Welcome to the Beer O’Clock Brewing Sessions interview series. This series is designed to provide insight into the world of home brewing for beer loving frugal folk who want to save their pennies, but aren’t willing to give up beer to achieve financial freedom!
The first interview in the series is with USA based personal finance blogger Joe Freedom who blogs over at Trapped In Work. This is the full version of the interview. If you’re after the shortened version, you can find it here.
Hi there TFC! Thanks for having me on! 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.
On a somewhat regular basis I would encounter some form of the following situation: Attorney Bob shares with me that he is so stressed over his attorney work that he is suffering physical ailments, that he never sees his wife and kids, and that he hates what he’s doing (and maybe who he has become). We would then walk down to the parking garage and jump in his brand-new Jaguar to drive to a fancy lunch while covering details of the next trip to Vail that the family is taking (with or without him).
Somewhere in this conversation or the next I would casually ask what state 529 he was using, or whether he had funded his non-deductible traditional IRA so he could use a back-door Roth, and I would get a blank stare (Editor’s note: yes, these are American terms Australian folks). Or even worse: I might get a response along the lines of “no, but I just bought a bunch of ABC Co. stock because my broker told me it’s a sure thing that I’ll make 10x in one year!”.
My conclusion was (and is): at all levels of education, income, and sophistication, there is a basic disconnect between the way people use their money and earning power and the plan they have for their future life. Or maybe to be more accurate I should say that it isn’t a disconnect as much as it is an inverted, backward, and illogical connection.
Most of us tend to allow short-term and short-sighted usage of money to determine our long-term future—but it should be the reverse: long-term goals should shape short-term behaviours. This condition is sad, stupid, and preventable. So I write about the intersection of personal finance, money, and psychology, in a way that attempts to get people—especially high-income earners like my former peers—to think about their long-term future and not simply their short-term pleasure and convenience.
Oh, and I also have a severely caustic sense of humor that needs an outlet, and poking fun at absurd behavior through blog writing is a wonderfully effective therapy.
The Nitty Gritty Of Brewing
How long have you been brewing your own beer for?
I have been brewing beer now for . . . let’s see . . . 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.
So I started engaging in beer tourism and beer-muling. I found myself scheduling trips for the family while sub-consciously considering what breweries I could hit (“yeah, sure, there’s a ton of attractions for the family in upstate Vermont . . . .”). And I was asking friends to serve as beer-mules by bringing back stuff from their trips (“Oh, you’re going to Portland next week to visit your brother? That sounds like fun. Hey, do you have any room in your luggage for a growler or two? Or five?”).
So I was getting bored with the local fare (even though we do have some great craft breweries here around Freedomville), and I have always been fascinated by the science of beer production.
If you have been to a craft brewery you have likely heard someone from the staff say something like “isn’t it amazing that beer is made from just four ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast!” I would always think “how the hell can they get this much depth of flavor from those four ingredients?!” (Of course I now know that there are seemingly unlimited varieties of malt, yeast, hops, and water chemistry, and that many American craft breweries are using way more than those four basic ingredients, but that was a fun part of the learning process).
So boredom plus curiosity created an opportunity. And then I read a post by Mr. Crazy Kicks that laid out his brewing approach in a very straightforward and simple way. I had always been interested in brewing, but in the past when I had researched the process I always saw videos of some guy using a traditional three-tier system in his garage with countless pumps and re-circulating processes and it just didn’t look like all that much fun. But Mr. CK introduced me to the brew-in-a-bag process (or “BIAB”), and it looked intriguing. So that got me started.
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 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.
Do you brew by yourself, or do your family or friends help out with the process?
I approach brewing like I approach most areas that I get keenly interested in… I view it as something to study and learn, and then master. I enjoy the science of it. And in the course of a brew day there are really a lot of different things that I’m juggling at once, and at this point I’m not sure that I would invite the addition of an apprentice into the process.
I know that for a lot of people in this hobby, brew-day is an event that is highly social; enjoyed with a lot of friends and beer consumption. But I’m not there yet. I take the process seriously—even though I enjoy it a lot—and in the course of a brew day I’m intently focused on the job of making great beer.
I’ve heard a lot of stories of batches that had to be dumped because the process was less than precise as a result of too many beers consumed. Other than my accidental open fermentation of the hefeweizen, I haven’t had to dump any batches yet, and I hope to keep it that way!
What are your favourite brews to make and why?
I’ve covered a good bit of this in my ramblings above. 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!
But with all that being said, I brew more hoppy beers and IPAs than anything else. I hate to admit it because that certainly is where the herd is in terms of style preference here in America, and I tend to want to run away from the herd!
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. And you get an additional return with each beer consumed: no rinsing and drying of the bottle that was just opened; just a splash off the tap and you’re on your way.
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 also doing some amount of wet-hopping in the harvest season when I get the fresh hops off the vine from the back yard (more on that later).
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.
When I started home-brewing I also started a hop garden in the back yard. It’s a three-year root-development cycle before you get to full maturation and yield, and I’m only in year two. So I hope that by fall 2019 I will have a solid yield of Cascade, Chinook, Comet, and US Golding to use in future beers.
So, in short, I hop whenever I can. But I brew a lot more than just IPAs, and not every style is amenable to extreme hopping. One of my taps right now is pouring a delicate golden Belgian saison that in theory could have been dry-hopped, but I decided to stick with the traditional recipe and it’s awesome just the way it is. So I try to be careful to not overload everything with hop flavour.
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 place (no blow-off tube; didn’t know what that was at the time) 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 (in a relative sense) writing a brief to a court because you toiled and then produced a product that was tangible and finite (as opposed to, say, counseling a client, where the work was never done, didn’t result in a product, and might never be put to actual use).
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.
It’s also, somewhat surprisingly, very much a creative outlet.
Is there anything about brewing that drives you crazy?
I’m a very detail-oriented, perfectionist-type thinker, and that can be both good and bad as a brewer. On the one hand, everything that I read tells me that it is critical to be very diligent in certain areas, such as sanitisation. I have certainly implemented this advice, and I take sanitisation very seriously. That isn’t particularly difficult for me because my mild-OCD condition makes it somewhat second nature, but the idea of ruining a batch because of one minor slip-up is frustrating.
I have not had that happen yet, but I’ve got a Julius clone in the fermentor right now that had a potential sanitisation failure. I used S-04 dry yeast (English ale) and while I was re-hydrating for the starter I used a spoon that was clean but that I had not sanitised. So I had to decide whether the whole brew day was off or whether I would proceed.
I decided to proceed (fingers crossed!). It’s such a small detail and event—and only one of hundreds that goes into producing a batch of good beer—but the idea that this type of detail failure can ruin the process is frustrating.
The Financials Of Brewing
How much does an average brew cost you?
I also have an accounting background and I love spreadsheet play (time value of money tends to be more my speed, as compared to cost accounting. For an example 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 (cents) (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. I’m usually in the 82-85% range for mash 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.
Once I invest in a mill I will be able to buy in bulk and brew on a moment’s notice. But, it also extends the time of the brew process because of the additional step of measuring and crushing the grains.
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. If you value your time at anything above $1/hour, you’ll come out short. I once read someone say something like “getting into home-brewing to save money is like buying a boat to reduce the cost of your fish dinner.” That was hyperbole, but directionally accurate.
You don’t need to invest a lot of financial capital to get going, but you will invest a boat-load of time (pun intended). 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!