When Is A Hobby Not Just A Hobby?

Hi, I’m the Homebrew Husband, Nick. I’ve had the good fortune to be married to Erica for coming up on ten years now, and to be her partner in this pathway towards urban homesteading and all that means for our family. She’s been kind enough to encourage me to share some of my own thoughts over here on Northwest Edible Life, and I hope not to disappoint.

Among other things, I like to brew beer. You might even say it is my hobby.
Which brings up this whole, interesting idea about what is a hobby. Erica insists that her gardening is a hobby. But if you’ve read the blog, you know that she not only treats it with a seriousness that few people treat their hobbies, but that it generates a fair amount of the food we eat. No, it doesn’t generate an income but it does replace a considerable amount of our expenses.
Homebrewing is like that too. It is a hobby – I do it because I love to do it. It is a hobby – I don’t get any income from doing it (and if I did, it would no longer be homebrewing and I’d need a lot of licenses and permits that I don’t have!). But it too offsets a potential expense – the expense of beer.
There is a concept in alternative energy circles called a “negawatt” – a reduction in consumption or needed grid capacity. If, through improved habits and improved technology (e.g. LED lights), consumers can reduce their annual energy consumption by 12 Terawatt-Hours, that’s about the same impact (in terms of grid capacity) as building a single large nuclear power plant. These upteen negawatts, then, are equivalent to building upteen megawatts but probably a whole lot cheaper, safer, and/or more ecologically sound, depending on the particular way of generating those megawatts you had in mind. I only chose a nuclear power plant because I have a rough order of magnitude idea of how much energy one produces, the example holds true even if you are talking solar, wind, or harnessing the cuteness of bunny rabbits to generate electricity.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Where I’m going is “negadollars.” If a particular action saves, as compared to a baseline expenditure, a certain amount of money, it could be said to have a value of so many negadollars. If we harvest $400 worth of produce from our garden in one month…it contributed $400 negadollars to the family budget.
Those $400 that would have been spent at PCC or Costco or the local farmer’s market can instead go to savings, other bills, or something else.
Brewing is the same way. Count my equipment as a sunk cost. The ingredients that go into a typical batch of beer work out to about $35 ($18 worth of grain, $6 worth of hops, $8 of yeast, $1-3 worth of random other stuff like CO2, litmus paper, calcium chlorate, Star San, etc.). That’ll yield me about five gallons of brew – 53 12 oz bottles or 40 pint glasses. And that has a value of…well…
Negawatts are tricky and controversial things – not least because they are hard and ephemeral to quantify. Negadollars would suffer from the same problem. Am I comparing my brew with 53 bottles of Rogue, purchased at the local yuppiehippieorganic market? Am I comparing it with 53 bottles of Arbitrary Macrobrew Lite, purchased at the supermarket? Or am I comparing it with 40 pints of draft at a trendy downtown gastropub?
Accounting for my production costs, the difference is a matter of $60 negadollars, negative $15 negadollars, or $225 negadollars.
Which one counts? Do I measure my beer against the best, the worse, or the most likely? Do I really count all these potential beers that I’d be buying since, let’s face it, if I didn’t have two or three five gallon kegs in the garage I’d probably drink a lot less beer? Is it fair to pick the most expensive thing out there? Certainly no more than to pick the cheapest. But what if I think that is the most apt comparison to my product?
Fraught with complexities is this one!
The IRS defines a hobby as any enterprise which is not intended to generate a profit. So by that definition my brewing – just as Erica’s gardening – is a hobby, pure and simple. But neither hobby is like building model railroads or playing World of Warcraft. Or are they? What if a railroad builder takes to selling vintage painted box cars on eBay or a WoW player starts getting sponsorship (I kid you not!) to offset the cost of the hobby?
It is a tangled web of definitions – and one I can’t answer. Like so many things, I know it when I see it, and I know that replacing thousands of dollars in annual food costs is undeniably something more than a hobby!


  1. says

    With regards to “how to calculate negabucks” and what are we comparing it to… I calculate the negabucks I get from making my own preserves by looking at what goes into them. I’m basically getting a really good qualty, high-fruit-content, specialty-flavoured (with vanilla and ginger, say) jam – the kind of stuff that runs about $5 per 250mL in boutique shops – for the same (or lower – I got a LOT of free serviceberries this year, for example) cost as the mostly-sugar-and-water generic-brand stuff available for $1.99 per litre.

    In the case of your home-brewed beer? What you’re doing is micro-brewing. Some compare it to other microbrews. If a local microbrew is, say, $2.85 for a 12oz bottle, well your 53 bottles of home-brew totally saved you ~$150.

    I think that comparing it to the Macrobrew Lite stuff (or the pints in a bar stuff) is… not comparing apples to oranges, but comparing, say, Ottawa Farmers Market kale to Imported-from-Chile Plantation kale instead of Foodland Ontario Grocery-Store kale when you’re looking at price-points. This may not work for negawatts, but for negabucks? Comparing like to like is probably the most accurate way to go *even if*, as you say, you wouldn’t drink as much beer (or eat as many serviceberries) if you were paying per bottle rather than paying for the ingredients and getting the labour for free.

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