The Beer Hacker: Brewing on the cheap: All-grain vs. extract brewing

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

One of the comments from the last “Brewing on the cheap” post mentioned all-grain brewing as “far cheaper” since you’re buying grain in bulk, and in fact an examination of all-grain brewing as compared to extract brewing is something I had been planning in this series. How economical is brewing all-grain? Let’s take a look at some assumptions and work up some costs by style, and contrast with the extract costs. Also, there are some other economics considerations I’ll touch on at the end that you should consider when making the decision as to what type of economical brewer you are going to be.

The main difference in the two styles of brewing is that rather than using pre-processed malt extract (in the form of syrup or dried powder), you are mashing the grains yourself to convert and extract the sweet wort which you will boil for the beer. This process will give you more control over the brewing process but will significantly increase the amount of time you spend on brew day—for myself, brewing an extract-based batch of five gallons from start to clean-up takes about three to three-and-a-half hours; brewing all-grain with friends, I know the process can take five to six or more hours.

However, by using whole grains (cracked, of course), you are “cutting out the middleman” involved with the production of extract: it goes through the exact same mashing process to extract the wort, but it is further processed (via near-vacuum evaporation) to extract the majority of the water and concentrate the wort extract down to its syrup form (about 20% water) or dried powder form (1% or less water). Naturally, you are paying for these processing costs when you purchase malt extract.

What is the cost difference? Well, an assumption: let’s say an “average” beer uses ten pounds of grains for an all-grain batch (I’m picking up this figure from Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing), versus a seven-pound can of liquid malt extract.

The liquid malt extract, as we’ve previously established, will cost $18. The whole grain, if you buy it by the pound at the brew store, will cost $12.50. Why? Because the two-row malt at the brew store (my local one, anyway) costs $1.25 per pound (as opposed to the $1.90+ per pound for specialty grains). 1.25 x 10 = 12.50. Right there is a savings of $5.50.

But, if you’re a serious all-grain brewer, then you more than likely will buy your grains in bulk—by the 55-pound bag (and store it yourself). On average this will cost you in the range of $42 (at the local Brew Shop) to $60 per bag (from this online source), which equates to a per-pound cost of $0.76 to $1.09. Ten pounds at this rate will only cost the equivalent of $7.60 to $10.90—a $7.10 to $10.40 savings over extract for this “average” beer.

With these figures in mind, let’s update the pricing chart (again), and build a (new) table of per-beer-style costs, with comparison to the extract numbers, and notes of approximate amounts of grains used.

Ingredient Price Price (online)
Malt extract syrup – 7 lbs. $18.00 $16.50
Malt extract – dried – 3 lbs. $11.00 $11.25
Malt extract – dried – 1 lb. $4.25 $4.40
Base grains – per pound $1.25 $1.29 – 1.39
Base grains – per pound (bulk) $0.76 $1.09
Other grains – per pound $1.90 $1.45
Specialty grains – per pound $2.25 ~$2.00
Hops (whole leaf) $3.25 – 3.95 $5.50+
Liquid yeast $6.50 $6.00 – 10.00
Yeast – dry $1.25 – 3.95 $1.20 – 4.00
Corn sugar – 1 lb. $1.25 $1.00 – 2.00

The costs-per-style in this next table are based upon the previous style cost estimates, for a five-gallon batch of homebrew.

Style Extract price All-grain price Lbs. grain
American Pale Ale $31.15 $20.75 – 24.05 10
English Bitter $34.77 $21.85 – 24.49 8
India Pale Ale $43.35 $25.77 – 29.73 12
Double/Imperial IPA $54.92 $40.80 – 47.40 20
Brown Ale $31.07 $20.67 – 23.97 10
Porter $37.09 $27.25 – 30.88 11
Stout (basic) $34.40 $24.56 – 28.19 11
Imperial Stout $71.17 $51.99 – 59.25 22
Hefeweizen (basic) $29.95 $18.79 – 21.76 9
Cream Ale $29.15 $16.94 – 19.58 7-9
Belgian Witbier $35.93 $22.51 – 25.15 8
Barleywine ~$70 ~$52 – 59 20-22

(Of course, my estimates on pounds of grains used are approximates only and may well be off, depending on a number of things including your particular recipes, your extract efficiency, mashing regimen, etc.)

There is clearly a huge savings in all-grain brewing over extract brewing, even given the range of bulk grain prices. In fact, looking at the first article’s example of the retail cost for the equivalent volume of Pale Ale ($46), you’re looking at slashing the cost of the beer in half, whereas extract brewing yields a 28% savings over retail. Interestingly, the average savings in all-grain over extract works out to be about 28% also.

Based on these numbers, should you abandon extract brewing and switch over to all-grain immediately?

Well, not necessarily. As with everything else, there are (economic) tradeoffs. Let’s take a look at some of those:

  • Time. Do you value your time? Do you put a dollar value to your time? Remember, all-grain brewing doubles (or more) your time spent on brew day. Is saving, say, $10 worth the extra 3+ hours you’ll spend brewing? (Saving, or earning, depending on your point of view, $3.33 per hour.)
  • Initial equipment costs. If you don’t have the necessary equipment to move into all-grain brewing, then you likely need to purchase it. This won’t necessarily be cheap, so while you can amortize these equipment costs over the number of batches you brew on it, it’s still an expenditure which can push your all-grain brewing efforts into more expensive territory than extract at first.
  • Storage costs. Are you planning on buying your grain in bulk? If so, do you have a place to store it? (It needs to be dark, cool, and relatively dry.) You may need to buy something like a Rubbermaid garbage can to store the grain in and spare some closet space—and while to most people this may not seem like a significant expense (or any at all), I’ve known people (mostly real estate types) who actually would consider the cost of the square footage being used (as a percentage of your rent or mortgage costs).

In the end, both extract brewing and all-grain brewing have their economical high points, and I’m not going to advocate for either method here—it’s entirely up to you to make up your own mind which way you want to go. But hopefully some of these numbers will prove useful in that decision-making process.

2 Responses to The Beer Hacker: Brewing on the cheap: All-grain vs. extract brewing

  1. Kevin says:

    Great article. Something else to note about all-grain. I was initially reluctant to make the switch because of the initial investment. However, there are also ways to do it on the cheap. My first batch used the Papazian lauter tun, which was really just my bottling bucket and another 5 gal bucket with a lot of holes cut into the bottom. Also, if you are a member of a homebrew club, I’ve found that a lot of more experienced members are often willing to donate older equipment when they upgrade, or offer it on the cheap. I did splurge for an outdoor cooker, but almost everything else I use was either donated or obtained extremely cheaply.

  2. Gina says:

    A wonderful and well thought out article. This outlines many of the thoughts that have been cropping up for me in considering my switch to all-grain. Though, it seems that the article may be leaving out one consideration, taste.

    Will my Homebrew’s taste (depending upon ale style) be superior if I use the all grain method? One would think, but I can’t be sure until I switch. I sometimes find that I can taste right through the recipe straight into the malt extract… it tastes so obvious. Anybody else experience this? Come to any decisions?