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How to Make Beer at Home – Brewing Process, Supplies & Cost

I live in Minnesota, one of the few states that bans Sunday alcohol sales – with the exception of specially brewed “near beer” varieties that have less than 3.2% alcohol by weight, or about 4% alcohol by volume. The limitation extends to retailers including grocery stores and gas stations, and the state legislature only just passed a law allowing breweries and distilleries to have onsite taprooms. Despite these restrictive statutes, or perhaps because of them, we’ve seen an explosion in the number of homegrown craft breweries since the beginning of 2010.

In fact, many successful brewery owners started out as avid, talented homebrewers who couldn’t get enough of the dirty but satisfying process of making beer. However, given the often-small batches that commercial craft brewers produce and the variable cost of ingredients, their finished products can be expensive – especially compared to macrobrews such as Budweiser, Coors, and Miller.

Since beer is sometimes inaccessible to me, and because good beer can be expensive, I’d begun to wonder if it would make sense to cut out the middle man and brew my own. After all, if I make it myself, I don’t have to worry about greasing the palms of the brewer, the distributor, and the liquor store owner. Since mid-2013, when Mississippi and Alabama became the last states to legalize homebrewing, it has been possible to do so anywhere in America.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be a scientist to make safe, reasonably tasty alcoholic beverages at home. Beer and cider are particularly straightforward – and they’re popular, with cider emerging as a gluten-free alternative to barley-based beer in recent years.

For your first batch of beer, you should expect to spend around $100, roughly 60% to 70% of which goes toward equipment. For later batches, the number is closer to $30 to $45, though you may need to invest in additional supplies that could increase the total cost of your hobby. The process requires two to six uninterrupted hours of your time. Beer calls for an initial brewing or fermenting day (though this part of the process is more time-consuming for beer), and additional time for bottling some days or weeks hence.

Clearly, brewing beer can be resource-intensive at first. To lower your costs, you should make several batches with your initial equipment purchase. While you can buy brewing kits as small as one gallon, it’s more cost-effective to do five-gallon batches. Each of these results in about four-and-a-half gallons of drinkable beer, or roughly eight 6-packs. In either case, the process gets cheaper over time – cheaper than buying retail, in fact – and you get better at it too.

General Principles of Homebrewing Beer

Brewing is the process of turning malted barley, also known simply as malt, and sometimes other grains (such as sorghum, rye, and wheat), into beer. Wort is made by combining these grains with tap or purified water. It doesn’t matter which, because brewing requires you to boil the wort, which kills any microbes lurking in your tap water.

To the boiled wort, yeast is added to begin the fermentation process. The yeast feeds off the sugar in the wort for 7 to 14 days, belching out gas and alcohol as a byproduct of its metabolism. After a week or two, a priming sugar must be added to continue the process, which can last for another few days to several weeks. Priming sugar is additional food for the yeast, which by this time has run out of naturally occurring sugar but has yet to fully ferment and carbonate the beer. As with naturally occurring sugar, the yeast consumes it and extrudes gas and alcohol.

The type of beer you intend to brew is what determines the total length of the fermentation process. Some styles, such as pale ales and IPAs, may be ready to drink within two to four weeks of brewing. Others, especially lagers, can take more than four weeks to age properly.

It’s important to note that throughout the brewing process, sanitation is critical. Before you do anything, you must clean and sterilize all the equipment you plan to use. After you’re done with the high-temperature part of the brewing process, which kills any microbes in the initial ingredients, you must be very careful not to introduce any foreign substances – even tap water, water ice, or snow – into the wort. Failure to maintain sanitation after boiling can lead to bad-tasting or totally ruined beer.

Core Ingredients & Costs

Traditionally, beer has four basic ingredients:

