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dave mcginn: mr. miser

Over the weekend I turned my living room into a mini Molson's. Two weeks from now, my first batch of home brew will be ready to enjoy, and from what my fellow brewmeisters tell me, it's not only going to cost a lot less than buying beer at the store, it's also going to taste pretty good.

"If you're doing everything yourself, you can do it quite cheaply," says Kevin Tighe, president of the Canadian Amateur Brewers Association. "You can make some really good beer quite inexpensively."

With boozy revellers celebrating St. Patrick's Day tomorrow and patio season on the horizon, beer will be on the brains of many Canadians, if it hasn't been all winter long. But for some, a trip to the beer store can be a huge hit to the wallet. Perhaps that is why more people are turning to home brew.

"It's definitely on the rise," says Mr. Tighe, adding that brewers are by nature a frugal bunch.

My usual beer of choice costs more than $40 a case at the store. That may not seem like much for 24 bottles, but do a little price comparison and home brewing becomes a much more appealing proposition. The home brew kit that I bought for $70 makes 70 bottles of beer, meaning I'm almost scoring a free 2-4 just for doing it myself.

Of course, the drawback with home brew has always been that while it's much cheaper, it sometimes doesn't taste all that good. The last time I tried the stuff I had to choke it down so as not to offend its maker. But that was more than 10 years ago. Things have changed a lot since then, Mr. Tighe says.

"There have been some developments in the access that people have to malt and yeast and the knowledge that goes into putting recipes together. That's one of the biggest factors [in why]home brew's gotten better. People are understanding the mechanics of it better," he says.

Joel Rathgaber, president of the Ale & Lager Enthusiasts of Saskatchewan, a club of beer aficionados, has been making his own home brew for about five years now.

"The selection in the liquor store isn't that great, so it's one way of expanding my horizons," the 29-year-old says.

For beer drinkers, home brew holds the same appeal that learning to cook holds for foodies, Mr. Rathgaber says. "I like to make things from scratch. It's interesting to take grain and take hops and make my own recipe."

Newbies like me who purchase a kit, however, shouldn't expect to make a delicacy right out of the gate. It's more like the beer version of Kraft Dinner. You just pour all the ingredients - malt, sugar, water and yeast - into a pail and then wait for the good times to start rolling.

It's a simple introduction to the process, Mr. Rathgaber says. From there, it can be tinkered with as much as you might want in order to create your own recipes. It's this sense of experimentation that motivates most home brewers, Mr. Rathgaber says, not just saving some dough.

"A while ago, that was a big driver for a lot of people, to make cheap beer. I don't think that's the case any more. It is cheaper, but that's not the reason why people do it for the most part," he says.

When it comes to home brew kits, you're not just buying very cheap beer, you're also getting a science experiment. Fiddling around with air locks to allow carbon dioxide to escape and a hydrometer that measures the gravity of liquids is a surprisingly fun way to spend an afternoon.

And while the large white bucket with a tube sticking out the top of it in my living room hardly adds to the decor, I look at it with pride, seeing it rich with hops and barley and promises of frugal boozing. I just have to make sure my daughter doesn't use it as a drum. Don't want to ruin all those delicate flavours, after all.

But with this first batch I'm only aiming for not so bad. And when it's ready in two weeks, I'm going to invite a few friends over to sample it in the sun. It might not end up being the tastiest brew on the face of the planet, but as we sit on the back deck sipping beer for a buck a glass, that not-so-bad is going to taste pretty-damn-good.