It was during pandemic lockdowns that Tim Smith began to take an interest in the finer points of beer. First, the Toronto-based design consultant joined an informal High Park neighbourhood craft beer club and developed a taste for unique picks from local microbreweries. Then he tried his brother’s home brew – and was shocked. “There’s a lot of stigma around those old ‘U-brew’ days where the product actually wasn’t all that good,” Smith says. “But what my brother was making could rival a lot of the stuff that you could find at the LCBO or the beer store. … There was a degree of surprise.”
Galvanized by good beer, Smith invested in what he considers to be a “relatively modest” $1,200 all-in-one home setup (a piece of gear that’s like a supersized electric kettle with a pump, heating element and control panel) that’s currently standing counter-height in his kitchen. Today, he considers brewing a rewarding and delicious creative outlet.
Unlike other domestic hobbies (sourdough baking et al.) that went flat after their pandemic lockdown popularity, interest in brewing has only built in momentum.
Kyle Nelson, head of operations of home brew supply store Toronto Brewing Co., estimates Canada has more than 100,000 home brewers, and local brewing supply shops are reporting strong sales this spring. At Ontario’s GTA Brews Homebrew Club, officer David Chang-Sang says there has been an uptick in new members joining the 450-person organization in the past six months.
The trend seems to extend to the U.K., too, where market research by the brewing equipment company Pinter found a 77-per-cent increase in web searches for “home brew” as the price of a British pint hit the equivalent of $6.50 in 2022 (which is still less than what you’d pay in Vancouver or Toronto these days). In Canada, beer prices dropped during the pandemic but are now seeing an inflation-driven price spike of around 6 to 7 per cent, according to the Consumer Price Index, in part owing to the rising costs of everything from barley to aluminum cans.
Meanwhile, the federal government’s planned excise tax increase of 6.3 per cent gave some drinkers a scare (it’s since been capped at 2 per cent till next year). For the past few months, Nelson reports that new customers have been coming in and saying, “ ‘The cost of beer has gone up. ... I thought, why don’t I just try to make my own and maybe save some money that way?’ ”
But the question of whether brewing beer at home is actually cost-effective isn’t straightforward: Rather, outcomes vary widely based on one’s approach. Aaron Spanik, a Halifax-based member of the Brewnosers, an Atlantic Canadian home brewers club that dates back to 1986, points to a subset of home brewers he personally calls “hypermilers,” after the sort of drivers who try to eke out the most mileage possible from a tank of gas. “We’ve had that sort of person in the home brew club, people who were just trying to make the absolute cheapest beer they possibly could,” says Spanik. “For them, it’s a challenge to see just how inexpensive they can make a keg of beer to the point where they’re buying horse feed and germinating it themselves and then malting it themselves.”
Granted, most of us aren’t about to start hypermiling beer in our apartments – what we’d save in cash we’d surely lose in time and the trust of our friends once we tell them they’re drinking horse-feed brewskis. Fortunately, Nelson runs cost-benefit analyses with his thriftier clients all the time: If you’re someone who regularly entertains and can get through a keg a month, you would likely pay off a mid-tier, $1,500 home brewing system in a year and a half, he estimates. But you could also walk out of the store with nothing except a basic $30 kit and three weeks later have your first gallon of perfectly drinkable beer. Plus, “Anything that you’re buying, whether it’s a beer kit or the ingredients for making beer, it’s all tax-free,” Nelson says, because “essentially, you’re talking about basic staple groceries.”
Yet even if they start out by trying to economize, most home brewers consider beer making worthwhile even if it ends up being more about passion than value. It certainly can get expensive, especially if you’re keen on top-tier gear such as Spike Brewing’s $28,000 nano system or their $13,500 bottom drain trio – the kind of serious equipment that allows for the volume, precision and scalability you’d need to start your own nano-brewery.
Many home brewers are motivated to make concoctions not commonly found at retailers, explains Chang-Sang, such as cold-fermented IPAs and tropical stouts. And often, the home brewing and commercial microbrewery communities overlap, with craft breweries picking up on the tastiest niche trends and winning recipes from their friends and collaborators in the home brew space, and introducing them to the broader public.
Chang-Sang, for instance, home brewed a prizewinning red lager he named Schicksal (“It means ‘fate’ in German”), which caught the attention of Scarborough’s Common Good brewery. They adapted the recipe in collaboration with Chang-Sang and scaled it for production this year. “I was offered a cut of the sales at 25 cents a can sold,” he says. “But instead I opted to gift that money to local charities,” including the Feed Scarborough food security initiative. Once brewing becomes a business, “it loses the fun for me,” he adds.
Even in the past decade, technological advances in home brewing equipment have made experimentation easier and more accessible, with all-in-one systems such as the BrewZilla and the Grainfather frequently compatible with software apps that help brewers track fermentation and log their own recipes as they go.
When Halifax’s Spanik started brewing in 2013, he says many of his fellow Brewnosers were engineers who enjoyed the challenge of setting up a system on their own – today, “It’s a much lower cost to get into home brewing, maybe not totally in terms of dollars, but in terms of time and energy invested in just getting off the ground,” he says. Plus, the home brewing community is helpful and collaborative, and YouTube is full of videos to help folks achieve their perfect brew. Rising beer prices or not, “In some ways,” says Spanik, “there’s been no better time to get into home brewing.”
Where to get your beer gear
The Community Brew Shop: This Saint John-based online shop stocks beginner must-haves as well as imported specialty grains, hops and strains of yeast that can be tricky to find elsewhere; they’ll even loan equipment for a stint. communitybrewshop.ca
Toronto Brewing Co.: A mainstay in the Toronto brewing community with a new storefront featuring a bottle shop and everything you need to convert your garage into a brewery. 3701 Chesswood Dr. #115, North York, torontobrewing.ca
Barley’s Homebrewing Supplies: Named 2021′s Best Homebrew Shop by the Canadian Home brewers Association, this B.C. supply store is known for its friendly, helpful staff. 101-455 East Columbia St., New Westminster, B.C., barleyshomebrewing.com
Prairie Brew Supply: Supporting Canadian farmers is easy when you can buy prairie-grown malt and hops from this local legend supply store. 1120 Broad St., Regina, prairiebrewsupply.ca
Beer Grains: This brew shop boasts 85 different grains, 40 different hops and the largest selection of yeast in Canada, with locations in Ottawa and Gatineau. beergrains.com