  • Water: It’s perfectly acceptable to brew beer with tap water. If your tap water has a distinctive taste, you may want to use filtered or distilled water to ensure that the flavor of your beverage comes through. Cost: Free to $10 (if using distilled water)
  • Malted Barley: This is a high-protein, partially germinated (meaning it has begun to expand, but hasn’t yet sprouted) variety of barley that has been force-dried with blasts of hot air. Malting changes the chemical composition of the barley to make its sugars more palatable to yeast, which in turn facilitates brewing. Malted barley imparts a rich, sweet flavor to finished beer that’s often compared to caramel. You can get this ingredient, which is often simply called “malt,” as a loose grain or syrupy extract at your local brewery supply store, sometimes as part of a homebrewing starter kitCost: $3 to $5 for a one-pound container (good for a typical brew session, which turns about five gallons of ingredients into about four-and-a-half gallons of drinkable beer)
  • Hops: These are the flowers of the hops plant. In brewing, they’re typically used in bud form, often dried. Hops have a tangy, sometimes citrus-y flavor that offsets the rich sweetness of the malt. The amount of hops in beer varies depending on the style – India Pale Ales tend to have more, while Belgians and wheat beers usually have less. Hops are available at brewing supply stores. Cost: $3 to $5 for a one-ounce packet (may need several per session, depending on the style of beer) 
  • Yeast: These are single-celled fungi that facilitate fermentation. There are more than a thousand known species, but only a few are used in brewing – often referred to as brewers’ yeasts. In fact, some naturally occurring yeast species are actively harmful, producing unpleasant tastes in finished beer or leading to gastrointestinal issues in unsuspecting drinkers, so proper cleaning and sterilization is critical throughout the brewing process. Brewers’ yeast is available in dried, inactive form at brewery supply stores. Cost: $1 to $2 per packet (good for a typical brew session)

Beer Home Brewing Principles

Methods & Time Costs of Brewing Beer at Home

There are three basic ways to turn the building blocks of beer into a fermented beverage.

1. All-Grain Brewing

  • Time required: Six to eight hours on brewing day, plus at least two weeks of fermenting

This is the most labor-intensive and precise method. It requires you to mill the grain (mostly malted barley, but you can also add sorghum, rye, wheat, and even corn to achieve different flavors and colors) by hand to create a substance called mash. Next, you heat water mixed with the mash in a false-bottomed vessel that catches suspended grains and allows liquid to drain. This heating process, known as mashing, converts complex carbohydrates (starches) in the grain to sugars that more easily facilitate fermentation.

After cooling the grain-water mixture and removing the grains, you’re left with wort. You can then boil the wort, add hops, finish brewing, and begin fermenting.

2. Partial Mash

  • Time required: Five to seven hours on brewing day, plus at least two weeks of fermenting

This is a hybrid method that combines elements of all-grain and extract brewing. It typically involves adding a small amount of mash to your water early in the brewing process, then topping it off with a malt extract before adding hops.

Commercial brewers and advanced homebrewers generally use all-grain (most common) or partial mash brewing (somewhat less common), claiming that these processes offer more control at each step of the brewing process than extract brewing does (see below). Compared to a pre-made extract, all-grain brewing in particular allows you to add different kinds of grains to achieve different flavors, colors, and consistencies. The partial mash method offers a similar amount of control and options.

However, there are two big reasons why all-grain and partial mash brewing aren’t ideal for beginners. First, they’re more expensive: Brewing with grain requires additional equipment, such as a milling device (to crush grains and remove the husks) and a strainer, that homebrew starter kits typically lack.

Perhaps more importantly, more can go wrong with all-grain and partial mash brewing. If you don’t properly mill the grains in the first place, you could inadvertently add husks to the liquid. This imparts a sour or burned flavor that won’t go away during brewing. Plus, mashing itself is a precise process, requiring controlled heating that includes pauses or “rests.” If you fail to add grain at the proper temperature or wander too far outside the right temperature range, you can harm the flavor and consistency of the finished product.

3. Extract Brewing

  • Time required: Two-and-a-half to five hours on brewing day, plus at least two weeks of fermenting

Many homebrewing beginners and some commercial brewers use this method, which involves adding an already-prepared malt extract. This is usually a thick, syrupy liquid – sometimes a powder, though that’s less common in homebrewing – that contains all the components of malt, plus fermentable sugars. To make your wort, simply add this directly to boiling water.

Compared to all-grain and partial mash brewing, it’s harder to brew a bad batch of beer with an extract malt. It lets you sidestep the mashing process and create your wort directly from a prepared substance that’s specially designed to emulate a specific type of beer.

In fact, you can buy five-gallon kits for general beer styles, such as amber ale and pilsener, for $25 to $45. After brewing and fermentation, these produce about four-and-a-half gallons of actual, drinkable beer. You can also buy clone kits that mimic a specific beer – from popular brews like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, to more exotic ones like Fulton Brewery’s Libertine Imperial Red Ale – for a similar cost. The Brooklyn Brew Shop Beer Making Kit is one example.

