I decided to brew an Oktoberfest today because the forecast high temperature for the foreseeable future here has dropped to below 60 degrees. I can lager the beer in the garage. The ideal temperature for a primary fermentation for a lager is between 53 and 59 degrees. The ideal temperature for a secondary fermentation is 35 to 42 degrees. I want to do a lager without buying additional brewing equipment.
Your Beer Taste
If you like macro-brewery beers like Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Light, it isn’t worth it to home brew. Those beers are relatively cheap to buy retail. We had years where our house beer of choice was Old Milwaukee’s Best Light because it was cheap. I learned the valuable lesson in college that you can drink anything, if it is cold enough. My taste for beer progressed during the microbrewery fad of the 1990’s, and I wen from drinking Miller Lite to drinking craft beer, particularly porters, stouts, and IPAs. Financially, I would be better off if I preferred macro-brewery beers. Beer is an area I have chosen to indulge myself. As a friend of mine put aptly, “I now drink better beer, but way less of it.”
During the same period of time, my sophistication in wine decreased. I was a server during summers in college. They used to have wine tasting parties for us so we could make recommendations to customers. At this point in time, I am happy with a $3 bottle of wine from the local grocery store. Cheap wine is no longer Boone’s Farm and similar pop wines. I won’t criticize your taste for cheap beer, if you don’t criticize my taste for cheap wine.
Your Equipment Costs
I was given most of my brewing equipment from my wife’s cousin. It included a fermentation bucket, a glass carboy, a carboy brush, a bottle filler and tubing, a bottle brush, and a bottle capper. I purchased a bottling bucket and an auto siphon. Right now, an essential brewing starter kit from Northern Brewer is about $100 with shipping. You may be able to find cheaper equipment on Craigslist, or at a local brewing store. This equipment works, if you are brewing with malt extract.
If you want to use the all-grain approach to brewing, rather than using malt extract, the equipment will cost more. An essential all grain brewing kit from Northern Brewer currently costs about $240, with shipping. You do save money from buying grain vs buying malt extract. My friends who do all grain brewing say that it produces better quality beer. However, it does take more time to mash the grain.
Kegging vs bottling your beer will save you time, but you will need to invest more in equipment. Kegerators and kegs are expensive. A kegerator conversion kit is about $700 from Northern Brewer.
Your Ingredient Costs
Malt extract beer kits on Northern Brewer range from about $30 to $55. They are five gallon kits which they claim makes about 53 bottles, but my experience is that it is closer to 48 bottles. Assuming 48 bottles, a kit would cost 63 cents to $1.15 per bottle. A typical $40 kit would be 83 cents a bottle. My target price for buying beer is $12 for a variety twelve pack, or $1 a bottle. A typical craft beer is around $8 a six pack or $1.33 a bottle. The payback period for $100 in equipment costs would be about four five gallon brews, assuming a $40 kit compared to $8 six packs. Assuming $1 beer retail, the payback period for the equipment would be about twelve five gallon brews. The last kit I did, I bought from a local store on sale, and so it was less than $1 a bottle to make.
In 2010, Jon Abernathy did a post on thebrewsite.com about the relative costs of all-grain brewing and extract brewing. Taking the midpoint of his all grain price range, these would be the percentage savings of all grain brewing based on beer style:
American Pale Ale 28%
English Bitter 33%
India Pale Ale 36%
Double/Imperial IPA 20%
Brown Ale 28%
Imperial Stout 22%
Cream Ale 20%
Belgian Witbier 34%
Average Savings 27%
Assuming an average extract kit is $40, all grain brewing would save about $11 per brew. The payback period for a $240 in all grain brewing equipment would be about 22 five gallon brews.
I calculated payback periods, assuming your time is free. You have to decide what value you place on your time. All-grain brewing adds around three hours of time. You can save time by kegging, rather than bottling. I still do extract kits. I would like to get a kegerator to save time and to have draught beer at home. I am postponing doing it because we are planning to move and I’m trying to make the move less complicated. I have balked at all-grain brewing, due to the extra time involved.
I took a class on doing the brew in a bag technique of all-grain brewing, but I haven’t tried it. It does take less time than regular all-grain brewing, but it is less efficient. I was concerned that because of the lower efficiency that it wouldn’t be cheaper than doing an extract kit. However, when I looked on Northern Brewer’s site, I discovered that the cost for an extract version of Dead Ringer (an IPA), is $49.99 for a five gallon extract kit, $46.99 for an all-grain five gallon kit, or $21.69 for a three gallon brew in a bag kit. That makes their costs per gallon $10/gallon for extract, $9.40 per gallon for an all-grain kit, and $7.23/gallon for a brew in a bag kit. I will reconsider doing brew in a bag. It would mean brewing more often. I would need to invest in a bigger pot. I’d also need to check the weight limit on our electric stove top.