How to Wisely Spend Your Home Brewing Dollar

by Brad Smith on February 21, 2014 · 1 comment

piggy-bank-webWhen I first started brewing way back in 1987, I had just finished college. Times were tight and I was always looking for creative ways to save money on home brewing. Some of the things I did, like building my own wort chiller, were smart decisions, but other ones were not. Indeed some of my “money saving” strategies cost me more in the long term. I thought I would share a few of my lessons learned.

Buy Quality Ingredients

This is one of the areas I skimped on early on. I would buy 3 lbs of malt in an old can, and add 4 lbs of sugar to make a 5 gallon batch. The beer was thin and lifeless. I often used the cheapest yeast I could find, usually a tiny packet of yeast attached to the can. I think some of this stuff was a closer relation of bread yeast than brewers yeast. I bought hopped extract (some of it had been in a can for years) instead of springing for good quality hops.

My beer suffered. Some batches were so bad, I was embarrassed to share them with anyone and drank them quietly or even (gasp!) dumped them. A few came out “ok”, which gave me hope for the future.

Later I learned that quality ingredients matter. I bought fresh malt extract from a reputable dealer, and stored it in the refrigerator. I sprung for liquid yeast (which was not available in 1987) or good quality dry yeast. I used fresh hops and stored them in the refrigerator. Sometimes I even bought distilled water if the local water source was not good for the beer I was brewing.

My beer improved dramatically – and I started to really enjoy home brewing much more than I had imagined.

Buy Equipment for the Long Term

The classic example I cite here are brewing pots. I own a bunch of them. I started with a 3 gallon porcelain lined pot, only to decide that was too small. So I bought a 5 gallon (19 l) one, but it chipped easily. Then I wanted to go all grain and bought a 7 gallon aluminum pot. That was a bit small as well, and eventually I upgraded to a 10 gallon (38 l) stainless pot. That one actually lasted me many years, and I still use it.

By the time I bought the last pot, I probably had a few hundred dollars invested just in pots. I would have been much better off to just buy a quality stainless 5 gallon (19 liter) pot for extract brewing, and then a 10 gallon (38 l) stainless pot for all grain. The 5 gallon pot could have doubled as a hot liquor tun for all grain.

The same could go for many of the items I bought early on. My plastic fermentation bucket is long gone, replaced long ago by glass carboys, though the new plastic carboys designed for brewing are great as well. A good 2-3 liter flask for starters up front could have saved me money instead of buying ones too small for my needs.

Another investment I made way too late (probably 8 years into brewing) was a kegging system. For eight long years I slaved over bottles, removing labels, brushing mold from the bottom, sanitizing, filling, capping. Now I keg the bear and have it in the fridge in less than 10 minutes, and I can adjust the carbonation rate by just turning the CO2 up or down a bit. The time savings in just a few batches paid for the keg system.

Make Your Own Equipment, When it Makes Sense

Though I advocate investing in your equipment for the long term, there is still plenty of room for innovation and experimentation. I made a wort chiller many years ago from a coil of copper from the hardware store. I still use it, and the cost was a fraction of a commercial model. I have a mash tun made from a rubbermaid 5 gallon (19 l) water cooler – and I still use it regularly for small batches. Those with more skill can consider welding your own 3-tier brewing sculpture (with burners), building a counterpressure bottle filler, exotic wort chillers, a hop back, or even your own computer controlled RIMS or HERMS all grain system. The possibilities are endless!

Look for Good Deals

Anyone with patience and a bit of time on their hands can find some great deals in home brewing equipment and ingredients. As a generic example, the week after Thanksgiving is a great time to pick up a large pot or burner. Why? Because that’s when Walmart and Home Depot sell off all of the turkey fryer kits they bought for Thanksgiving at a discount.

Online there are some great deals as well – just check the sale page for your favorite home brew supply store. Alternately consider sites like Homebrew Finds. Local stores also often have items on sale, and also frequently offer discounts to local homebrew club members. Be patient, and wait until the item you really need goes on sale.

I hope some of these tips help you to make good decisions about how to invest your home brewing dollar. Thanks for joining me on the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter or my podcast (also on itunes…and radio station) for more great tips on homebrewing.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ben Kruger February 24, 2014 at 12:25 pm

This is a great blog on how to start home brewing. I’m in the same place where you were when you started as I’m just finishing up college and am now looking into a home brewing system with my dad. When you’re building your own equipment how long and what kind of investments were you putting into it? Would you say being a cheap college student it would make sense to put all the time and effort into making my own equipment or should I start by buying a starter kit? I love trying out all kinds of new beers which would make this a fun hobby to have. Drinking a beer brewed by yourself must be a very fun thing to do and can’t wait to get in there and enjoy my first brew! This article also helped me figure out where to start:

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