On Brewing

Posted by Jack on 2011-09-30 at 14:34
Tagged: personal

A couple of friends of mine, David and Otto, came down from their various corners of the world this past weekend. It was great to reconnect with them. It'd been years (since I got out of college almost 4 years ago) since we'd been in one place. It was a good time to be sure. Juliette and I tried to take them around Austin, to check out some of the local flavor. Otto had been here before for a festival (a common claim for many music and tech fans), but we largely stayed out of downtown. The appeal of 6th street is somewhat lessened now that school is back in session and we weren't exactly looking to hang out with college age douches students out to get drunk fast and cheap. We hit places like Freddie's, Dolce Vita, South Congress, Mount Bonnell and a cool little brew pup co-op called Blackstar (which I will probably return to, even if I don't become a member).

Tangentially, I've been playing a lot of Dwarf Fortress of late (I'll talk about that in another post, perhaps) and drinking a lot of beer and those two things have turned my brain to homebrewing, with a little inspiration from Wil Wheaton's adventures with his son. I was planning on getting a basic equipment set for myself (via Juliette) for Christmas, but it just so happens my two friends are homebrewers as well so I decided to advance my plans. Besides, when it takes about a month to turn around a batch of beer (give or take depending on style), it's better to get started early. This way, I can have a batch ready for the three major holidays (Halloween, Skyrim Thanksgiving, and Diablo 3 Christmas).

So with my friends to help me, particularly Otto who's been doing this in one form or another since college, we went to Austin Homebrew a local brick and mortar store that, you guessed it, sells all you could ever want for homebrewing beer, wine, and even soda. Judging from some vendor lists online, this type of place isn't exactly unheard of, but it is a rare convenience. Especially considering that it's literally 10 minutes away from my house. Sometimes it's nice to be reminded what a cool city this place is and homebrewing definitely seems to fit the Austin character. This is probably the most beer friendly city I've ever been in and I'm from St. Louis the erstwhile home of Anheuser-Busch.

I was really surprised with how dead simple brewing ends up being. It's basically like making tea, then making soup, then letting your yeasty minions turn that sugary soup into tasty alcohol. It's really just like any other food recipe, albeit one that takes longer and requires ingredients you don't find in a grocery store. The process is also extremely variable. You can be pretty much as involved in the process as you want. They actually sell "canned" beer kits (which I initially thought was some sort of way to end up with cans of beer) in which you literally just mix some buckets of premade ingredients into the fermenter. No cooking (aside from boiling the water) required, and a bit less special equipment (no huge stock pot, no hydrometer). Sounds kinda boring, but it's literally one step up from just buying your beer at the corner store. In the process we used, the grains were already malted and the yeast was ready, but we still created the wort ourselves. It is possible to malt your own grains though and even culture your own yeast. Hell, you could become entirely self sufficient and grow your own grains and hops too although you'd probably still have to rely on others for any special flavor ingredients. Anyway, the point is that the level of control you have over your personal involvement is great.

On top of that varying level of time commitment, there's also a huge variety of equipment. Even one half brew in, I can see that people's setups are vastly different. Reading through the Homebrew Talk forums, it becomes evident that a lot of these folks have very complex (and very expensive) setups. Kegging, kegerators, burners, wort chillers, fancy fermenters, carboys, parallel sets of equipment for "pipelining", bench cappers, taps etc.. I got started for about $150 (a fermenter, a carboy, an auto-siphon, tubing, bottle wand, some caps, a hand capper, a manual, an airlock, some sanitizer, a huge steel stock pot, a thermometer, and a hydrometer), not including the first batch ingredients. But virtually every step of the process can be improved and simplified. Some people will stick with the basic investment. Others will spend thousands of dollars. Me, I'm waiting to see how my first batch turns out before thinking of improvement, but there's definitely room for it.

The last thing I'll mention is the economical point of view. Each five gallon batch turns into roughly 50 bottles (not equivalent to 5 gallons, you do end up losing some volume). Taking everything into account, the ingredient kit, the water (I didn't use tap water, even though the helpful dude at the supply shop said Austin water was okay), the ice, even the caps, my first batch cost about $36. Roughly speaking, and not counting your time investment (that's the fun part), or nitshit like stove gas, that's 72 cents a beer. This batch is Belgian White, which is like a Blue Moon, which costs about $17 / 12 or $1.42 per beer. The cheapest, worst beer I would ever drink in a that-or-nothing situation, Lone Star, is about $9 for 12 or about 75 cents a beer. So there are basically three possible scenarios:

It's hard to think of in pure economic terms for a hobby, but I take two things from this. First is that it will take about 5 good batches (214 beers, assuming similar quality) before the cost of the basic equipment is overcome by the savings on beer. One more batch to pay off the bottles if they're kept in rotation. Not half bad considering you can brew for years with the same equipment provided you keep it clean (and don't break your hydrometers). Second, it means that it makes financial sense to be constantly brewing. If a homebrew beer was more expensive than its counterpart then brewing would be a special occasion thing. As it is I've already got plans to buy two batches of bottles and another ingredient kit as soon as my first batch is out of the fermenter. Of course, this is all in rough numbers and it assumes that I'll be cranking out the same beer (I won't be) and I'll never fail a batch. Really, as with any hobby, it's hard to quantify the enjoyment or the reward of actually doing it. I'm just glad the math seems to be in my favor.

All in all, I'm looking forward to partaking in homebrewed beer in a couple of weeks. It definitely isn't for the impatient (or the broke) but so far it seems like a fun, economical, low maintenance and hopefully delicious hobby.