Brew Or Buy: Is It Worth It? It Depends.

Chow recently kicked up some great discussion in the homesteading community with their article “DIY or Buy?” I’ve gone through this exercise quite a few times with my homebrewing, pricing my expenses vs. the cost of running out and buying a sixer.

And my results may not be what you expect, regardless of what you expect.

Now the truth is that I brew because I love the craft, the planning and execution, and the resulting process. But I’m an analyst by nature and profession, so I can’t help but run the numbers every so often. And I recommend that you do the same, whether you brew or raise veggies or goats or bees or chickens or make and sell handicrafts on Etsy.

But I’ve spent too much of my life cringing as I watch people turn good numbers into bad decisions to encourage such analysis to take place without due reflection.

I can’t speak for Chow, but every time I’ve calculated the “worth” of my hobby, I’ve just remind myself that the answer is “it depends.” What does it depend on?

The value of your efforts depends on how you value your efforts.

What?  Hold on.

To start with, I ran the numbers and priced out two of my “house” recipes – I’ve done batches of both recently so the numbers are current (detailed calculations are all at the bottom of this post).

Red Special Pale Ale
$37.27 per batch, netting about 4 1/2 gallons
$0.78 per 12 oz. bottle
$1.04 per pint

KL-7 Porter
$38.81 per batch, netting about 4 1/2 gallons
$0.81 per 12 oz. bottle
$1.08 per pint

So something like 80 cents per bottle.

So how does that compare with store bought beer?

It depends.

I went on a “brewconnaisance” mission to Costco, the local supermarket, and the yuppie-hippie market down the street. Here’s what I found:

  • Bud Light by the 30 can pack (!) [Costco]: $0.70 per 12 oz. can
  • Bud Light by the 24 can or 18 bottle case [supermarket]: $0.94 per 12 oz. can or bottle
  • Red Hook ESB or New Belgium Fat Tire by the 24 bottle case [Costco]: $0.98 per 12 oz. bottle
  • Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve by the 12 bottle case [supermarket]: $1.08 per 12 oz. bottle
  • Red Hook ESB or Deschutes Mirror Pond by the 12 bottle case or six pack [supermarket]: $1.33 per 12 oz. bottle
  • Maritime Pacific Flagship Ale by the six pack [yuppie-hippie market]: $1.50 per 12 oz. bottle
  • Rogue Dead Guy by the six pack [supermarket]: $1.75 per 12 oz. bottle
  • Rogue Dead Guy by the six pack [yuppie-hippie market]: $2.17 per bottle

So, to refer back to Chow’s point, is it worth it?

Against a can of Bud Light that is a dime cheaper…definitely not.

Compared to saving fifteen cents vs. a Bud Light…probably not, in a purely pecuniary sense.

Saving twenty cents or so vs. a mid-range craft brewery…tough to say.

Saving a buck or more vs. a fashionable micro brew…almost assuredly yes.

Now how much do you value your own work? Do you compare yourself to a volume producing, efficiency-focused macro brewer?  Do you pit your quality against beer that has traveled for miles, suffered the indignities of the road and gone through who knows how many temperature cycles on who knows how many loading docks?

Or do you think yourself worthy to throw down versus the most creative brewmaster in the industry?  Are you making beer that can hold its own against a small craft product made with care on a scale only slightly larger than you’re brewing?

Against which product does your beer compare for flavor, quality, and every other spreadsheet resistant measure?

Me, I’d like to think that I’m more Rogue than Bud.

And so ultimately the decision as to the worth of my craft hinges on my decision as to the worth of my craft.

It is a tautology, a self fulfilling prophecy, good old confirmation bias leading straight to the data that validates a preexisting decision.

