Monday, July 20, 2015

Don’t Waste Your Beer Money!

Homebrewing is a hobby that always has a shiny new piece of gear to buy with your beer money. Now that I make a little bit of money from the hobby (between writing, consulting, hocking t-shirts, and Amazon Associate Links like those below) I get to write-off what I spend. This forces me to actually track my spending more closely than I did when I was brewing purely for the love of the beer. It also means I sometimes get some ingredients or equipment for free that I wouldn't have otherwise purchased.

Here’s a list of nine things that I don’t think have provided a good ROI (return on investment) - or wouldn't had I purchased them. I’m certain a few of you will disagree with every one of the items on the list. If I'm missing some big advantage, an alternate use, or if they've improved, let me know! Also, feel free to post a comment if you’ve got anything that you’ve been disappointed with, save the rest of us a few (hundred) dollars!

1. Thermoworks Thermapen ($96.00): A fast/accurate digital thermometer certainly isn’t the worst thing to spend your money on, but an upgrade of a couple seconds or a few tenths of a degree doesn’t justify five times the price! My Thermapen lasted for only two years before a wire broke and it stopped working. Even before that the swivel started to become a bit sticky. I’ve had much better luck with Thermowork’s Super-Fast® Pocket Thermometer. Compare its specs (5-6 second readings, ±0.9˚F/±0.5˚C) to the Thermapen (3 second readings, ±0.7°F/±0.4°C), not bad for less than 20% of the price! Without moving parts the Pocket is also less prone to breaking, mine is going strong after nearly five years of double duty brewing and cooking (my circa 2008 Thermapen wasn’t waterproof like the new ones, so they may now better handle the rigors of sticky wort).

2. HopRocket ($124.99): When we started developing the hoppy beers for Modern Times, Jacob bought me a Blichmann HopRocket to better replicate the character they’d get getting with a hop-back at the brewery. Three years later we’ve independently come to the same conclusion: hop-backs generally aren't worth the hassle! I never got much character out of the hops compared to whirlpool (hop-stand) and dry hopping. I stopped using mine after trying it without dry hops. At the brewery they’ve found they get a better character from moving the hop-back additions elsewhere. My chilling process is much easier now that I can simply recirculate hot wort through the plate chiller to sanitize, rather than filling and draining Star-San.

3. 5 lb CO2 tank ($65.00): If you have enough room, there is no reason not to get a bigger CO2 tank. CO2 prices aren’t linear like propane or gasoline, it is really the activity of filling that comprises most of the price. A 20 lb CO2 tank often costs only a only few dollars more to fill or swap than a 5 lb tank. It’s also nice to have  extra CO2 because one of the biggest pains of owning a kegerator is getting to the gas supplier during their limited hours. I kept my original 5 lb aluminum tank for flushing carboys/growlers, and mobile dispensing.

4. Ultra Barrier Silver™ Antimicrobial and PVC Free Beer Tubing (~$3.00/ft): This high-end beer line doesn’t seem to be any more impermeable than standard tap lines. I had a keg of carbonated water on that I could taste the pine and citrus that were in the beer I ran through the line previously (despite cleaning and sanitizing with alkaline brewery wash and Star-San). Beer line cleaner removed the flavor, but if I have to use it between each batch I don't see the advantage compared to standard tubing at less than 1/3 the price!

5. Brewery-Specific Cleaners ($12.99): In most cases, Oxiclean Free will do the same job for half the price of PBW. Nice to have something a bit stronger around for when you need it, but in most cases a long soak in hot water and Oxiclean gets rid of fermentation crud. Beer line cleaner is a stronger option for really tough jobs if you don’t mind the extra precautions necessary when working with caustic. I’ve been disappointed in the keg/growler tabs from Craft Meister, it takes them so long to dissolve even with agitation that the water cools off significantly by the time they are fully dissolved (their powdered cleaners seem fine if unremarkable – although I don't like the packaging).

6. Overpriced homebrew store ingredients: There are plenty of ingredients at your local homebrewing store that are over-priced compared to a readily available alternative. If you want to dry out a strong/pale beer like a tripel or double IPA skip the clear candi sugar or dextrose and add some table sugar. Avoid the over-priced "brewing" spices sold and visit an ethnic market (Latin, Indian, or Asian especially) or a specialty spice shop. Prices will be lower, and more importantly quality/freshness will be better. Same goes for pricey fruit purees, they are easy to add, but painful to separate from the finished beer.

7. HopShot ($3.99): So many delicious IPAs are bittered with hop extract. On a commercial scale, compared to "actual" hops, extract is less expensive, more consistent, and increases yield. Virtually all of the beers brewed on Modern Times' 30 bbl system receive a can or two of hop extract at the start of the boil. Russian River, Hill Farmstead, Stone, Tired Hands etc. all use hop extract for at least some of their beers. I've had good results with Northern Brewer's HopShots a few times. However, I found that the packaging wasn't consistent. Some syringes contained a fresh smelling golden serum (top). while others were murky brown and smelled oxidized (bottom). The "dark" syringes also tend to leave small "tar balls" in the hot break and stuck to the sides of the kettle. Someone needs to improve on hop extract for homebrewers!

