How Home Brewing Beer Beats Buying It

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- If you like beer but don't like handing over $5 to $7 a pint at the bar or several times that per case, nobody's stopping you from brewing it yourself.

If anything, they're encouraging it. From $80 to $110 starter kits to books of recipes that clone almost any beer a drinker can find at the local pub or packaged-goods store, home brewing has become a thrifty and thriving alternative to hitting the bars or buying the bottles.

"There's usually a reverse relationship with the economy where when the economy's down, people start picking up the hobby," says Gary Glass, director of the Boulder, Colo.-based American Homebrewers Association. "This time around, we were seeing growth as early as 2005 and 2006 before the economy was going down."

The AHA surveyed home brewing supply shops earlier this year and found that their gross revenue grew 16% last year, matching growth in 2009. Roughly 82% of those shops also saw an increase in beginner-kit sales as more beer fans take up the hobby.

Home brewing requires a bit of an outlay at first, but it starts making that investment back in a hurry. That five cases' worth of initial spending is usually enough to buy a glass transporting and fermenting jug, a plastic fermenting bucket, stoppers, hydrometers, thermometers, tubing sanitizer, bottle fillers, bottle cappers, caps and recipe books that brewers will be using over and over again. The AHA even has a free downloadable copy of its beginner's guide in case you're still lost.

Many of the home brewing essentials don't even need to be bought. Have a five-gallon pot kicking around the kitchen and a stove to sit it on? Great, you have a way to boil your brew. Have a few cases of used bottles laying around? Wash them out and you have something to put your beer into.

Unfortunately, you will have to buy a $25 to $45 extract kit of ingredients, but that will be more than enough to make five gallons of brew.

"That's more than two cases of beer," Glass says. "Since home brewers are usually making craft-style beer, that's a significant savings over what they'd usually be spending on similar beers."

Few know that better than Mark and Tess Szamatulski, who own the Maltose Express brewing supply shop in Milton, Conn., and are the authors of beer recipe books Beer Captured and Clone Brews. The latter includes more than 200 recipes for brand-name beers including Heineken Lager, Pilsner Urquell, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Guinness. The couple first cloned a Bass Ale more than 15 years ago at a customer's request and began expanding their recipe offerings as demand grew.

"In our little store back in 1995, people would come in and say 'Can I get a recipe for a Bass Ale?' or 'Can I get a recipe for a Guinness?'" Tess Szamatulski says. "They'd bring in these recipes they'd found that were so totally off that they would be nothing like it, so what we would do is give them a recipe and brew it at home to make sure it was right."

The recipes and books not only brought fans of mass-market beers into the store and home brewing in general, but brought more obscure beers to their pint glasses at substantial savings. That same Bass Ale that fetches upward of $50 for one-sixth of a keg (five or six gallons) could be made at home for a two-thirds of the cost, while five gallons of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale that sells for $75 in New England could be made in the kitchen, basement or garage for nearly a third of the price.

It also comes in handy for making defunct brews such as the recently discontinued Pete's Wicked Ale or hard-to-find favorites. Getting your hands on one of the most sacred brews in the the beer world -- the Saint Sixtus Trappist monks' Brouwerij Wesvleteren 12 -- usually requires a trip to their Belgian abbey, at least $50 for a bottle and some luck. A cloned recipe cuts out the middleman and some of the cost.

"It's especially true with the Belgian beers that are $13 or $14 for a 750 milliliter bottle," Tess Szamatulski says, using $13 bottles of Chimay Grand Reserve or a $14 Delirium Grand Tremens as evidence. "Any of the big beers from Belgium that are like 10% to 11% alcohol beers are tremendous when you home brew them."

It's also one of the best chances of getting a fresh version of a beer from abroad a beer drinker on this side of the Atlantic will have. Tess Szamatulski notes that some European beers, especially low-alcohol English session beers, don't react well to the hop across the pond and lose a significant portion of their flavor along the way.

Even Heineken thought it would be a good idea to let their employees get an idea of what their beer tastes like before it is imported. Last September Heineken USA held a home brewing competition among its employees to see who could best replicate the recipe and called on the Szamatulskis as suppliers and judges.

"They bought more than 200 home brew kits from us and we provided five different recipes and let people brew it at our store," Tess Szamatulski says. "The reason they did it is because to sell a product, you have to know a product, and what better way to do it than to brew it yourself."

In recent years, an increasing familiarity with the product on shelves is exactly what's bringing home brewing to a full boil. According to the AHA's home brew supplier survey, 43% of shops say that the average age group buying beginner kits is under 30. Anecdotally, they're also saying the days of the home brewers' boys club are also coming to a close.

"More and more women are brewing now, which is good," says Tess Szamatulski. "Women were actually the first brewers and brewed beer for their men, so it seems only natural that we're getting more women brewers."

Just a few years back, home brewers consisted mostly of guys in their 30s and 40s. Glass credits the newer generation's love of self-expression with home brewing's youth movement. Double-digit percentage growth in recent years means that a higher percentage of 20-somethings are drinking craft beer than any generation before them. That's a huge shift from even the craft beer boom of the 1990s and is giving new brewers far different reason to come up with their own concoctions than the generation that came before.

"Twenty years or so ago, back around the time when I was getting started, people were getting into home brewing because there was a lack of variety of beers," the AHA's Glass says. "Maybe you'd come across a Sam Adams or travel to Europe and discover a larger world of beer, but now it's totally reversed because just about anywhere in the country you can find a wide variety of beer."

Glass and the Szamatulskis also point out that saving a few bucks may be the reason some folks get into brewing, but it's not what drives die-hards to spend hours of their time cleaning equipment, checking pressure and filling bottles. Home brewing groups across the country have helped circles of drinking buddies earn their suds, help make their friends' beer better by offering critiques and make it easier to experiment with varieties such as Bourbon Stout by providing a few more brewers to help fill -- and empty -- that 55-gallon bourbon barrel.

Sure, you can cut costs by recycling old pressurized soda kegs in favor of bigger, costlier beer kegs and recycling bacteria-laden wood chips from one batch of Belgian Lambic to the next, but none of it's going to matter if you're not brewing beer you'd drink or if you're brewing a batch you know you're too impatient to wait for.

"I always tell people to make the beer they like and not to make something easy or that their friends like," says Mark Szamatulski, who got into home brewing more than 20 years ago when his day job was as an engineer at Northrup-Grumman. "Ale you can make right out of the bag the first time and drink it in six weeks, but lagers take longer and you can't drink it for at least three months."

Mark Szamatulski warns first-timers that even if a batch comes out flat, tastes funky or contains some nasty little floaties or sediment, be patient. Keep everything clean. Follow the directions. Let the brew finish fermenting, use Irish moss to keep your beer nice and clear and let things settle before you bottle. Most importantly, pick a style you love and work within it until you're comfortable. Experimentation is really fun when you know what you're doing, but can get costly even with a relatively cheap hobby.

"It's not really hard to make beer, especially if you have a good recipe," he says. "I used to throw things together in the beginning and they were interesting and my friends would say 'It tastes like beer,' but I don't think they loved it."

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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