I read some pretty disturbing news the other day. Americans are not drinking as much beer and we’ve been moving towards drinking more wine and flavored “spirits”.
First, let me say that I love White Russians, Amaretto Sours, and Rum and Cherry Coke. In fact, I will pretty much drink any mixed drink you set in front of me (except stuff like a Lemondrop, yuck – Ladies, get a real shooter). I’m not a huge wine drinker either, but I do like to cook with leftover bottles we opened for guests, and I will gladly get a buzz off of whatever glass a host or hostess offers. Different strokes for different folks, right?
But beer? Come on people, wake up! Don’t just go ditching beer!
Mainstream Beers Are Losing Sales
If you click through that link and read through you’ll see that Budweiser has dropped an amazing 28.8% in sales over the past five years. Now, I don’t love Budweiser, but it is the quintessential default beer around the country. Around here, the regional beer of choice is Labatt Blue (In fact, it is so dominant around here, that InBev had to sell off that branch to another company before regulators would allow them to buy Budweiser). That too has dropped a whopping 28.3%!1 What is going on here?
I’m hopeful. I like to think it’s because craft beers and microbrews are eating away at the shares of the mega brands. I mean, just look at Bud itself. They’re now trying to offer up specialized versions like Bud Light Lime, or Bud Light Golden Wheat in an attempt to compete with Corona and beers like Blue Moon. So maybe we’re just getting more specialized palates for beer?
How About Trying Home Brewing?
Personally, I’ve gotten into home brewing over the past two years. I received a beginner’s home brewing kit a couple Christmases ago from my brother-in-law and it was a great gift idea (hint, hint for those of you shopping for frugal beer-drinking dudes like me). How awesome is that? Who wouldn’t want to learn how to make beer?
I had a tendency to go to our local beer specialty store, Beers of the World, to grab a handful of new-to-me beers to try things out. Or I’d grab some expensive bottles at Wegmans. These little trips would end up costing me quite a bit over the long run. Now I just grab an extract kit at the local homebrew shop and brew up a five gallon batch to try out.
In terms of cost, it compares very favorably to craft brew. Most kits run in the $30-40 range, producing a five-gallon batch (or in more common terms: roughly 53 12 fl. oz. bottles, or 1/3 a “keg”. You’ll likely end up a little lower than that, ~48 bottles after some loss during the process). At the lower end that’s roughly 63 cents per bottle assuming a 48 bottle yield. Now sure, you can grab a 30-pack of Budweiser or some other major brand for less than that unit cost, but compare it to something a little less bland and you’ll see it beats it out.
Extract vs Partial Mash vs All Grain
These kits (both the home brewing kit and the ingredient kits) are simple setups for beginners using an “extract” method. What that means is that they provide milled grains and syrupy “extracts” that you use during the boil. The more advanced kits may do “partial mash”, which means you’ll get grains that you steep in a pot (like a giant cup of tea!) for 20 minutes before the boil.
If you go all out (which I have not yet done), then you’d get into “all grain” brewing which requires more equipment and time. That’s where you take all grain products (which may or may not already be milled for you) and do a multiple steps boiling process to break them down into the syrupy extract, and then use that to boil into beer (“wort”).
Items You’ll Need Beyond the Kit(s)
Keep in mind that the kit I linked is really only some of the story. You’ll also need a 3+ gallon pot to boil in and bottles to put the finished beer into. The ingredient kits contain bottle caps and the materials and instruction sheets for each batch. It also helps to have some other tools, like plastic spoons to stir the boiling beer, a thermometer for temping the water, and a plastic spatula to get all the gooey extract out of the cans/bottles. You’ll want plastic or metal because everything needs to be sanitized before using, or else it may mess up your beer. The easiest way to sanitize is to put some bleach/sanitizer in the fermenting bucket and then just stuff everything you’ll use into it and fill it with water (don’t forget to jam the lid in there!). I used bleach because I had it handy and I use plastic items, but keep in mind bleach will corrode some metals. If you really get into it, you may want to get One Step for reasons outlined in How to Brew’s sections on cleaning products and cleaning your equipment (where he details what to use for different materials); and for the section below on re-using commercial bottles.
Some Frugal Options
You can run out and grab new pots or buy bottles from your local homebrew store, but we’re frugal here, so we’ll expand on some cheaper options.
A Turkey Fryer
We happened to already have a big enough pot to use, but I’ve heard of many people who will use turkey fryer setups as their boil station. Those fryers are large enough to be used for more advanced boils where you might go beyond the kits. The kits ask you to do a 2.5 gallon boil, more serious brewers will boil the whole batch together rather than partially and adding water later. So those batches will require 6.5+ gallon pots (for boil loss and because beer batches can sometimes “boil over” when adding ingredients, so you want some room to avoid it boiling up out of the pot).
Scrounging for Bottles
While you can go ahead and buy bottles to use – a cheap, frugal and eco-friendly way is to just re-use commercial beer bottles. There is a great thread about which bottles can be re-used at StackExchange’s Homebrew section. The general point here is that you can’t re-use twist off cap bottles. Then you just soak and sanitize them – the general consensus seems to be to use One Step to make that easier. My cousin used this to build up his stash of bottles. If you can’t find a beer brand you’d be OK drinking to get the bottles yourself (or don’t want to spend the money), you can do as my cousin did and just chat up your local grocer/bottle recycling site and see if they’ll set aside bottles of a given brand for you (like Sam Adams). I think he paid 10 cents per bottle to the guy to get a whole bunch of bottles more quickly (and cheaply) than he could drink them.
Home Brewing Resources
To learn more about home brewing (all the gory details), you can check out the awesome How to Brew book online. Don’t let all the details in there scare you off. If you get into brewing seriously all that detail is very useful, but can be a bit of overload for beginners. The general rules of thumb are: Make sure you sanitize anything that’ll touch the beer during or after the boil; be patient and if possible do secondary fermentation or long bottle conditioning – basically, don’t believe them when they say you can ferment it for a week, bottle and then drink it in 2 more weeks. Let it age in the bottle for a while and once you move it to the fridge, let it sit in there for at least two days. Even some pretty heinous batches that I’ve made have tasted great after waiting them out (in some cases, they took months but ended up amazing, while when I first tried them after 3 or 4 weeks they tasted unsalvageable).
1 On a totally region-specific/local note, the sale of “High Falls”/Genesee, our hometown brewer, has likely benefited that beer brand. The brand was effectively dead in the water, then a management/investment company bought it up, made a few changes and now it was bought by the same company who grabbed up Labatt. Without any numbers to back it up, it’s starting to look like this once large beer brand is coming back from the dead. Friends and acquaintances are now proud to grab cans and bottles of their seasonal Bock (yum!) and 12 Horse. Maybe that’s part of the drop in Labatt sales? They’re cannibalizing one brand for another locally?