8. Perlick 650SS Flow Control Faucet ($54.50): When I upgraded my kegerator earlier this year, I bought a couple flow-control taps to allow me to serve highly carbonated beers without excess foaming (I hoped). The problem is that the Perlicks clog very easily compared to standard Perlicks. The lever mechanism, even when fully open, creates such a small gap that any hop particulate or fruit pulp becomes lodged (requiring disassembly and cleaning). Nathan had similar complaints for the ones they use at Right Proper, but also mentioned they'd gotten them replaced with a newer model that doesn't have the same issue. Although, even when they aren't jammed the pour doesn't seem to be any smoother than the standard Perlicks. 650SS are also not recommended for sour beers anyway...

9. Glass Carboy ($27.05): Glass has the unfortunate ability to shatter without a warning dent. The shards themselves can cause serious injury (to both beers and human flesh). I still have a couple glass carboys that I use as a last resort, but I'll never buy more if/when they break. I've had good luck with 8 gallon wine buckets and now Speidel 30L fermentors for primary fermentation (it is nice to not worry about blow-off 98% of the time), and kegs and plastic carboys for long term storage.

Bonus! Oak barrels: This one might surprise many of you, but I think most homebrewers would be best served skipping oak barrels. They are expensive, unwieldy, and prone to leaking, oxidation, and mold. If you want oak character, add oak cubes. If you want spirit or wine character, blend your favorite commercial example into the fermented beer. Sure barrels are pretty and they can be a great excuse for a group project, but on average I haven't found the beers I've aged in them to be significantly better than those aged in carboys or kegs. When the barrels and technique are on, they do have another level of character that can't be matched, but those are few and far between.

Advice
If you want to make brewing more affordable, focus on items that allow you to buy malt and hops in bulk (grain mill, vacuum packer, etc.). Buy gear that will last , rather than items that will need to be replaced. They may be more expensive initially, but better to get something that will last 20 years, rather than saving 50% for something that will need to be replaced in five years.

22 comments:

passlaku said...


I bought the Fermtech Wine Thief (~$8) but I never ended up using it. I also purchased a stainless racking cane but after using if for a year or so I went back to the Auto Siphon because it is so convenient.

Matt said...

Just buy a can of hop extract and fill your own syringes.

Brian Sprague said...

Amen on glass carboys. I incurred 7 stitches on my right hand on my first solo brew day. Better Bottle thereafter.

Jonathan Brewster said...

Refractometer, aeration kit

TheGremlyn said...

I would say that a 5# CO2 can be very useful. I use mine for taking with me to serve beer from my jockey box when needed, and also the general portability allows me to take it to my fermentation chamber to transfer under pressure or push our some sanitizer top leave CO2 in the keg that is being transferred to.

Russ Eisenberg said...

I would say that the beer line and the carboys value depend on how you feel about plastics, I went with a Phalate free beverage line. It has less friction, so not only is it more expensive but I need to use more. Say what you want about food grade vinyl being safe but I still have concerns. I also choose not to ferment in plastic at all for the same reasons. To each their own, we must make our own choices, in these cases it is not about product performance in terms of a better brew day for me.

Ken said...

Please disclose your affiliate links. It's the law!

graymoment said...

I have to say, I've made every single purchase you have mentioned in this post, and I can't disagree with any of them, except I would add that the glass lined barrier tubing that I purchased (don't have the brand in front of me), has lasted a considerable amount of time and seems to have no flavor carry over from beer to beer. I do use BLC and recirculate for 30+ minutes before switching beers, but not having to replace my line as often as I would have to worry vinyl is worth the money to me. I also still use glass carboys for long term storage, but it's more out of stubbornness and fear of oxygen.

Michael Carter said...

Rotating Sparge Arm, draining slowly and sparging at the same speed meant the thing would not rotate, used it to recirc and it clogged up. Been sitting in the brewery with other useless stuff for 7 years

Wilby said...

I would just say that it's nice to have two co2 tanks no matter what size they are. Then when one kicks you (hopefully) have the second one already re-filled and ready to go. The second can also be used to purge as you suggested. This is the system I've been using and I haven't regretted spending the extra money. Other than that I completely agree with your list.

Kurt Fossen said...

Great post! One thing I would add is high end kettles. I went Blichmann, and although I like them a lot, its only because of the bling factor. Doing it over, I would've bought undrilled kettles of the same size and put thermometers and ball valves where I wanted.

One purchase I would highly recommend making is the Blichmann burner. If you are moving from stovetop to gas burner, skip the crappy turkey fryer. There are similar burners that might be as good at heating, but the overall construction of the Blichmann unit is really great. Best part is how quiet it is too. This is probably what had me hooked on wanting a three burner top tier. I have some buyers remorse over it. It is lessened when a friend says "WOW! That's frickin' awesome!!!" ;)

Victor W. said...

