Online/Catalog – 62%
Locally – 37%
There are lots of arguments that can be made both in favor and against buying brewing ingredients locally. You can talk quality, price, selection, economics, service, and environmentalism. However, brewing the best possible beer is my first priority as a homebrewer. I’d rather spend additional money or time if it means the beer I end up with is more delicious. I’m surprised to see such a wide margin of victory for online/catalog, but I count myself in that group.
One of the things I appreciate most about shopping online is the ability to get exactly what I want. When I visit a homebrew store I’m sometimes forced to make an on-the-spot recipe adjustment (You're out of WLP001?). When ordering online I can shop around until I find a store that carries everything I need. However, I’ve also run into situations where an online homebrew store has called me to say they are out of something I just ordered. It’s amazing to me that some websites don’t have an automatic inventory that updates when a product is sold out.
Until recently, shopping online was a big time saver for me because the closest homebrew store was about a half hour drive away (and I’m sure some of you are jealous of even that). A few weeks ago one opened a half mile from my house, so that is no longer a valid excuse. They are still small, but the fact that it is located in the tasting room of 3 Stars Brewing means that I'll probably find my way down there pretty regularly.
I'd include group bulk buys as non-local shopping, that is unless they are run through a homebrewing store. One of my friends arranges the purchase of a pallet of grain every few months (great deal for PBW as well). I also buy a lot of my hops by the pound from HopsDirect each fall, although I augment as the year goes on. I prefer to buy yeast local/fresh whenever possible, especially when it is cold or hot enough outside to harm the fragile fungus. The savings can be remarkable. Let’s take a look at a simple recipe for an IPA that calls for 12 lbs of malt and 12 oz of hops. Shopping at Maryland Homebrew I’d have to pay $21.60 ($1.80/lb) for American 2-row, and $30 (~$2.50/oz) for the hops, (call it $52 with yeast and a 10% homebrew club discount). Whereas ordering in bulk I’d pay closer to $.75/lb for malt and $1.00/oz for hops including shipping, for a total of $27 including yeast.
Having several hundred pounds of grain in my basement (not to mention the beer) also puts me in a good position to survive a societal collapse. Just make sure you store your grain well and keep the bugs out. My great-grandmother stockpiled flour and sugar after the shortages (and anti-German sentiment) during World War I, sadly by the time World War II rolled around it was infested and had to be dumped.