I get it. Everyone wants to save a few bucks. And when it comes to your hobbies, saving a few bucks here and there can be huge–especially when you have joint checking. Plus, homebrew supplies can be (are) really expensive, especially as a non-necessity. But we’re homebrewers. We’re passionate hobbyists who want quality products. So when we spend our money at our LHBS, or online, we want to be sure we’re getting the most bang (let’s be honest: ABV) for our buck.
But what can saving a few bucks really do for your beer?
For this post, I’m going to focus on the big 3: grains, hops, and yeast. There’s plenty of other frugal topics and DIY projects to get into, and I will at some point, but for today, we’ll focus on these guys.
And remember, throughout this whole article, it’s all pretty basic: you get what you pay for. I apologize if I get repetitive with that.
You can find really cheap hops all over the interwebs these days (like on Amazon & eBay, for example), but that doesn’t mean they’re any good. Every harvest has quality hops and crappy hops, and there are people and companies that will sell both types. And while yes, the crappy hops will make beer, they’re not exactly what you want to make beer with. Plus, at the homebrew level, saving a few bucks on your hop additions is truly cents-to-the-pint in the end. Not worth it when you’re putting your beer, your reputation, and most importantly your taste buds on the line.
When it comes to saving money without sacrificing quality on hops, it can help to buy in bulk. Keep in mind though, that as soon as you open a bag of sealed hops, they begin to go stale and lose their potency. There are some great places to buy online like Hop Union and Hops Direct, that sell great hops in air-tight, C02-sealed bags that will last you an entire season. But with just about any store (online or in-person), you’ll save money if you can plan ahead with your brews and buy a few extra ounces when you make your purchase. If at all possible, when you order a pound of a certain hop, try to get that pound in individually-sealed bags. That way you can plan out your brews a little more easily without having to use everything in that bag ASAP. (James Spencer of Basic Brewing Radio just did a fantastic interview with Stan Hieronymus, author of For The Love of Hops in which they talk all about some great hop-saving techniques and practices on the homebrew level.)
Now for the malted barley (in which I use “grains” and “malts” interchangeably throughout this post). Honestly, in the first year or so of homebrewing, I never really thought too much about them. I figured like any industry, there are going to be many companies vying for your business, and I assumed that most of which would still use high-quality malting, techniques, and mixing. Wrong. It was when I worked for a few months at a local brewery that my eyes were opened. We had a few pallets of old grain, and a few pallets of new grain. The old stuff was from the old brewmaster who didn’t care as much about the quality of malt and just bought the cheapest ones. The new stuff was ordered by the current brewmaster, and while a little more expensive, was far higher in quality. There were three big differences between the high and low quality grain: malting, taste, & efficiency.
The different colors of grain (i.e. a very light malted grain of Crystal 10L vs a very dark malted grain of Crystal 120L) is just the cooking (kilning) of the grain at different temperatures and times. Just like toast, the hotter the temp and longer it’s left in the oven, the darker it gets. From this point, the maltsters have a choice, they can take all of the Crystal 80L they just malted and put it into their 50 lb bags and send them out, or they can combine some Crystal 100L and maybe a little Crystal 120L with some Crystal 10L (which didn’t have to cook nearly as long or as high a temp), and call it Crystal 80L. You can find out what type of maltster you’re working with simply by looking at a handful of their grain. If there are many different types of shades and colors of grain, then that means they probably mix and match, saving them money but giving you an uneven, untrue level of malt. If they’re more or less even in color, then that (usually) means the maltster is pretty quality.
Next time you buy grain in bulk, take a small handful (if you already haven’t done s0) and stick it in your mouth. Chew on those little guys. They should be sweet and crunchy. If they taste like cardboard or soft like raisins, then they’re stale (or it’s just a really crappy maltster). The taste between the old 2-row and the new 2-row at the brewery was night and day. Honestly, one of them I would consider a great, sweet snack. The other tasted like paper. It was remarkable. And while we don’t need to have yummy-tasting ingredients (try eating a hop cone….no thank you) to make quality beer, the difference in taste in base malts is indicative of how much starch, carbohydrates, and overall sugars are in the grain, giving you much more yield.
Finally, we get to efficiency. This is the biggest reason to buy quality grain. When brewing an IPA at the brewery on our 15 bbl system, we used 18 bags (900 lbs) of the old grain which gave us a 7% ABV beer. With the newer, higher quality grain, we only had to use 14 bags (700 lbs) of grain for the 7% beer, saving us four bags per batch. This was due to many things, but mainly the malting process being more superior with one, giving much higher diastatic power (ability to convert starches into fermentable sugars) as well as more enzymes already present in the grain, giving us overall more fermentable sugars in the end. And while yes, the nicer grain was a little more expensive, having to use more than 25% less grain per batch meant we were saving hundreds of dollars per batch. Plus, we were making a higher quality product, which is always something to be proud of, even if it does cost a few extra bucks.
While yes, most malts you buy (especially through homebrew stories/websites) will be good enough, there are plenty of bad grains out there. Again, you get what you pay for. If something costs $1.29/lb and another costs $1.49/lb, it’s may be frugal to by the former, but the latter will most likely give you a better beer. When in doubt ask your local LHBS worker and/or Google it.
When it comes to yeast, there aren’t a lot of options as far as products go, but as far as where and when you purchase them, it can get a little more complex. Besides harvesting your own yeast from the air (good luck and send me some), you probably use the same yeast as me: White Labs, Wyeast, Fermentis (Safale), or Danstar. While I’ve never used Danstar, this article isn’t about which yeast company is the best. Each one has proven time and time again that they can make quality beer, if used correctly.
The most important thing to remember about buying and using yeast is: time. Every bottle, package, and pouch of yeast should have a “best if used by” date on it. If not, or if that date is within a few weeks from now, then don’t purchase it. But if you’re like me and the closest homebrew store is more than a 45 minute drive away, then you probably purchase a lot of your supplies online. What that means for online purchases is simply, you want to buy yeast (and really all perishable items) from the store/website that has the fastest turnover. Meaning, you don’t want to buy a yeast that has been sitting on their shelf for a year (no matter how cold that shelf may be). And while I’ve used yeasts with no problem at all that were used months after their expiration dates, it’s probably not the best practice in the world. And all you have to do is a little Google searching to find out the hazards of using expired yeasts. Yuck.
When it comes down to it, it’s your beer, and you can do whatever you want with it. For me though, while it’s only a few gallons of beer, it’s still a lot of thought, time, effort and honestly a lot of passion that goes into each batch of homebrew. Why spend $20 on a batch with mediocre results when I know I can spend $25-30 on the batch and get spectacular results? It really is that simple.