Want to have even more fun?  Start to make arbitrary valuations of time.  If I decide to “pay” myself minimum wage for the eight hours of a brewing session, the cost of a bottle goes up by $1.45 (using Washington State’s 2011 minimum wage).  That puts my humble efforts well above even Yuppie Hippie prices and into the realm of exotic Belgian imports.  But I’d never say it was fair to demand payment for a hobby I love – but if perchance I had some sort of agenda to prove…

And what about my equipment costs?  Should I count those?  If so, across how many batches should they be amortized?  What about the kegs my in-laws got me for Christmas?  The mash tun I stole from my wife’s catering business that we also use for yogurt making?

Any exercise in “valuing” something as complex as a productive hobby, gardening, cooking, homesteading, or the efforts of a stay-at-home parent ultimately reflects the assumptions made going in to the exercise…as well as any potential agenda lurking in the calculations.

Now this isn’t to say that such a valuation effort is worthless – on the contrary, smart decisions on how to best leverage limited resources are likely to be driven by such value calculations. Rather it is to call out the role of assumptions and to caution that they should be consciously made, fair, and clearly stated.

Invoking numbers tends to give things a concrete absolutism that may be all a facade, if those numbers are resting on vague guesses and hunches (this same thread runs through Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk that I talked about in Herding Chickens).

So next time you do the math on your own efforts, think carefully about who or what you compare yourself to. And next time you read someone else’s math, consider their comparison just as carefully.

Footnote: Homebrew Cost Calculations

Regarding my store bought beer price, booze in Washington State is pretty expensive, so I’d love to hear from someone in the land of Bevmo who can share a few more data points.

Regarding my own costs, I’ve got my vendors down pretty good and know how to source my ingredients at good prices: Fresh Hops for hops, Northern Brewer for almost everything else, and my excellent local homebrew store for odds and ends and last minute yeast crises.  I plan and buy ahead to amortize shipping costs but don’t do anything exotic like harvesting and re-using my yeast (and my hop crop was a bust this year, so no credit there).  Someone who does an occasional brew might see some different ingredient costs and might want to consider equipment expenses in a way that I simply don’t.  That said, I priced out a couple of Northern Brewer’s excellent partial mash kits and found that they weren’t that far off from my numbers – certainly no more than a nickel or so per bottle.

Red Special Pale Ale
9 lbs Castle Belgian pale malt @ $1.75/lb = $15.75

3/4 lb Briess Victory malt @ $2.00/lb = $1.50
3/4 lb Briess Caravienne malt @ @2.14/lb = $1.61
Shipping = $2.00

1/4 oz Magnum hops @ $1.25/oz = $0.31
1 1/2 oz Cascade hops  @ $1.25/oz = $1.88
1 1/2 oz Citra hops @ $1.60/oz = $2.40
Shipping 3.25 oz @ $0.175/oz = $0.57

1 pack Wyeast 1098 British ale yeast = $6.25

Fining and additions (isinglass and calcium chloride) @ $0.25 each = $0.50
CO2 estimated $2.00
Cleaning supplies $1.00
Water estimated at $1.00
Gas estimated at $0.50

Total cost $37.27 per batch

KL-7 Porter
10 lbs Castle Belgian pale malt @ $1.75/lb = $17.50
3/4 lb Briess Special Roast malt @ $2.04/lb = $1.53
3/4 lb Briess Caramel 80 malt @ @1.94/lb = $1.46
3/4 lb Briess Caramel 120 malt @ @1.94/lb = $1.46
1/2 lb Briess Chocolate malt @ 2.65/lb = $1.33
Shipping = $2.00

1 oz Centennial hops  @ $1.25/oz = $1.25
2 oz Crystal hops @ $1.25/oz = $2.50
Shipping 3 oz @ $0.175/oz = $0.53

1 pack Wyeast 1098 British ale yeast = $6.25

Fining and additions (isinglass and calcium chloride) @ $0.25 each = $0.50
CO2 estimated $2.00
Cleaning supplies $1.00
Water estimated at $1.00
Gas estimated at $0.50

Total cost $38.81 per batch

Comments

  1. This is a great post and echoes much of my own thinking. We, in Colorado, also have expensive beer/booze comparatively. So I've done much the same calculations. I made a batch of strong saison with a regular brewing friend. I believe the batch was @35-40 dollars all told, but I wasn't that pleased with the beer. The fact that I do not have a dishwasher complicates things. I am collecting "bomber" bottles and would like to try some mead-type brews. Which would hardly be cheap, but hopefully more satisfying. (Oh, one thing that could be added to the costs could be the recouping of spent grain, as chicken feed!) I have an ideal on $1 or less, per bottle.

