Throughout the recession, Americans have been cutting their budgets across the board and that often means slashing spending on alcohol. But if you’re interested and devoted enough to learn a craft, do-it-yourself alcohol can be a great way to save money.
Of course, you’ll need startup funds for supplies or kits, enough space to do your work and plenty of patience during the fermentation or distilling process. Here’s what you need to know about home wine making, beer brewing and liquor distilling before you decide whether DIY alcohol is right for you.
Many DIYers do it themselves not just because it’s cheaper, but because they take pride in the craft, and that’s one thing that motivates many home beer brewers.
A basic beer brewing kit used to make five gallons at a time costs about $66 on HomeBrewery.com for example, and consists of a plastic fermenter and lid, a bottling bucket, rubber stoppers, a bottle filler, tubing, a floating thermometer, a bottle capper, bottle caps and other supplies. Plus you’ll need raw ingredients which might include malt, hops, yeast, a clarifier and priming sugar for carbonating for about an additional $20 to $45.
But with startup capital, bulk buying and persistence, beer making can definitely save you money, attests Spence Strath, a home brewer in Milwaukee.
“In three or more batches I'll approach break-even … and after that I'd be saving about 30% per beer made from there on,” says Strath. “I made an IPA the first time, and a comparable mid-high quality store-bought brand would run about $28 a case out the door, so apples to apples, buying it would have cost me $60,” Strath says, adding that his second batch, an Irish Stout cost about $45 to make vs. about $65 to $70 at the store. His third batch, a Pilsner, cost about $25 to make compared with about $50 for store-bought beer (a five-gallon yield amounts to about 51 twelve-ounce bottles after accounting for some spillage or waste).
A set of wine making supplies also means it’ll take several batches before your craft will pay off.
A basic wine kit costs about $79 on HomeBrewery.com and consists of a plastic fermenting tub, a large bottle, stoppers, a bottle filler, tubing, a carboy, bottle washer, corks and other supplies. That doesn’t take into account the cost of the grapes or juice, which can cost $20 per gallon and up.
“Because you have to buy so much equipment when you first start making wine, it doesn't save you much the first couple of cycles,” says Theresa Carey, who made wine including Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon at home for about five years. While it was fun, it was also time consuming and it was difficult to control quality with small batches, she says.
Making moonshine, or any distilled spirits for that matter, is another story.
First of all, you can’t legally distill spirits for personal use without paying taxes and getting licensed, period. And you’re required to have a number of licenses to distill, including those from your city, county, state, federal government and even your local fire department since spirits are highly flammable, says Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute based in Hayward, Calif. And regardless of what you distill or who it’s for, you’re required to pay an excise tax.
If those requirements aren’t a deterrent enough, your most expensive piece of equipment, a still, can cost you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. An American-made moonshine still may cost between $12,000 and $50,000, Owens estimates. That compares with about $250,000 for a German pot still or $150,000 for an American-made pot still, according to Owens, who notes that it can take three to five years just to break even on your initial investment.
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