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Monday, June 25, 2012

How Much Money Do You REALLY Need?

I have to admit, I don't know if I'm right. But, I don't think you should start a hobby specifically to save money. If you do, great, but the first idea should be personal satisfaction. On the other hand, lack of money shouldn't stop you from taking up a hobby.

Starting any hobby needs a cash outlay of some sort. Homebrewing costs less than some other pursuits. At most homebrewing websites, you can get a starter equipment kit, including ingredients for a first brew, for about $60-$90. Mr. Beer has a starter kit for under $40.

Not everyone has extra money lying around, waiting for something to spend it on. Back in 1989, when I started, a kit cost $45, which I didn't have. For over three years, I only could think of what it must be like to have your own homebrew. Then, one year, my father surprised us all by giving us each $50 cash for Christmas. As soon as I opened the envelope, I knew where it was going.

I wouldn't count on that happening. I decided one day to try an experiment. I knew what you needed to make beer. If you gathered your equipment yourself, could you do it more cheaply?

First, I had to determine what you really needed. To make beer, you need something to boil the unfermented beer (called wort), a container to allow the beer to ferment and keep out unwanted microbes, something to store the finished product, and a way to move your beer from one container to the other.

With this list in mind, I set about putting together a homebrew kit, always with the intent of spending as little as possible, without compromising the quality of the beer.

First, the boilpot. A larger pot will cost more (Duh!), so what's the smallest pot I can reasonably use? In brewing, especially starting out, you don't boil the full volume. About a gallon of water along with any malt extract will be enough. So, a pot of at least 2 gallons would be sufficient. I found a 2-gal stainless steel stockpot at my local Sears for $7.

By the way, a smaller pot also means you can do your boil on the stovetop. Boiling a larger volume requires more heat, more than you can get from your stove's burners. You would have to purchase a separate, high-output burner; another expense.

Next, the fermenter. I went to my local fast-food joint, and asked them to let me have one of the plastic jugs their fry oil is delivered in. I got a 5-gallon plastic jug for nothing. I had to wash it several times to get the oil residue out, but it wasn't hard.

For storing the beer, I used the easiest, and most time-consuming, method. We saved our soda bottles and caps. I did ask my wife to stick with 1-liter bottles for awhile. I don't drink enough to empty a bigger bottle before it goes flat. After a couple of weeks, I had 16 bottles.

Now things got a bit more difficult. To move things around, I decided on vinyl tubing, 3/8” inside diameter. But, I immediately had two problems. Can you siphon hot wort from the boilpot to the fermenter? How do you start and stop the flow to fill your bottles?

On the siphoning, I decided to just take a chance and try it. After all, it's an experiment. For filling the bottles, I first looked for a clamp of some kind that I could use on the tubing. I couldn't find anything (maybe it was just me). I decided to take the easy way out, and bought a bottle filler from my local homebrew shop. It cost $3.

Finally, I got seven feet of vinyl tubing from my local hardware store, at $1 a foot. So, how much did I spend, and should have I gotten anything else?

I spent $7 for the pot, another $7 for the vinyl tubing, $3 for the bottle filler, and nothing for the bottles and fermenter. My total was $17.

I picked up a simple canned kit at my local homebrew shop for about 10 bucks, and used the 4 lb. can to make 4 gallons of beer. Everything worked perfectly. I was surprised to find that I could use the vinyl tubing to siphon the hot wort into the fermenter. If I do this again, I will get a funnel, though. Even though it worked, I wasn't comfortable with the hot solution moving through vinyl.

So, at the end, my total cost was $27, which is less than any other kit. The biggest advantage is that it doesn't have to be bought at once. Instead of buying a kit for $40-$90, you can put together your kit a piece at a time, as you have funds.

If you've been thinking of making your own beer, but are short on cash, don't wait for my father. Start planning, and start putting your kit together.