I am going to have to disagree with the Thermapen, its an excellent tool in the brewery and the kitchen! In fact, I use it more often for cooking, grilling and bbq'ing because, well, you can't brew everyday!

Rye guy said...

Speaking of Dextrose, would you categorize it as an extravagant means of carbing vs plain table sugar?

It looks like you keg most of your clean beers but still bottle some of the sours for aging.

I only ask because I have been using dextrose exclusively, which I believe was out of fear -albeit unfounded- that table sugar would produce inferior carbonation. I suppose it began when I first went to the LHBS and noticed the dextrose with all the other bottling equipment and just assumed it was a necessary item. I know many of the calculators offer a table sugar option; probably some simple experimentation is all I need to assuage my fear.

Love the blog and book!

Izak DV. said...

From personal experience with cheap vinyl tubing, I must say that the extra cents per foot for good quality non-vinyl tubing is definitely worth the money.

A while back I traced a plastic off-flavor to the cheap vinyl tubing from my keg to faucet, and after replacing it with the same stuff you mentioned in the post the problem was solved.

As a relatively pedantic home brewer I spend a lot of time and effort researching and applying new techniques to refine my beer, so ruining it with a plastic flavor just to save a few bucks makes no sense...

Jason Maxwell said...

I agree with every item on the list! Especially the carboys. I know 2 people that were severely injured by carboy shrapnel. One severed his achilles tendon, had to relearn how to walk. The other almost lost a couple of fingers. Nope, only plastic for this homebrewer!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I like my refractometer. Not a necessary tool, but it saves five minutes of effort 4-5 times each brew day. Makes it easy to do a quick gravity check to determine if I need to adjust anything along the way, without having to wait for a few ounces of wort to cool.

I've been just as happy with the other Theroworks thermometer for cooking as I was with the Thermapen. Easy to turn on/off one handed, more durable, and just a couple seconds slower.

Never found dextrose to be worth the money, sucrose does just as good a job at a much lower price. Carbonation is dissolved carbon dioxide, which isn't any different based on the sugar source. Surprising that an employee of a store would talk you into buying something from them rather than the supermarket?

I never had issues with plastic flavor with my old beer line (whatever Midwest sells as 3/16" ID Beverage Tubing). You may just be more sensitive than me. I think cleaning lines is more important than the type of line.

Profit said...

Great post! I always love review posts like this from folks whom have "been there and done that"... I've wanted to try a "Thermapen" for years since "America's Test Kitchen" loves them, but the $20 version has been the "Best Buy" for a reason and it has served me well... Great tip on the "OxiClean", the prices on many of the Brew-Store products always seemed to be suffering from "Hobby Mark-up"

Shockerengr said...

The thermapen shines where quick readings are really useful - I love mine when cooking on the grill as I can slowly push through the meat and check the temp gradient as I go - only thermometer I've really be able to do that with. In brewing and regular cooking though, accuracy is the main reason I use the thermapen, and they have many other options that are every bit as good in that regard, for much much cheaper too.

Peter said...

Great idea for a post. I had previously put some thought behind some of the same items, carboys, CO2 tanks, thermopens, and overpriced sugars from homebrew shops. I pretty much agree with you on these items, so having your insight on the others feels helpful. On the sugar issue, I would add that corn sugar from the homebrew shop for priming isn't markedly better than table sugar from the grocery store, just more expensive per pound.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Completely agree on the corn sugar, haven't used it in years with no ill effects!

Cheshire_Cat said...

Pretty nice list! Though I think a couple might be up to debate based on need. 1) I love my Thermapen. Of course I also use it for cooking, grilling, smoking, and other things. When used for you brewing it is very important to clean it right away, otherwise the hinge will get sticky. Strange yours broke down so quickly. Most of my chef friends have used them in busy kitchens for years without a problem. From my understanding the company will fix or replace them if there is an issue.

The other is the high beer lines... well for me anyway. I have a kegerator with an upright draft tower... pain in the ass to change the lines. Last year I went to change them, ordered beverage tubing from a well known national brew shop that I use regularly, after installing them could not for the life of me get the plastic taste out of my beer. And no it was not the beer, out of the keg it tasted just fine. I tried everything I read on the internet and every suggestion they sent me to get the taste out. So, they sent me new ones... did it all over again. Still same thing. Moved to the high end antimicrobial PVC free lines... problem solved... same beer all the way through this process. The high end lines no plastic taste. I am very happy with the extra money I put into the lines.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Thermoworks has a one year warranty against defects, so I wouldn't have qualified. I just don't see the hinge as an advantage. I'd rather a button for both one-handed operation, and simply as a matter of one fewer thing to break. I was sent a free Javelin Pro (Thermopen knock-off) and have the same basic complaints as with the Thermopen (although it hasn't broken).

Very odd, do you know what the lines were specifically? If anything I'm noticing the "line beer" tastes worse from these than it did from the "3/16" ID Beverage Tubing" I had from NB previously. The Ultra-Barrier stuff also seem to kink easily, one of my taps was pouring really slowly, turned out the interior and exterior walls of the tubing had separated.

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