You may have noticed the tried-and-true formula to my blog posts: I open with a personal anecdote, and then relate it (filmsily) to the post’s main point. It’s my way of burying the lead – usually within a soft bed of bullshit.
The lead of this post, however, is just too juicy to bury – although technically I already have, with a little piece of Meta-magic – and it goes a little something like this:
If you’re homebrewing because it’s cheap, then you’re doing it wrong.
Our lead came to me as I was bottling the product of the first Brew Hui brew day. Those playing at home may recall that things didn’t go exactly according-to-plan with the inaugural brew; in fact, considering the flying-grain and wort-buried arms, it’s an absolute miracle that I had anything to bottle at all. The cascading clusterf**k had resulted in significantly less ‘yield’ than intended – 50% less, in fact – but post-ferment, I was still left with around 10 litres of an inexplicably-delicious drop to bottle.
As I sat beneath the fermenter – valve turned, bottle slowly filling – my thoughts turned to the Butcher’s Bill; the price of the clusterf**k, at least in terms of raw-ingredients-wasted. I figured that if the brew day had gone according to plan, I would have made 20 litres of quaffable Brew Hui pale ale for around $2/litre. But even with the eventual (and, in hindsight, inevitable) clusterf**k, I’d still managed to achieve the same per-litre yield as you’d get if you bought a box of generic Green Bottles. And in spite of its youth, my brew was tasting a gajillion times better than that stuff.
I was gobsmacked. How could such a disastrous brew day still result in such an impressive yield? Surely I was missing something; and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that my back-of-the-napkin math – restricted solely to raw ingredient costs – was treating some potentially-significant items as externalities.
The most obvious of these was the initial setup cost – the price paid for our tools-of-the-trade. In my case, the bill was $400 – a lot of money to most of us; but all hobbies have their start-up costs, and brewing is relatively economical in this regard. Four-Hundred Bucks wouldn’t go far in the world of tramping – a decent pair of hiking shoes and a day-pack would just about do it – and it would barely get you into the clubhouse if you were sufficiently masochistic as to take up golf. But just like Bart’s wardrobe full of karate outfits and electric guitars, we’ve all dropped money on pursuits that we followed while it felt good and then swiftly discarded when it ceased to. Forget about the cost of your brewing equipment. Just put it in a bubble and blow it away.
Unfortunately, I can’t be equally philosophical about some of the non-Reinheitsgebot consumables that serve as essential brew day cornerstones. Running a three-ring gas burner for a couple of hours doesn’t cost heaps, but it does cost something; and all that cleaning and sanitation stuff – without which you’d likely have to tip your investment down the drain due to unpalatable infections – adds at least a few Shekels to the bottom line. And let’s not forget our least-touted consumable: that is, water. If you’re like me and live somewhere like Auckland, you’re charged for each litre that you use – and all that cleaning and boiling churns through a pretty significant water volume.
But even when you add-up all of these oft-forgotten variable costs – and I know some homebrewers who do so religiously – the fact of the matter is that they just don’t amount to a hill of beans. You could throw-in as much ‘water treatment’ and ‘finings’ as you like; your bottom-line will barely ripple.
Homebrewing, then, remains scandalously cheap.
But here’s the rub, and with it a return to our lead: sitting under that fermenter – bottles nearly filled – it dawned on me that I’d been wasting my time by dwelling too much on the price-per-litre of it all. Cheapness is only relevant to the extent that it evens the playing-field – making homebrewing an accessible pursuit for all. I’ll never be able to afford a vineyard on Waiheke; but I’ll always be able to afford a few bags of Maris Otter, a handful of Amarillo and a wee packet of ale yeast. Beyond that, considerations of cost are utterly irrelevant.
I’d like to suggest that the all-to-common conflation of homebrewing with thriftiness misses the point entirely. Equally, to think (and speak) of homebrewing as if it’s a means-to-an-end – rather than the end itself – is to cheapen the practice and validate the wowsers. We brew because it’s our passion; our torch in the fog. We brew because we love to.
Money has little – if anything – to do with it.
Twitter: @jasegurney | Facebook: www.facebook.com/brewhui