Homebrew: A look at the cost of brewing your own beer

This story is part of a special beer month series celebrating the Queen City's beer heritage and bright future as a booming brewery town. Check wcpo.com/beer every Tuesday and Thursday for a new profile of one of the 12 local breweries in the Cincinnati area.

CINCINNATI -- If you have a passion for good beer and can follow instructions, you can brew a great beverage.

That's what Cincinnati native and local homebrewer Chris Nascimento believes anyhow.

“If you can cook, you can homebrew,” he said.

While that may dissuade some bachelor types, Nascimento said it’s possible for the process to be as simple as following a cake recipe.

The 45-year-old North College Hill resident is one of the co-operators of Brew Monkeys , a homebrew supplies store on Harrison Avenue in Cheviot. He and his business partner, Jeff Bishop, also offer classes to brewers of all skill levels ($10 per class) at the location to help them take their love of quality beer to the next level.

"It's obviously important to enjoy quality beer, but if you want to be a homebrewer you really have to have a passion for it," said Nascimento who began his love affair with craft brew at the popular Northside hangout The Comet.

Nascimento, who started out in information technology field before turning his professional pursuits to the beer production industry, decided to venture into the world of homebrewing after meeting Richard Dreyer, a transplant from Germany, in 1996.

While Nascimento fell into a social circle of brewers early on in his homebrewing education, he said first-time brewers shouldn't be intimidated by the process because of all the resources available today.

Equipment Kits

In addition to brew clubs, recipe books and various Internet resources, homebrew supplies are easy to acquire and relatively inexpensive. Mid-range equipment kits range in price from $69 to $110, according Nascimento.

While less expensive kits are available at places like drug stores and kitchen goods retailers, Nascimento said going the generic, inexpensive route can have a drastic impact on the quality of brew you produce due to things like heat regulation, temperature gauging and the filtration process.

Most standard, recommended kits include the following:

• 6.5-gallon primary fermenter with drilled and grommeted lid
• 6.5-gallon bottling bucket with bottling spigot
• Easy clean, no-rinse cleanser
• Airlock
• Siphon & bottling setup
• Home beermaking text
• Hydrometer and test jar
• Bottle brush
• Twin lever capper
• Liquid crystal thermometer
• Bucket clip

The kits on the more expensive price range typically include things like a 5-gallon glass carboy, a carboy brush and a brew paddle.

Some homebrew overachievers may splash the market and go for a kit that exceeds the $110 price tag. While there's nothing wrong those kits, you don't need one of those to make great beer, Nascimento advised.

One of the interesting parts about these kits, Nascimento said, is they’re usually less expensive than the cost of purchasing all the necessary equipment independently of one another.

Some of the other things you’ll need for the process include a 5-gallon stainless steel pot (usually about $29 if you don’t already have one) and a large sink in which you can cool the brew in an ice bath.

Other tools like a bottle washer ($10.49) and a sink adaptor for the bottled water ($3.99) could come in handy but are considered luxury items more so than necessary supplies.

Ingredient Kits

As they like to say on Top Chef, you can have the best equipment and a visionary chef, but if you don't have quality product you won't have delicious food. It's the same idea with homebrewing, which Nascimento compares to baking due to its emphasis on recipes.

“You can have a great recipe for a cake, follow it perfectly, but if you don’t use the right ingredients you’re not going to want to eat because it won’t taste very good,” he said.

While you might think packaged kits are similar in quality to the packaged foods you find on the shelves at your local Kroger, that's not the case. At least it's not the case all the time.

Most ingredient kits come with all the goodies you'll need to make a flavorful and delicious brew. While you can venture to local organic market and pick beautiful hops and delicious ingredients if you want, doing so isn't necessary -- and isn't advised if you don't know what you're looking for.

Like the equipment kits, ingredient kits come with pretty much everything you'll need to make your own beer. They're also reasonably affordable. The kits usually range in price from $29 to $52, depending on variables such as the type of beer you’re making, the time of year and the quality of ingredients.

Some examples of pricing for specific beers are:

• Red Ale - $31.95
• English Brown Ale - $35.44
• Pumpkin Spice - $41.13
• German Oktoberfest - $38.94
• IPA - $45.41

Most kits available online or at specialty brew shops can produce 5 gallons of beer, or about 54 standard bottles. 

If you break that down by straight economic

costs, a six-pack of a high-quality Red Ale will cost about $4. By comparison, the same volume of beer will cost about $7.99 at a beverage store.

It's important to remember that a homebrewer is only allowed to brew 100 gallons of beer a year, per federal statute . If there's a second brewer living in a particular residence, the limit increases 200 gallons.

You'll need a special license to produce more than 200 gallons or sell the beer you've brewed.

All that in mind, if you drank 9 six packs of Red Ale per year, you would end up saving about $36 for the year if you drank homebrew vs. store-bought, but if you paid for the homebrewing equipment at approximately $90 and ingredients for about $32, you would still be in the red the extra $86 for the equipment.

If in the following year all you had to purchase was the ingredients, you'd be saving a few bucks by drinking your homebrew rather than buying from your local liquor store. Brewing does take time, which can add up in cost of time saved, but being able to specialize the beer to your taste rather than gambling on a more expensive label at the store can add up to a better experience.

In the end, homebrewing and buying from the store are comparable when it comes to cost, but the ability to tweak your recipe and make it your own can be worth the extra dough.

Guides To Homebrewing

So, you've got your pots and tubes and "thingys," as well as your hops and extracts, but what do you do next? Thankfully, there doesn't have to be that much trial-and-error these days. There are plenty of quality beer cookbooks that tell you what you need to do to create a great brew.

Nascimento has a couple book recommendations that he considers great resources for the entire homebrew process, from preparing the ingredients to bottling your finished product.

Those books are: "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing" by Charlie Papazian and "How to Brew" by John Palmer.

Papazian, a master brewer and founder and president of the American Homebrewer's Association and Association of Brewers, presents a fully revised edition of his essential guide to homebrewing. 

The third edition of "The Complete Joy of  Homebrewin g" includes a complete update of all instructions, recipes, charts and guidelines for the process. It also has classic and new recipes for brewing stouts, ales, lagers, pilsners, porters, specialty beers and honey meads.

If you're looking for a free, at-your-finger-tips text, "How to Home Brew " is the book for you. The work is described as the "definitive book on making quality beers at home. Whether you want simple, surefire instructions for making your first beer, or you're a seasoned (homebrewer) working with all-grain, this book has something for you."

Other Useful Links To Homebrew Clubs and Resources
Cincinnati Malt Infusers: http://www.maltinfusers.org/
Bloatarian Brewing League: http://bloatarian.com/
American Homebrewers Association: http://www.homebrewersassociation.org/
BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program): http://www.bjcp.org/index.php
The Brewing Network: http://www.thebrewingnetwork.com/

This story is part of a special beer month series celebrating the Queen City's beer heritage and bright future as a booming brewery town. Check wcpo.com/beer every Tuesday and Thursday for a new profile of one of the 12 local breweries in the Cincinnati area.

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