If you follow the instructions properly and keep everything clean from start to finish, clone kits can produce a finished product that closely resembles the model. As a beginner, being able to make a great-tasting beer you recognize is a big bonus. Some small kits produce as little as one gallon of beer, usually at about half the cost of a five-gallon kit. For comparison, there are 72 ounces of beer – just over one-half gallon – in a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles.

As a beginner, you should start with extract brewing and possibly graduate to partial mash or all-grain after a few successful attempts. Here’s a closer look at the steps, timing, and cost of extract brewing.

Extract Brewing Equipment Costs

The cost of brewing equipment can be split into several categories, some of which can wait until homebrewing becomes a regular activity for you.

Starter Kits

If you’re new to brewing, you need to purchase a starter kit. Some, but not all, include a five-gallon style or clone kit, which comes with malt extract, yeast, priming sugar, and possibly other items. If your chosen kit doesn’t include a style or recipe kit, you can likely find one at the store or website you purchased it from. Except for the bottle caps and style kit, all the items in these kits can be reused.

These three popular options, all of which are designed to handle a five-gallon batch (producing roughly four-and-a-half gallons of drinkable beer), provide a good range of how much kits cost and what they include.

1. Northern Brewer Starter Kit: Available online for $79.99

  • Fermenting Bucket With Lid and Airlock. Initial fermentation occurs in this container. The lid and airlock form a seal that prevents air from entering but allows it to escape – the yeast gives off gas as a byproduct of its activity, which is why brewers sometimes say that airlocks “bubble.” Outside air can contain microbes, including wild yeast, that might contaminate the batch.
  • Bottling Bucket. When you’re ready to bottle, you need to transfer the beer from the fermenting bucket into a second bucket that can hold at least five gallons. It typically has a spigot that pours the beer into each bottle.
  • Bottle Filling Equipment. You can use this setup to transfer beer directly from the fermenting bucket or bottling bucket to the bottles. It may offer more control than the bottling bucket’s spigot. A spigot, siphon, tubing, and filler (a thin tube that squirts the liquid into the bottles) are included.
  • 60 Bottle Caps.
  • Bottle Capper. A capper mechanically seals the caps on your bottles to prevent loss of carbonation or contamination.
  • Cleaning and Sanitizing Solution. A food-safe solution that kills unwanted microbes (wild yeast and bacteria) in the bottles.
  • Bottle Brush. This enhances the sanitizing process, allowing you to reach every inch of each bottle’s interior.
  • Instructional DVD for First-Time Brewers. This is a great help when first getting started.
  • One Five-Gallon Style Kit of Your Choosing. This includes an already-prepared malt extract of brown ale, red ale, or witbier (“white beer,” a pale, tangy, light-tasting variety that has a high amount of wheat), and makes roughly four-and-a-half gallons of beer.

2. Midwest Supplies Brewing Basics Starter Kit: Available online for $69.99
It’s important to note that the Midwest Supplies Brewing Basics Starter Kit does not come with a style or recipe kit.

  • Fermenting Bucket With Lid and Airlock.
  • Hydrometer and Test Jar. This equipment helps you measure the beer’s gravity (density), ABV, and other characteristics. It’s not essential, but you may want to know the specific chemical properties of your beer – particularly if homebrewing becomes a hobby. That’s useful both for comparing future batches to prior ones and for comparing what you make to similar retail varieties.
  • Bottling Bucket.
  • Bottling Equipment. Includes a spigot, siphon, tubing, and filler.
  • Cleaning and Sanitizing Solution.
  • 60 Bottle Caps.
  • Bottle Capper.
  • Bottle Brush.
  • Instructional DVD.

3. Midwest Supplies Brewing Starter Kit: Available online for $89.99 ($99.99 with glass carboy)
This product does not come with a style or clone kit.

  • Fermenting Bucket With Lid and Airlock.
  • Plastic Carboy With Bung. For certain styles of beer, particularly higher-alcohol varieties, this can help with secondary fermentation. The bung is a seal, similar to the airlock on a typical fermenting bucket.
  • F/C Liquid Thermometer. Comes with a flotation counterweight that allows it to float in the boiling or cooling wort.
  • Hydrometer and Test Jar.
  • Bottling Bucket.
  • Bottling Equipment. Includes a spigot, siphon, tubing, and filler.
  • Cleaning and Sanitizing Solution.
  • 60 Bottle Caps.
  • Bottle Capper.
  • Bottle and Carboy Brushes.
  • Instructional DVD.

