Brew Bunker: Lessons from Survivalists About Building Your Own Brewing Ingredient Stockpile

When I told my wife that I wanted to stock my own grain and hops so that I wouldn't have to visit my local homebrew shop as often, I'm pretty sure that she - knowing how homebrewers are - pictured something like this.  But we don't need to be this..."committed," so to speak, to put together a reasonable library of ingredients, and doing so could both simplify your brewing (score!) and save you money (score again!).

The Ingredient Expedition

I love my local homebrew shops (LHBSs).  That’s right: shops.  Plural.  There are at least three that I visit with any kind of regularity, and two more that I’ll spend some money at if I happen to be in the neighborhood.  There’s really just one problem: none of them are actually “local” for me.  They’re out of the way.  They’re kind of a pain in the ass to get to.  One in particular can be accessed by about 17 different roads with a total distance from my house of between 15-30 miles depending on the route, and by some evil alchemy it somehow always takes 48 minutes to get there.  Sourcing ingredients, supplies, and equipment becomes an expedition that actually needs to be planned for and sometimes can't be worked into the schedule, and I don't even have kids (just a Goldendoodle that is currently recovering from a torn ACL - she'll be fine by the time the draft rolls around, though, and we hope it won't prevent her from being taken in the first round).  

When you factor in other life considerations (work, family, other hobbies...like homebrewers have other hobbies...), it can be tough to find the time to get over to the LHBS.  And then once you're there - if you've gotten unlucky and there's a bit of a line - you might wait quite a while to get your order filled, grain milled, get checked out, etc.  It wasn't unheard of for me to spend as much as three hours getting to the shop, getting orders filled/milled, and getting home again.  There had to be a better option than this monthly expedition across the suburban wasteland to the breeding grounds of the zymurgist geekensis  where one might hunt for the next few batches of homebrewing supplies.

The Survivalist Model (Modified)

My first thought was to do what everyone seems to do in the modern era: turn to the internet.  Thanks to Amazon Prime I don't even really shop anymore - nothing is too mundane to bring the most powerful computing technologies in human history to bear.  I've literally ordered toothpicks.  And for some brewing supplies, that was fine.  About to make a starter and realize you're out of DME?  Order it.  Running low on One Step? Order it.  CO2 tank bleed out?  Well, OK, that one you need to go handle yourself.  But for some things (I'm thinking primarily or grain here), it's just not terribly practical to order a specific grist mixture.  The cost per pound plus the shipping costs mean that you're probably going to have to reach for the car keys.

Instead, I decided to simply become a one-household homebrew shop, at least in two areas: grain and hops.  The water I already had.  The yeast I could order.  But I needed a ready supply of hops and grain.  If I had that, I reasoned, then I could simply decide on a yeast strain, order it in, make my starter and brew away.  But that means some decisions need to be made.  What grains and hops would allow me to brew most any beer?

So I turned to my brewing log.  You may keep an actual notebook or binder - I just make sure to update BeerSmith each time I brew a recipe.  What I found was that I brewed about 30 times per year, and that there was a reasonable amount of overlap across those recipes.  Sure, there were a few things that were rare additions (a specific aroma hop or character malt), but for the most part I could make nearly all of my recipes work with some light planning.  Here's what I settled on:

  • Base Malts: one sack each of Maris Otter, Pils, and Vienna (or Munich).  Storage: 6G buckets with gamma lids.
  • "Everyday" malts (the ones I used most often outside of a base malt): 5-10 pounds each of Munich (or Vienna), Victory (a nice light/toasty character malt), Chocolate, British Medium Crystal, and Caramunich.  Storage: 1.5G gasketed glass jars (Barbara wanted them to be pretty!).
  • "Specialty" malts (things I use for specific recipes, or might want to): 1 pound each of Carapils, Melanoidin, Black Barley, Carafa II, Aromatic, Crystal 120, Crystal 80, Crystal 60, Crystal 20, Biscuit, Pale Chocolate, and Black Patent.  Storage: conveniently, 1-quart Ball Mason Jars come in a 12-pack and neatly hold about a pound each!
  • Hops: Nugget (for bittering/flavor), Crystal (a good all-purpose herbal/floral/seems-European flavor/aroma hop), and Fuggle (because there's nothing else that smells quite like English dirt).  

