane) sugar in your pantry—so I’m ranging the table sugar costs from free (you already have it) to approximate cost per pound (based on an average cost of $0.67 per pound in the grocery store (bargain brand, of course)).

With this data, there are a number of beer styles we can experiment with:

  • Ordinary Bitter
  • Mild Ale
  • Scottish Light 60/- to Heavy 70/-
  • Berliner Weiss
  • American Light Lager
  • Blonde/Cream Ale
  • English Brown Ale

(In the case of Berliner Weiss, you’d want to use wheat malt extract. The Brew Shop has wheat DME for $4.75 per pound. Of course, there’s a whole lactic sourness issue with this style that may not be viable for $20.)

Note, of course, that in addition to light extract, you can (usually) also purchase amber and dark extracts at the same price—so you’re not going to be limited to lighter-colored and flavored beers (just limited on strength).

What about specialty grains? Let’s get to those in a minute; first, there are two other ingredients that have fixed price points that can’t be avoided: hops and yeast.

Most hops come in two-ounce packages, so that’s what you’ll have to work with, and our budget (probably) will allow you one package of hops that range in price from $3.25 to $3.75. Fortunately this should apply to hops across the board, so if you want a bitter beer you can purchase high alpha acid hops at the same rate as lower alpha acid (aroma) hops.

Similarly, you can get a packet of dried yeast for $1.25, so that’s the budget price we’ll work with. These days dried yeasts are of a decent quality so you shouldn’t have to worry about the “good old days” of dubious yeast that might be little better than what you’d put in bread.

Knowing these two fixed prices, here’s an updated pricing chart based on the above one, with an additional figure: remaining money to play with.

Fermentables OG ABV Cost Remaining
3# DME 1.027 1.9 – 2.5% $15.50 – 16 $4 – 4.50
3# DME + 1# corn sugar 1.034 2.9 – 3.4% $16.75 – 17.25 $2.75 – 3.25
3# DME + 1# table sugar 1.036 3.1 – 3.6% $15.50 – 16.67 $3.33 – 4.50
4# DME 1.036 3.1 – 3.6% $19.75* $0.25
4# DME + 1# corn sugar 1.043 4.1 – 4.6% $21** ($1)
4# DME + 1# table sugar 1.045 4.3 – 4.8% $19.75 – 20.42* $0.25 ($0.42)

* Since adding 50 more cents to a hops price would push the total over $20, we have to only look at the cheaper hops (whatever they may be).
** Since even the cheaper hops push the price to $21, this option would be knocked out of our challenge.

It’s clear from this chart that if we want to incorporate any specialty grains in the beer, it needs to be with the 3-pound DME recipe. Assuming an average price of $2 per pounds for the grains (depending on the grain, it ranges from $1.90 to 2.25 per pound), we could use anywhere from about 2.5 to 4 pounds of specialty grains within the $20 budget—not bad at all!

All-grain

As we discovered from the last article, all-grain brewing saves you about 28% over the cost of extract brewing. That puts the dollar figures in the above chart in the range of $11.16 to $15.12—plenty of wiggle room inside the budget. In fact, you’d be able to scale your recipe up to 12 to 20 pounds of grains within the $20 budget, which opens up most beer styles to brewing availability.

Need I say more? If you’re set up for all-grain, and are looking for a budget challenge, start with $15 rather than $20. Or change the parameters: can you walk in with your $20 and walk out with all the ingredients you need to brew a tasty, quality beer, and one or two bottles of craft beer from the bottle shop to enjoy while brewing it?

Pantry Raiding

I did mention the use of “found” ingredients already on-hand to liven up your beer, and not count against the budget. Off the top of my head, these could include:

  • Molasses
  • Honey
  • Rolled oats
  • Raisins (and other dried fruits)
  • Brown sugar (though generic brown sugar is just cane sugar colored with molasses)
  • Coffee
  • Maple syrup (though commercial/generic syrup is mostly corn syrup)
  • Cocoa/chocolate
  • Spices

And of course, you could supplement the pantry by taking any leftover money and browsing the grocery store for interesting additions. (In fact, pantry raiding and grocery browsing might make an interesting “Brewing on the cheap” article on their own.)

Conclusion

Obviously, keeping the budget considerations I laid out in mind, you can absolutely walk into your Brew Shop with a $20 bill and walk out with everything you need to brew a potentially great batch of beer—given that your Shop has similar prices to what I’ve presented here.

I had a sense of this before, though last year hop prices were in the $5-6 range and presented more of a problem. But solidifying the numbers and breaking down by the fermentables possibilities is definitely eye-opening. It can be done.

Can you do it?

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