Additional Equipment

Necessary items that probably don’t come in your starter kit, but which you may have in your kitchen, include the following:

  • Brewing Kettle. A five-gallon stainless steel cauldron is ideal, but an aluminum stock pot is fine, as long as the manufacturer says it’s safe to use on a stove top. Cost: $20 to $50 
  • Stirring Spoon or Ladle. This can be metal or wood, as long as it’s stove top-safe. Cost: $5 to $10 
  • Bottles. You can reuse old beer bottles if properly sanitized and cleaned, either by hand or in the dishwasher. Cost: varies

Recipe Kits

Every time you want to brew a new batch of beer, you have to buy a new recipe kit, unless you buy a starter kit that includes one. Popular options, all of which produce about four-and-a-half gallons of beer, include the following:

These kits typically come with malt extract, hops, yeast, and priming sugar.

Upgrade Kits

If homebrewing becomes a habit, you may decide to buy an upgrade kit. Like the starter kit, your upgrade kit is a one-time expense.

1. Northern Brewer Raise Your Game Fresh Start Upgrade Kit: Available online for $79.99
This one may be a bit more expensive because of the high-quality strainer. If you have a good strainer in your kitchen already, you may want to buy a cheaper upgrade kit that includes a boiling bag instead.

  • Five-gallon stainless steel brewing pot
  • Double mesh stainless steel strainer (for all-grain brewing)
  • Heavy-duty stainless steel spoon (for stirring wort during boiling)
  • Forty-eight 12-ounce brown glass bottles

2. Midwest Supplies Indispensable Implements Equipment Upgrade Kit: Available online for $69.99

  • Nylon boiling bag (for all-grain brewing)
  • Dial thermometer
  • Five-gallon stainless steel brewing pot
  • Forty-eight 12-ounce amber glass bottles
  • Stainless steel spoon

After brewing, the fermentation process requires a lot of waiting. The earliest you can reasonably expect to drink your beer is two weeks after brewing it. For certain styles, this may take as long as four weeks. If you and the people you live with regularly drink beer, you may go through 60 bottles of homebrew before your next batch is ready. So if you’re serious about only drinking homebrewed beer, you should consider buying another set or two of equipment.

Cost Home Beer Brewing

Extract Brewing Steps & Timing

Follow these general steps to complete the brewing process. To ensure quality and consistency, you should also refer to any instructions that come with your kit.

Brew Day Part One: Preparing the Wort

  1. Get Everything in Place. As you would before cooking a complicated meal, you need to get all your ingredients and equipment organized in your kitchen before beginning the brewing process. Use your kit’s brewing checklist to confirm that you have all of your supplies and ingredients in place – those that came with the kit, as well as those that you supplied on your own. If you want to create a record of the process for future reference, make sure you have your brewing note sheet and something to write with. Note when you start each step, the temperature of the wort at various times, and other important factors.
  2. Clean Your Kitchen. You need a clean, de-cluttered workspace, so you should thoroughly sweep and mop the floors, disinfect your counters, clean the stove, and put anything unnecessary away before beginning.
  3. Carefully Read All Instructions. You can’t undo a brewing mistake, so carefully read your kit’s instructions – which should be detailed – before starting. If anything seems unclear, or assumes knowledge that you don’t have, look online for a step-by-step tutorial.
  4. Clean Your Equipment. Wash all of your equipment thoroughly with dish soap and water. Afterwards, use your kit’s cooking-safe sanitizer to decontaminate everything, especially smaller items like the thermometer, if you use one.
  5. Add Water. Add the prescribed amount of water – usually one gallon – to your brew kettle and bring it to a boil on your stove (a gas range works best).
  6. Add Malt. Once boiling, remove the kettle from heat and add your extract. It has the consistency of honey or molasses, so stir vigorously until it’s completely dissolved to avoid burning.
  7. Return to Heat and Add Hops. Once the extract is totally dissolved, return your kettle to the heat. As soon as it boils again, add your hops and stir to dissolve. For some beers, you add all your hops here. For hoppier varieties, such as India pale ales or dry-hopped ales, you may add more later.
  8. Boil. Boil for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and keeping a close eye on any foam or boil-over. Take care to keep the wort’s temperature within the range indicated in the instructions. When done, let it stand for five minutes. While it’s highly advisable to monitor temperature with a thermometer, you don’t need a specialized one to do so. A cooking thermometer, as long as it ranges up to near boiling, should work fine. However, some homebrewers prefer a floating thermometer for simplicity. If you do, and your brewing kit doesn’t include one, you’ve got to buy one separately. Time: 120 to 165 minutes for all steps to this point 

