The first interview in the series is with USA based personal finance blogger Joe Freedom from Trapped In Work.
Joe is an ex-corporate lawyer who ditched the corporate grind a few years back for semi-retirement and has been blogging about personal finance matters ever since. As you’ll see below, Joe is an avid beer lover and a very well informed guest brewer to kick off the series. So, take it away Joe…
My name is Joe Freedom, and I blog at trappedinwork.com. Here’s my background story: I worked as a corporate attorney at a large international law firm for 13 years, and then moved “in-house” to a Fortune 100 corporation for 3 years, before declaring myself free from employment bondage and moving to semi-retirement. I say “semi-retirement” because although I have—under certain iterations of the calculation—reached financial independence or “FI”, I have not yet moved to a mental state where I accept that I no longer need or want to pursue income and productive work.
My schedule now is largely my own (I am after all writing these words from my living room at 10 am on a Tuesday), but I continue to “work” as the legal and finance functions for Mrs. JF’s entrepreneurial endeavours, which has proved to be quite engaging and fun.
I started blogging back in 2016 (just as I was leaving corporate employment) because I saw a gap in the knowledge and level of consciousness among my high-income peers regarding (i) proper management of their personal finances and (ii) how their psychology and behaviors in relation to their money were impacting their future in ways that they did not appreciate or understand.
The Nitty Gritty Of Brewing
How long have you been brewing your own beer for?
I have been brewing beer now for almost a year and a half, but Mrs. JF would say it’s been a decade (or a lifetime). It does seem longer than that because I feel like I have learned a ton in a short period of time.
Why did you start brewing your own beer? And, why are you still doing it?
I’m a beer snob, plain and simple. That’s not to say that I care what other people drink—go with what tastes good to you—but I reached a point where I just couldn’t choke down beer that wasn’t excellent. And after a while it occurred to me that I had consumed just about every craft beer variety that was available in my state.
I’m still going strong because I continue to see improvement in the brews that are coming out of production. I find myself compulsively drawn to the task of researching and designing the next batch, thinking about what I’ll do different next time, and prepping for that next brew day.
It has become something of an obsession (healthy for now . . . I think), and my beer-ventory has exploded. I’m producing faster than I’m consuming.
Is beer the only brew you make, or do you brew cider, ginger beer or other beverages as well?
I’m only brewing beer right now, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I have not enjoyed my very limited encounters with cider. And at least for now I see many interesting avenues to pursue with beer, so that will keep me busy for a while.
How do you brew?
I’m doing 5 gallon all-grain batches using the BIAB (brew-in-a-bag) method. I did start with the typical entry point of extract, but moved to all-grain fairly quickly because I wanted total control over the process.
I found that extract can be quite limiting in terms of producing different beer colors, among other things, which is a part of the process that I particularly enjoy.
BIAB is simple but still challenging, and from my reading I’m not sure that there is much (or any) advantage to a more cumbersome three-tier system.
What are your favourite brews to make and why?
I love hoppy beers like IPAs and the new NEIPA style (sorry purists, if it tastes good it tastes good). But I also love saison, red ales (IPAs or otherwise), brown ales, and Bavarian hefeweizen.
This is another reason to home-brew; because of the immense popularity of IPAs here in America, other styles are being crowded off the shelves. It can be difficult to find a solid brown ale, red ale, or Bavarian hefeweizen at the local grocery store even though it carries probably 100-plus craft labels. I don’t have to worry about that; I can brew whatever I want!
Finishing And Packaging
Do you bottle or keg your beer?
I started with bottling and, well, it’s a huge pain in the ass. I hated it. I’ve been kegging for about five batches now and I hope to never look back.
My “bottling days” took almost as much time as brew days, and if every batch was going to require two days of 4- to 6-hour time blocks, the longevity of my home-brewing career was in danger. So reducing the time commitment on packaging day was critical.
There was an additional financial investment involved in moving to kegging but it wasn’t outrageous. The reduced work of cleaning only one vessel on packaging day is well worth it.
Do you dry or wet hop your brews? What is your reasoning for or against additional hopping?
I use hops in just about every conceivable way. Obviously I use during the boil for the typical bittering, flavor, and aroma function. I use during whirlpool post-boil, and I’m often producing hoppy IPAs or NEIPAs that get a heavy dry-hop charge at some point during or at the end of fermentation.
I’m a true hop-head. My favorite part of the whole process is opening up the bag of hops and taking a deep inhale. It’s intoxicating in its own right! I love the different aromas and characteristics of the different hop varieties, and the ability to drink super-fresh, highly hopped beers made right here in my house is one of the main attractions of home-brewing.
Learnings Of A Brewer
What have been your biggest failures with brewing?
I’ve had a couple of mistakes that stung. One that comes to mind was my first batch of Bavarian hefeweizen. I was using WLP 300 (a Bavarian hefeweizen yeast) for the first time, and I did not know how aggressive it was.
