Okay, brewing your own beer (“homebrewing”) isn’t quite free, but it’s a lot cheaper than at the store or the bar. An average microbrew costs anywhere from $1-$3 or more at the grocery store and $4-5+ at a bar, but you can brew it yourself for as cheap as $0.50. On top of that, it’s really simple and you’ll have a lot of fun doing it.
The big sucker punch here is up front – a basic starter package costs about $50, but most people wind up buying about another $50 or so in equipment, and sky’s the limit for fancy gadgets (spouses: great gift opportunities!). Once you have the basic equipment, you’ll spend about $30-40 per 5 gallon batch for good-quality beer. Cheap light beer can be, well, cheaper, and really hoppy or malty beers cost more. Wine is also simple to make but it has a different process that takes longer and doesn’t save you as much money. Also, it gives me a hangover.
So how does it work? Well, it’s a lot like cooking. You boil some water, and while it comes to a boil you steep a teabag-like bag of grains in the water. These give it flavor and color. Once the water’s boiling, you stir in “malt extract”, a syrup made from malted barley, the base ingredient in your beer, and throw in some hops. You boil this for about an hour, adding hops at a few key points along the way. Then you cool it down, pour it into your fermenter (a big bucket with an airlock), toss in the yeast, seal it all up, and put it in an out of the way place for a week or two. Like magic, the yeast will turn the malt into alcohol, and you’ll have beer! Flat beer, though. So the next step is to transfer it into bottles (there’s a gizmo for this) along with some sugar. As the yeast digests the sugar, it makes carbon dioxide, and in a couple weeks your beer is carbonated and ready to drink!
To get started, you can order any of the basic starter packages off the internet, or go into your local homebrew store. In the Seattle area, Larry’s in Kent, Mountain Homebrew in Kirkland and Homebrew Heaven in Everett are all good. They’re used to beginners and can get you all set up. They can also help you pick out a recipe and get all the ingredients. You can make any kind of beer you’re interested in drinking, and once you know what you’re doing you can even make up your own recipes, try crazy ideas (maple syrup beer, anyone?), and you’ll always have beer on hand when you want it. There are lots of great sites on the internet (search for “homebrew”) to help you out, or find a friend who homebrews - brewers are a friendly bunch (nothing to do with the alcohol…) and most people love helping their friends get started. So take up a hobby that actually saves you money! And as the homebrewers’ tagline goes: Relax, Don’t Worry, Have a Homebrew.