Homebrew Voodoo Economics

Hamm's Beer drawing

Behold my MS Paint skills -- Hamm's Beer: No really, it's not that bad.

There are two types of homebrewers; those who start homebrewing because they’ve heard it’s cheaper than buying commercial beer, and those who stick with it because they enjoy it.

A while back, a friend of a friend tried one of my homebrews and became momentarily intrigued with homebrewing. He eventually mentioned that he’d heard it was cheaper to homebrew rather than buy commercial beer.  Our conversation went something like this:

So if I wanted to brew this beer, how much would it cost?
That depends.  Do you have any brewing equipment?
None at all?
Well, if you’re starting from absolute zero, it’s going to cost you somewhere around $130 to brew your first batch.

His interest in homebrewing died on the table after hearing this, and to be honest, it’s probably for the best.

There’s compromise in everything
I’m frequently asked if I save money by homebrewing.  This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on your perspective and comparative quality standards. For instance, I can walk to Quick Trip, and buy two cases of Hamm’s for $17.98 (before tax). That’s about $0.37/beer.  But this is only meaningful if you’re a huge fan of Hamm’s, or down to your last $20. By comparison, the last batch of beer I brewed cost me a little less than $1.00/beer — and this is just for ingredients. But quite frankly, my Saison is a lot better than Hamm’s, so I’m alright with this.

Using a slightly more “apples to apples” comparison, my goto APA recipe costs just shy of $30 for 2 cases of beer. Compared to buying two cases of Schlafly APA or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, I’m coming out ahead.  But then again, I can go to the grocery store on a moment’s notice to grab beer.  I need 6 – 8 week’s notice for homebrew.

The reality is that ingredients are only one cost when it comes to homebrew. Stuff like new vinyl tubing, StarSan, and propane tank refills are recurring costs. In addition, things break or wear out — racking canes, hydrometers, airlocks, and even fermentation buckets inevitably need to be replaced. Maintaining and upgrading your brewery is an ongoing process that never really ends.

Bottom Line
If saving money is your only motivation for homebrewing, you’re never really going to be satisfied.  Stop worrying about cost benefit analysis, and just brew your beer because it’s objectively awesome, dammit!  I brew my own beer because I enjoy the process and experience just as much as the beer. This is why I’ve allowed myself to get sucked into this endless rabbit hole of an obsession.

On a side note, I actually like Hamm’s beer.

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How Utah Changed My Approach To Homebrewing

Squatters Pub

Squatters Pub, Salt Lake City, UT -- image by "cadiana88" from virtualtourist.com

I grew up in Taylorsville, UT.  It’s a suburb of Salt Lake City, located in the southwestern part of the I-215 loop.  We moved away when I was 12, so youthful innocence prevented me from fully appreciating the genuine absurdity of Utah’s blue laws — most notably the state’s 4% ABV restriction on beer.

This past week, my girlfriend and I spent a few days snowboarding in Park City, and I got a chance to spend some time in my old stomping grounds.  I’m happy to report that, despite restrictions, there’s some really great beer being brewed in Salt Lake City.

The 4% Giant Killer
When Kendra and I stopped at Ski ‘N See to pick up our lift tickets, we asked about the local beer scene.  The guy behind the counter gave us the obligatory 4% ABV disclaimer, and then told us we should head over to Squatters Pub.  We had an early morning flight, so we arrived before they were open.  This made things even more fun, because the only thing better than drinking beers in UT, is drinking beers before noon in UT.

While perusing their beer menu, I couldn’t help but notice all of their GABF, WBC and NABA accolades.  Various award banners hung from the rafters as though they were a hockey team, flying a flag to commemorate a championship season or retired jersey.  I ordered their bourbon burger with steak fries, and an Emigration Amber Ale draft, and murdered both with great delight.  I’m not a fan of verbose and self-indulgent beer reviews, so I’m just going to tell you that Squatters’ Emigration Amber Ale is effing delicious!