Brew Day Part Two: Preparing for Fermentation

  1. Cool and Transfer to Fermenter. Fill your fermenting vessel, sometimes called a carboy, halfway to the top with cold water. Transfer the hot wort into the vessel and monitor its temperature until it drops below 75 degrees. You can speed this process by placing the fermenter in an ice bath or snowbank. Time: 25 to 55 minutes
  2. Add Yeast. At 75 degrees or below, add the yeast and secure the airtight lid on the fermenter. The lid’s airlock begins to emit bubbles once the beer starts fermenting in earnest, typically one to three days after sealing.
  3. Store the Fermenter. Your kit’s instructions should indicate the appropriate temperature range for fermenting your chosen beer. Ales typically ferment near or just below room temperature – 65 degrees is fine. Lagers need cooler conditions, so a basement or air-conditioned room is a good bet for that style. The fermenting process can last one to two weeks, depending on beer type. Time: 30 to 60 minutes for this part of the process, and 150 to 225 minutes total on brew day

One to Two Weeks Later: Priming and Bottling

  1. Prime the Beer. Fermented beer isn’t well-carbonated, so you need to prime it with fermentable sugar before bottling. The yeast eats the priming sugar and gives off carbon dioxide, eventually producing a liquid with ample carbonation. Priming requires several steps, though your kit should have detailed instructions on how to do it. Time: 30 to 60 minutes
  2. Bottle the Beer. Using food-safe sanitizer, carefully wash the inside and outside surfaces of each bottle and all bottling equipment. Transfer the beer from the fermenter into the bottling bucket, if applicable, and then into each individual bottle using your kit’s siphon. Cap the bottles and store in a room with a constant temperature of 65 to 70 degrees. Time: 20 to 40 minutes
  3. Enjoy. Depending on the style, your beer could be drinkable as soon as a week after bottling, or two weeks after brew day. However, it may continue to carbonate and mature for several weeks after that. Your style or recipe kit should tell you how long to ferment and store your beer before drinking it. Time: 50 to 100 minutes total on bottling day

Altogether, brewing a batch of your own beer can require anywhere from three hours and 20 minutes to five hours and 25 minutes of your undivided attention, plus two to more than four weeks of waiting. Your first batch should cost between $70 and $90 and should make about four-and-a-half gallons of (hopefully) delicious beer.

Retail Craft Beer Costs

There’s not much of a time cost associated with prepackaged alcohol. Buying a six-pack of beer doesn’t take nearly as long as making it yourself, especially if you can do so while you’re already at the grocery store. Even the time spent on a separate trip to a specialty store is negligible compared to the several hours required for brewing, priming, and bottling.

I visited my local liquor store and took note of prices, including tax, for select varieties of craft (microbrew) beer. Basically, 12-pack prices varied between $14 and $19, including tax. Six-pack prices ranged from $9 to $12, with specialty four-packs varying from $8 to $12 or more. My state has high alcohol taxes, and this store was fairly small. You might find somewhat lower prices at a warehouse-style liquor store or grocery store in a lower-cost area.

If you choose the $79.99 Northern Brewer Starter Kit, the best value for first-time homebrewers, your first five-gallon batch of beer – about fifty-three 12-ounce bottles – would cost less than $80. That’s about $1.50 per bottle or $9 per six-pack. By contrast, $80 buys you five Sierra Nevada 12-packs – 60 bottles – with some change left over. However, subsequent homebrewing sessions are cheaper, as the cost of a typical extract kit is less than $45, or three Sierra Nevada 12-packs.

So, homebrewing is probably cheaper than buying your own beer if you do it often. However, you can start enjoying your 12-pack as soon as you buy it. Not so with beer you make on your own.

Retail Craft Beer Cost

Final Word

Even if you’re not a gourmet cook and your food doesn’t boast the perfect blend of flavors you’d find in a restaurant, it’s rewarding to create a meal from scratch. I think you can apply the same principle to just about anything made from scratch, whether it’s a table, a piece of yard art, or a sippable beverage. So if you’re disappointed that your beer lacks the subtle balance of flavors found in the best craft varieties, or that you’re not saving a ton of money and time by making it yourself, don’t get too down. Just take another sip and enjoy the fruits of your labor – and, if you’re up for it, try, try again.

Have you ever brewed beer at home? Would you recommend it as a budget-friendly venture?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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