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.


  1. My numbers are similar to yours. Interesting charging yourself for your labor, but the way I see it, by doing it myself, I'm paying myself.

    The old homebrewers' joke was that those who homebrew to save money on beer is like buying a boat to save money on fish. But with pints in the U.S. now topping $7.00 USD, I'm starting to wonder if homebrewing is cheaper. A "standard" 5-US gallon batch is 40 pints. So buying 40 pints at a pub would be $320.00 (adding a $1 for tax and tip, keeping the number at $8 to keep the maths easy.)
    Cost of brewing equipment and gadgets notwithstanding, a "standard" batch of my British Brown cost me about $35 for grains, hops, and yeast. Add in $8 for water (I know, a lot, but again, to keep calculations easy), $5 "energy" - propane or electric. Add a couple of bucks amortization of equipment, say $2 - that comes to $50 for 5 gal/40 pints/19 liters or $1.25 pint.

    I think part of the "makers mentality" comes a sense of self satisfaction of doing it yourself in addition to a sense of thrift.

  2. when I was actively brewing, I had a couple house beer recipes that were loosely designed to have an ingredient cost ( for 2.5 gallons ) no higher than buying a 24pk of Labatt Blue at Wegmans. It was more of a thought exercise than an actual attempt at saving money ... much like you said, the intangibles were where the value of the beer lied.


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...