Squatters completely dismantled my expectations.  It seems like the only way to make waves in the current craft beer market is by brewing up huge ABV beers with as many IBUs crammed into it as possible.  Consider brews like Stone’s Double Bastard Ale or Dogfish Head’s 120-Minute IPA.  These are fine beers, and I enjoy them both.  However, I’ve certainly encountered my fair share of unappealing resinous atrocities or fusel concoctions that were undrinkable at best.

I understand that a lot of homebrewers might consider working within a 4% ABV restriction to be completely unrealistic.  My own brew log reveals that, in the last 5 years, I’ve only brewed 4 batches that were 4% or less — and none of those beers were particularly memorable.  So how is Squatters able to do this?  The answer is pretty simple: meticulous attention to technique.

Brew With Purpose
There’s a common homebrew myth that stouts and porters are two of the easiest beers to brew because the robust flavor of the roasted barley will hide the flaws in your beer. Whether or not this argument is valid isn’t the point.  It’s simply a bad idea to reinforce sloppy brewing techniques by hiding behind, or attempting to pass things off as complexity. The same holds true with these insane hop-bombs and giant gravity beers.  A homebrewer that uses two pounds of hops and 15 pounds of 2-Row for a 5-gallon batch isn’t particularly worried about being in balance or brewed to style.  Most beer geeks will applaud the concoction based exclusively on the brewer’s ambition and willingness to ignore convention. However, this attitude doesn’t do homebrewers any good.  It simply trivializes the concepts of style, balance and good brewing techniques.  As a result, the “more is better” mantra is blindly reinforced, and I don’t believe that’s a good thing.

To be fair, I’m as guilty of these nonsensical homebrew indulgences as anyone.  I’ve bragged about my 12% Impy Stouts, 115-IBU Double IPAs and kitchen sink recipes that tout the fact that I used nine different types of grain.  It’s certainly not my intention to imply that these crazy beers are categorically not good.  I’m simply arguing that these extremes aren’t necessary, and certainly don’t make great beers by default.

Long story short — be purposeful and objective with your homebrew recipes.  Any asshole can brew a beer with a mile-long grain bill or a list of spices that reads like something out of a holiday cook book.  If it works out, congrats!  But if your beer sucks, nobody really gives a shit how many pounds of hops you used.

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Mashing Grains In A French Press For Yeast Starters

Pilsner malt mashing in my French press

Pilsner malt mashing in my French press

After brewing the Saison earlier this week, I had about a pound of leftover Pilsner malt that was just staring at me.  I didn’t have much use for it, so I was going to simply toss it on the compost pile.  But then I remembered the expired packet of Munton’s generic ale yeast I had in the fridge.

About a year ago, I thought about using my French press to mash grains for yeast starter wort.  I thought the idea was pretty brilliant, but I never got around to trying it.  It makes great coffee, and the process for mashing grains is almost identical.

The idea was simple; I’d use my teapot to heat the strike and sparge water, and mash the grains right in the French press’ glass decanter.  Then I’d use the screen plunger to strain the wort from the grain.  Assuming a rather paltry efficiency of 55%, I plugged some numbers into Beersmith, and estimated I could get about 1000 mL of wort with a starting gravity of about 1.045.

So how did it go?

The Good:

After the mash; ready for sparge

After the mash; ready for sparge

  • I definitely made fermentable wort!
  • Using pot-holders to insulate the glass decanter worked pretty well.  I only lost a few degrees during the 1-hour mash.
  • The mesh screen eliminated the need to vorlauf.
  • The yeast fermented vigorously, despite being more than 18 months past its expiration date.

The bad:

  • My actual efficiency was even lower than I expected.  The starting gravity was only 1.038, indicating an efficiency closer to 45%.
  • The fine mesh screen clogged almost immediately, and made it difficult to drain the wort out of the decanter.
  • I was only able to collect about 650 mL of wort instead of the anticipated 1000 mL — probably due to the clogged screen.
Visible fermentation after about 90 minutes

Visible fermentation after about 90 minutes

Overall conclusions:
This method absolutely works in an academic sense, but fails at being an efficient means of wort production.  It’s definitely simpler to boil a little DME and be done with it.  But that’s not nearly as much fun.

