The Brew Site

The Beer Hacker: Brewing on the cheap

This is the first part in a series of articles about the economic impact of brewing your own beer at home. This first article is an introduction and sets up our assumptions and base numbers to work with; later articles are going to look at the relative costs of brewing different styles of beer, extract versus all-grain, and exploring if it’s possible to brew quality beer for $20 or less.

(Note: Updated for 2017!)

Other posts in this series:

It’s no secret that beer prices have been rising in recent years: unless you’re drinking macrobrewed lager or have a local, large-ish microbrewery, you’re likely paying in the neighborhood of $7 to $12 for a six-pack of beer, maybe more if the beer is harder to get or exclusive somehow. (Many breweries like Dogfish Head or Maui Brewing, for instance, sells four-packs starting at $11 to $12.)

Enter homebrewing. The prospect of brewing your own quality beer for far less than what you’ve been paying retail has huge appeal, particularly these days. But is it true? There’s been some debate lately over whether brewing your own beer is truly cheaper (in the long run).

Personally, I think homebrewing is the cheaper alternative—but I’ve never taken the time to fully explore that assertion. I want to definitively answer the question, “Is homebrewing really a more economical way of keeping you supplied with beer?

Let’s look at some numbers to get a baseline for how much you can expect to pay for good beer:

Looking at this breakdown, it becomes immediately clear that buying beer by the six-pack is a ridiculously expensive way to go if you’re looking to cut back and save money. To do that, you need to look at buying in bulk—in other words, by the case.

(Of course, not every craft brew is easily available by the case, nor is it available at Costco—i.e., warehouse—prices. But for simplicity’s sake I’m going with these figures; naturally, if beer costs more in your area, then you have more leeway to work with.)

Based on these numbers, my back-of-the-napkin calculations seem to indicate that the “magic” price to beat for microbrewed-quality beer (two cases worth, which is what a typical homebrew batch will approximately yield) is right around $50.

So we have our “economical price point.”

Let’s figure out some base prices for beer ingredients. First, some assumptions:

With those in mind, here is a basic table of prices:

Ingredient Price Price (online)
Malt extract syrup – 7 lbs. $18.00 $20.00 – 24.00
Malt extract – dried – 3 lbs. $11.75 $12.00 – 14.50
Malt extract – dried – 1 lb. $4.50 ~$5.00
Grains – per pound (avg) $1.90 ~$1.50
Specialty grains – per pound $2.00 – 2.95 ~$2.00
Hops (whole leaf) $3.00 – 5.50 $4.00 – 8.00
Liquid yeast $6.75 – 9.75 $7.00 – 10.00
Yeast – dry $1.25 – 3.95 $1.20 – 4.00
Corn sugar – 1 lb. $1.25 $1.50 – 3.00

As we can see, the prices are generally comparable, so I’ll use my local price references most of the time. You would also factor in shipping prices when ordering online.

As a quick exercise, let’s figure out the cost of a five-gallon batch of Pale Ale, using liquid yeast and two ounces of hops. I’ll throw in some grains as well to make it interesting.

Total: $33.25. Yield: approximately two cases of moderately-hopped Pale Ale, roughly 5 to 6% alcohol by volume.

Remember our economical price point for two cases of microbrew? $50. So already, brewing a fairly basic beer, we’re ahead $16.75.

(Naturally, there is time involved too—four to six weeks, say—and I’m not accounting for the cost of bottles and bottle caps. Bottles can, of course, be recycled from the beer you’re already drinking; and caps will probably cost $3-5 for 144 or so.)

Seems pretty straightforward, right? At first glance, it appears brewing your own beer is cheaper than buying it. But remember, this is for a pretty basic style of beer, without a lot of bells and whistles.

So a question to keep in mind which I’ll address in the next installment: about how much can you expect to spend on various styles of beer?

And, a bonus question for later on: how much cheaper can we go?