I got the wort in the fermentor and pitched late on a Friday afternoon before leaving the next morning for a week-long vacation. I put the air-lock in and left for 7 days.
When I got home . . . Well, I found out what an “open” fermentation looks and smells like. The fermentation process had blown the air-lock off and the actively fermenting wort had spewed on the walls and the towels that I had around the fermentor.
Fortunately I did have the carboy in a bath tub, so cleanup (while nasty) could have been worse. But you learn from your mistakes; I keep a blow-off tube apparatus handy, and when in doubt, I use it.
Have you had any really stupid or laughable moments as a brewer?
Here is a stupid (and laughable) moment… Last year I used my meager yield of Chinook hops from my garden to wet-hop a batch. I split off a small portion of a pale ale that I was doing and put it in a glass growler to wet-hop/dry-hop.
This was the entirety of my year 1 hop harvest, and I love fresh-hopped beers, so I was looking forward to this one. At the time I was still bottling, so I decided to condition the beer in the growler…. Big mistake!
I was out somewhere a few days later and got a call from Mrs. JF: “Um, I think something exploded in the basement. I heard it two levels up!”. Yep… The growler had exploded, sending shards of brown glass everywhere. Again, it was in the bath tub so it could have been worse. But it was no fun, and could have been dangerous to anyone in the vicinity.
So I don’t recommend bottle conditioning in a growler bottle!
What do you love most about brewing?
I am naturally attracted to efforts that result in a tangible, finished product.
As an attorney I always enjoyed writing a brief to a court because you toiled and then produced a product that was tangible and finite.
I do some woodworking because I enjoy the prospect of using my hands to create something that is tangible and that can then be put to practical use.
Brewing does that too. At the end of the process you have a batch of finished beer. Maybe it’s in a keg or maybe it’s filling 50 bottles. But you then get to spend the next days and weeks enjoying with friends the product of your labors. That is very satisfying.
The Financials Of Brewing
How much does an average brew cost you?
I also have an accounting background and I love spreadsheet play (see this recent spreadsheet-driven post). So I’ve been computing unit cost since I started brewing, and I do it on a cost-per-ounce-produced basis.
Different batches obviously yield different costs based on inputs (e.g., a big NEIPA with boat-loads of dry hopping will typically cost significantly more than a brown ale with minimal hop additions), but I fairly consistently end up in the $.04 to $.07 USD per ounce range. (Editor’s note: $0.46 to $0.78 USD, or $0.62 to $1.05 AUD per 330ml stubbie).
Another significant factor is whether I am using new or re-pitched yeast. I’ve had pretty good results with yeast harvesting so far, and when you don’t need to buy a new pack (or two) for each batch, that significantly lowers the batch unit cost.
So at an average cost of $.05/ounce, a 12-ounce (355ml) brew runs me $0.60 USD ($0.81 AUD) But who wants to limit themselves to 12 ounces? Sixteen ounces (473 ml) runs me $0.80 USD ($1.07 AUD). Pretty good by craft-beer-cost standards.
Do you have any efficiency or other money saving tips for fellow brewers?
Yeast harvesting is a big one. I also monitor my brewhouse efficiency somewhat compulsively because that will impact grain-input costs.
I have found that mashing for a longer period of time—often approaching 90 minutes instead of the more standard 60 minutes for a three-tier system—dramatically improves my mash efficiency and ultimately brewhouse efficiency. So let those grains soak longer if you’re using a BIAB approach in order to maximise efficiency.
Buying ingredients in bulk is the next cost-optimiser for me. Buying your malts in bulk can be a significant cost saver, but it requires more equipment. I haven’t invested in a grain mill at this point, so I have to order my grains pre-milled, which then puts me on the clock to brew while they are at maximum freshness.
Parting Words Of Wisdom
Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone thinking about getting into brewing?
If you think you may be interested, just give it a go and see if it is something you enjoy. I did my first batches with nothing more than roughly $45 ($60 AUD) or so in capital investment, so there isn’t a huge up-front cost to get started.
No amount of reading about it will realistically acquaint you with the nature of the process. For some the work will not be worth the result.
I don’t recommend getting into home-brewing just for the cost-saving element. You don’t need to invest a lot of financial capital to get going, but you will invest a boat-load of time. And if you stick with it, you will inevitably invest more financial resources.
Which begs the question: how much have I invested in this endeavour? Since that $45 ($60 AUD) initial investment, I’m now up to a total financial investment of $716 ($962 AUD). That includes three fermentors (glass carboys), five corny kegs, a co2 regulator and co2 tank, and a host of other gadgets that make the process a bit easier.
But I’m at a point now where I can reliably and (somewhat) efficiently create wonderful and interesting batches of craft beer that no one else in the world has had!
Wow! A big thanks to Joe for sharing his knowledge, passion and commitment to home brewing with us. I have learnt a lot and I hope you all have too! Joe had plenty more to say about brewing; if you’re interested, check out his full interview here.
Stay tuned for the next installment of the Beer O’Clock Brewing Sessions.