I like that the scale of the French press is perfectly suited for making just enough wort for a yeast starter.  However, the biggest problem is the fine mesh screen.  It clogs too easily, and prevents the wort from being able to filter through.  I was able to squeeze out more wort by firmly pushing down on the plunger, forcing the wort through the screen.  Unfortunately, had I actually intended to use this starter wort, the excessive pressure on the grains probably resulted in excessive tannin extraction.

I still think this idea could work with some modification.  The mesh screen is the main problem.  If the original screen was replaced with something more coarse, I think this could work pretty well.  I’m going to see what I can find at the hardware store, and I’ll probably run this test again.

I can absolutely confirm that the French press makes truly excellent coffee.

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Getting A Jump On Saison Season

Dupont Saison

Dupont Saison

This year for Presidents’ Day, since it was too cold to BBQ, I decided to brew some beer with my friend and homebrew compatriot, Lucas.  With the STL permafrost finally gone, and Punxsutawney Phil’s promise of an early spring, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get 5 gallons of Saison in the fermenter.  Overall things went great.  Mash temps and original gravity numbers were spot on.  However, in the wake of mother nature’s antagonistic “spring is coming” fake out, I overlooked the fact that it’s probably too cold to ferment this style properly.

The two keys to a great Saison are:

  1. dry-as-a-bone attenuation.
  2. freakishly high fermentation temperatures — Saison yeasts thrive in temperatures that usually spell disaster for most ales.

The first part shouldn’t be much of a problem for me.  The mash temperature held stable at 148 degrees for 75 minutes, and I’m using Wyeast 3711 French Saison — a high-gravity tolerant yeast with an average attenuation of around 80%.  I want to try to keep the fermentation temperature somewhere around 75 to 80-ish degrees.  However, considering my basement is a brisk 58 degrees, I’m going to have to get creative in my attempts to make a nice warm fermentation environment.

The fermenter is currently sitting under the only heat vent in the basement.  So far it’s looking somewhat promising.  I’m going to give it four weeks in primary, and then bottle it.

It will be beer, and I will drink it!

Brew Hooligan’s Saison d’Etre
5.5 gallons
OG: 1.058
FG: 1.010
IBUs: 30
8.00 lb. Pilsner Malt
2.00 lb. Munich Malt
0.25 lb. Rye Malt
1.00 lb. Clear Belgian Candi Sugar
2.50 oz. Saaz – 3.3%AA (boil 60 min.)
0.50 oz. Saaz – 3.3%AA (boil 5 min.)
Wyeast 3711 French Saison yeast

Mash @ 148dF for 75 minutes

Anyone have any suggestions for keeping the fermentation bucket above 75 degrees?

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White House Honey Ale

Logo of the United States White House

Logo of the United States White House

Homebrewing has officially infiltrated the White House, according to Obama Foodorama.

As if having J-Lo and Marc Anthony on your Superbowl party guest list isn’t cool enough, this year, President Obama served up a homebrewed honey ale to his guests.  The recipe is the brainchild of an unnamed White House chef who used 1 pound of honey, taken from the White House bee hive (that’s right — there’s an official White House bee hive).

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Better Beer Appreciation Through SMaSH Brewing


Single Hop Flower

Designing your own custom beer recipe can be one of the most rewarding experiences for a homebrewer.  It’s equal parts art and science.  If you like studying the mechanics that shape the BJCP style guidelines, Ray Daniels has written what I consider the definitive manual on beer recipe design.  However, if you really want to wrap your head around how any one particular ingredient effects a beer recipe, try brewing a single malt and single hop (a.k.a. SMaSH) recipe.


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How Bad Could Mr. Beer Really Be?

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of discussions being started on Home Brew Talk by people using Mr. Beer homebrew kits.  The general consensus amongst most experienced homebrewers is that these kits are essentially on par with other single can, “no boil” kits that make mediocre, dried-out, cidery beer.  So what’s with their popularity?

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