  2. This a great rundown, especially when talking about value-added products. My beef with the article was mostly with her infrastructure costs being CRAZY high and then saying no one should do it because she chose to spend $3,000 on fencing for her chickens.

  3. I like this post, not so much as it applies to brewing (something we don't do…yet), but as it applies to so many other things we are doing here.

    Making soap, for example, may not seem worth the effort when a bar of Irish Spring can be had for about 37¢ at the warehouse club.

    Like you, we question how far to amortize the digital scale, molds and other equipment needed to make soap. We question whether we're getting the best buy on our oils. Our soap usually costs about 50¢ for a bar comparable to what you'd buy in the store.

    In the end, everyone in our household likes using the homemade soap better than the non-soap deodorant bars from the store. We know what's in it and we have fun making it. For an extra 13¢ a bar, I'd say it's worth it.

  4. Thanks for the soap maker's perspective, Annie. This article wasn't so much about beer as it was about the artificiality that can creep into these value calculations – so thanks for adding another product to the mix.

  5. Thanks for a very thought-provoking post. If one looks at DIYing from strictly a numbers perspective, it's easy to say that it's cheaper to buy. But what about plain old self-satisfaction? Or knowing how to make your own whatever if the economy collapses? How much is that worth?

    I can see the point of some things (buying cream to make butter vs having a cow and having access to unlimited supplies of cream, or just buying butter). But if a task gives you pleasure and self-worth and a quality product, then I don't think the bottom line hard cost is as important.

    I garden. It's expensive to get started, but I know that I love it, I get satisfaction from knowing how much food on my plate came from something I nurtured. The same can be said for canning – high start up costs, but damn, the end product sure tastes great!

    It's a personal choice and I think you did a great job at breaking down how personal a choice DIYing is.

    Thanks!

  6. How about you add carbon and energy into the equation?
    I grow veggies and fruit. My veggies should be compared to organic ones at the farmers market, not the chemically grown ones at the supermarket AND mine don't come in a plastic box. Same with eggs. The chickens provide fertiliser, eat scraps and, bonus, eggs!
    I didn't pay $3000 for a coop either.
    We make wine which costs about $3 a bottle. We live in the land of expensive booze and we would pay about $15 for a bottle of wine. Even if we pay ourselves $20 an hour we still save a lot of money mostly taxes so if you don't like what your Government is up to brew your own. Also our home made wine doesn't give me head aches!
    I must admit I watch a lot less television than the average Joe but you wuld have to pay me a lot more than $20 an hour to watch TV ;-)

  7. Funny…I'm just calculating my soap-making costs! It's the same scenario really: decently priced and great quality product in which every ingredient has been decided upon and controlled by you or buy the store stuff which might be cheaper but god knows what's really in it. Of course there's the other quality stuff out there but what's the fun in buying that? There's nothing more satisfying than making your own, especially if you enjoy it as a hobby!

  8. I inherited all my brewing equipment from a friend who moved away, so I had zero startup costs. Also, I am brewing hard cider with basically free fruit, so my only costs are yeast and time.

    Some batches are better than others. I'm a neophyte. But this batch was better than any hard cider I've bought in a store – dry, crisp, appley, fizzy, and with a kick like a mule. It was certainly "worth it" in financial terms (commercial hard cider is expensive) but also in terms of time well spent.

    Homebrewing is a cheaper hobby than many others I've tried (beekeeping comes to mind). And it's the only hobby I know that gets you drunk.'Cept just drinking, I suppose.

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