Thus armed, I felt like I was 95% of the way there for almost any recipe in my arsenal.  Sure, individual recipes might require a quick stop by the LHBS or online order (for certain aroma hops for an IPA, for example), but that kind of shopping I could do on an as-needed or when-convenient basis.  I had been shown the way by people who stock MREs and bottled water in their basements: I was prepared.  Ready for the storm, or the earthquake, or the sweat-soaked sudden realization that I had no time to get to the shop(s) to get the ingredients for that homebrew club brewing challenge that I completely forgot about.

And that's not all: this was going to make simplify my brewing, and like many things, simpler is also cheaper.

The Virtues of the Brewing Survivalist Mentality

This blog is committed to the idea that brewing and beer should be simpler.  As such, I feel obligated to say that the list above is, admittedly, a little indulgent.  Do I really NEED all of those individual specialty malts?  If I'm being completely honest, the answer is "no."  But they don't add appreciably to the cost of building out my little ingredient library, and they add a degree of flexibility.

In truth, you can pare that list down a lot and still be in very good shape.  For example, you could get by with just a single base malt.  You could cut down to just 2-3 crystal malts.  You can make do with a single 450L chocolate malt.  And you know what?  Far from hurting your beer, it might make it even better.  I remember a great talk on simplifying your recipes given by Drew Beechum at the 2012 NHC in Seattle, and in it he mentioned that when he took his massively complicated (20+) ingredient IPA recipe and pared it down to just a handful, it actually got better.  It's like when you're cooking: a great steak is a great steak.  If you dump a hundred additional ingredients on top, you're losing something.  Select good ingredients, work them well, and you'll get a great product.  This is an ideal opportunity to do that, and to really learn what many of these malts and hops taste like.

It's also a lot cheaper.  When I worked out what I was paying for ingredients by-the-batch, I realized that I could buy an entire year's worth of grain and hops, and the storage equipment for them (so they'd keep that long!), and still save money that year.  And of course in subsequent years, when I'm not buying storage equipment/buckets/jars/racks, I save even more.  Doing the math, I realized that my "break even" point for each year (the point at which, even if I decided I hated brewing and never wanted to do it again and just threw out the unused ingredients, I would still spend no more than if I was buying by the batch) would come after only 25% of the projected year's brewing.

And this isn't about abandoning your LHBS, either.  I haven't.  It's just that there are such economies of scale in beer ingredients that buying 55 (or even 10) pounds of grain drops the cost substantially.  The same goes for hops - one pound vs. one ounce is a huge decrease in per-ounce or per-batch hop costs, especially if you keep an eye out for deals or sales on hops you use a lot, know, and like.  

As for yeast...well, I know I should say that you should get into the practice of yeast banking, and growing up your own cultures, but to be frank, I'm not scientist enough for that.  I trust the good folks at Wyeast and White Labs and other professional yeast vendors, and since they're so essential to the process, I'm willing to cough up for fresh pitches every time.  Keep it simple, right?

Brewing Independence

At the end of the day, this also means you have a much greater degree of brewing independence.  You're your own outpost of the LHBS that might to be too "L."  And it might even mean more brewing.  For sure it will mean one batch per year - a "kitchen sink" batch - that gets all of the leftovers and might turn out to be your favorite beer of the year.  Most years, that's where all of my "remainder" hops go - into a joyous end-of-year IPA that has a muddled and convoluted and complicated hop aroma.  

But at the very least, it means that you'll be able to - or have to - try some new things on occasion, when you're running a little low on a particular malt or hop.  A little forced experimentation can be a great thing.  But one thing I can guarantee is that I'm going to spend a lot less time on secondary roads, inching towards that homebrew shop, cursing under my breath my fellow drivers.  And that has to be a good thing for all of us.

Keep it simple.

JJW