Thursday, February 15, 2024

Homebrew - Cheaper than the Pub?

The price of beer has been on my mind a fair bit lately.

At the weekend I kicked my first keg of homebrew for the 2024, a 5.1% amber kellerbier that I brewed on New Years Eve. The recipe was nothing spectacular:

  • 6.5lb Murphy & Rude Vienna malt
  • 3.5lb Murphy & Rude Munich 9 malt
  • 0.5oz Magnum
  • 2oz Saaz
  • 1oz Hallertauer Mittelfrüh
  • 2 packets Saflager 34/70
If anything were out of the ordinary about this beer, it was that it marked the first time I did a decoction mash. The beer that eventually came out of the tap was lovely, and looked like this:

Admittedly I was somewhat gutted that it had kicked so quickly as it was a lovely, lovely beer, still I am planning my next brew of it, especially as I finally caved and bought a chest freezer to set up as a fermentation and lagering chamber.

As I said though, the price of beer has been on my mind. Part of me was a little confused as to why the keg kicked so quickly, after all a 5 gallon keg is supposed to be about 40 pints. Yes, when I filled the keg, I think there was only 4.5 US gallons in the keg itself, which is 17 litres for the cool, modern, kids using metric, even with a 10% wastage factored in, that would be about 35 beers. It was then I had a brain wave and remembered that by far and away I do most of my drinking from half litre glasses like the Tübinger mug in the picture, so maintaining 10% wastage, we are down to 31 half litres, but if I actually fill my keg with 5 gallons/19 litres, with wastage it becomes 34 half litres, or 36 US pints.

If I were to drink 36 US pints at current standard prices in the Charlottesville area, that would be $252 for a full keg, but with only 4.5 gallons in the keg, it becomes $230. I decided then to calculate how much said beer cost to make, and it break down something like this:
  • grist: $25.84
  • hops: $12.22
  • yeast: $17.98
  • total: $56.04
My water is free as I have a well, but if I include that at the rate of $1.30 for a gallon of Walmart bottled water, I used 8 gallons for a total of $10.72, making our ingredient total $66.76, or $2.15 per half litre of beer. Now, it would be completely disingenuous of me to say my beer only cost $2.15, as I haven't included costs for labour and buildings, etc.

My single decoction brewday for this beer consumed about 7 hours of my time, so if I calculate that at $14.30 per hour as the lowest hourly rate for a brewer in Virginia. Apparently the average in Virginia for a professional brewer is $18.25 per hour. My keg has now cost me an additional $100, so we are at $166.76. Brewing the beer though is not my only labour here, I also have to serve it to myself and my friends. So let's say at a party, a 5 gallon keg of beer kicks in about 3.5 hours - based on my experience of providing kegs to parties - at the minimum wage for Virginia tipped employees of $12 per hour, that would add $42, so we're at $208.76 for brewing and serving a 5 gallon keg of a fairly standard beer. I haven't even factored in rent for my few square feet of garage where I do my brewing and store the product while it is fermenting, but let's call that $10 a month based on the size of my house and my mortgage, with bills chucked in there too. So now my keg has cost $218.76 to brew, store, and serve. If I get a full 34 half litres out of that, we are at $6.43 per half litre.

Thankfully, I don't have to pay myself to make beer, neither do I pay myself to serve the beer, and so the real cost for a half litre of my own beer at home is about $2. One thing though that is really clear to me from this little exercise is that ingredients are not the bulk of the cost of making the beer, it is a the people, equipment, and place to do so. Obviously I am also not able to take advantage of the economies of scale that a commercial brewer (sorry idealogues, if your favourite beer is made by a company that does so for a living it IS a commercial brewery), especially when it comes to non-linear increases such as the ingredients, and don't forget to factor in that a single decoction brewday in my garage takes about as long as a single decoction brewday at a professional brewery with the appropriate kit. 

It is ultimately scale that makes such comparisons effectively futile.

Is it enough to make me give up brewing my own beer because what is the point in saving less than a dollar a pint? Not in the slightest, because here in the real world it is a hobby where I just so happen to make beers that I really enjoy brewing, drinking, and sharing with friends. I also feel that reducing the hobby down to just the financials is to lose sight of why I brew - to have on tap beers most US breweries don't touch with a ten foot barge pole, the creative urge to develop and improve recipes, and when you live in a place where the absence of walkable pubs is stark, being able to have a draft beer whenever you feel like it - is to miss the point at the end of the day.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

A Loss for Virginia

The Virginia brewing scene is a poorer place today.

Do we still have around 350 breweries in a state with a population of 8.6 million, giving us a brewery for approximately every 24,000 people? Yes we do. Can you go in pretty much any decent sized store and get beer brewed in Virginia? Yes you can.

Still, the Virginia brewing scene is a poorer place today.

"Why?" I hear you ask...

Yesterday, Josh Chapman, owner and brewer at Black Narrows Brewing on Chincoteague Island announced that they have decided to close their doors - their final weekend in operation will be February 16-18th. You may, or may not, know that I wrote a profile of Josh and his brewery for Pellicle just last year.  It was also just last year that their magnificent malted corn lager "How Bout It" was awarded a Good Food Award - the corn in the lager being an heirloom variety, grown on the Eastern Shore, malted by Murphy & Rude in Charlottesville, and fermented with a yeast strain derived from a Chincoteague oyster. Beer does not get much more local than that.

My few hours on Chincoteague with Josh was a shot in the arm for me. Here was someone making beer in ways that deeply resonated with me, on equipment that wasn't state of the art, in a manner that seemed to encapsulate the early pioneers of craft beer. Josh's hops were mostly from the Eastern Shore, he only used Murphy & Rude malt, which is all made from Virginia grown barley, he did interesting things, like using pine needles, oyster liquor, and eelgrass in his beer. He supported his community by taking what they could offer, and returning it to them in the form of insanely tasty beer.

Black Narrows was a local brewery in perhaps the purest sense of the word.

In announcing the closure, Josh noted that "we watched our ingredients, equipment and labor costs increase. It was all too much". In the end, the finances of being a hyper local, community supporting brewery just couldn't sustain the business, when I interviewed Jasper Akerboom noted that "If you start a brewery, you are not going to get very wealthy". Prescient words perhaps.

Thankfully, the beer scene on the broader Delmarva Peninsula is not losing Josh entirely, and there is something new in works, and when it opens you bet your life I'll be trekking up past northern Virginia to get there - and how much I hope the corn lager will be part of this new adventure.

I am not generally a sentimental person when it comes to the business of brewing, but when it came to Black Narrows, I genuinely wanted them to succeed and thrive as their vision of what local, community, brewing means is something I can readily sign up for, where a company is not just a local brewery, but a brewery for locals.

Homebrew - Cheaper than the Pub?

The price of beer has been on my mind a fair bit lately. At the weekend I kicked my first keg of homebrew for the 2024, a 5.1% amber kellerb...