Some homebrewers, new or veteran, wonder if their beer could compete with commercial options. This question, let alone whether one beer is better than another, is entirely subjective.
Novice homebrewers are likely to make mistakes, resulting in average or subpar beer compared to commercial options but they can brew beer comparable to commercial options with proper experience, equipment, and ingredients. Commercial brewers have professional equipment and expertise to consistently create quality beers.
As an avid homebrewer, I can confirm that you can make great beer at home, it just takes some practice. Until then, the beer that you buy will be better. The purpose of this blog is not to discourage you, but to provide a look into the commercial world of brewing.
Can homebrew beer be better than commercial beer?
In short, maybe. The question depends on the factors being compared. If just the output, homebrews can be great, but not without work. When considering other aspects – such as quantity, variety, or consistency – commercial producers take the lead.
Keep in mind, many commercial providers have decades of experience. Bud Light – a light, simple beer – was first introduced in 1982. Not to step on any toes, but not the most complicated of flavors. Yet, according to Statista, in 2020, Bud Light ranked as the fourth most valued beer brand, at 9.7 billion dollars. The producer, Anheuser-Busch, was founded in 1852.
Weihenstephan Brewery, widely considered as the oldest brewery, was founded in 1040 in Bavaria, Germany. For those curious, they make Hefeweizen variants.
Take a moment to think of the reason(s) why you started homebrewing.
Did you try your neighbor’s basement beer?
Or a brew at the local gastropub?
You thought, “I can do this.” Even, “I can do better than this!” Let me tell you, you can create beer, at least. Great beer requires great ingredients, equipment, and experience.
Homebrewing is fun because of the journey
Maybe you think, “Should I just give up now?”
Not at all! Now is the time to get started. This blog is not meant to discourage you, but to manage your expectations. With your expectations in check, you can enjoy the process, instead of focusing on the result. With each iteration, let the result guide your next experiment.
Your first beer might taste like stale bread. Where did you go wrong?
It might taste like the next IPA at Dogfish Head. Where did you go right?
One of the most rewarding aspects of homebrewing is the result, regardless of the quality. (Bad beer is part of the process!) You made it, from start to finish. If you are looking for an uncomplicated, decent product to impress that neighbor, Amazon offers a range of options.
Homebrewing vs. commercial brewing
An overview of the commercial playing field:
In 2020, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) reported 6,406 brewery facilities in just the United States. At the top of the beer chain, about 28 breweries produced 1,000,000 barrels or more. The “small” fish – 5,746 breweries – accounted for 1 to 7,500 barrels. The rest fell in-between, excluding 220 breweries, which outsource production to larger companies.
This year, the Beer Marketer’s Insights published the following stats on market share for the top five producers:
|Mark Anthony Brands (Mike’s)||4.4%|
|Boston Beer Co.||3.5%|
|Other Domestic and Imports||17.8%|
There’s our Bud Light, in first place.
Homebrewing equipment compared to commercial
When brewing at home, you do not need a lot of equipment. Your startup cost could range from $80 to $300, tops. You would create 1 to 5 gallons of decent beer. Commercial brewing is a different league. Even microbreweries require a dizzying initial investment.
According to Business New Daily, most breweries require $500,000 to $1 million to start small. In “How to Start Your Own Craft Brewery,” Pamela Stevens provides a list of supplies to consider:
|Equipment||Kettles, boilers, kegs, cooling systems, storage tanks, fermentation tanks, filters, tubing, pipes, cleaning equipment, waste management systems, canning or bottling equipment.|
|Supplies||Hops, malt, yeast, bottles, labels, and packaging.|
|Utilities||Electricity or gas and water.|
Just to brew the beer! Apart from these supplies, even a small brewery maintains a space, furniture, insurance, licenses, permits, and other professional services, such as an accountant, consultant, or marketer.
To add perspective, Jacob McKean, founder of Modern Times Beer, raised $1.25 million to start his brewery and still encountered challenges. On his blog, he wrote:
Can you start a 30 bbl brewery for less? Absolutely. There are all kinds of ways you can compromise quality, sacrifice worker safety, put off crucial purchases, make yourself inefficient, and worsen the consumer experience that will save you money.Jacob McKean, Modern Times Beer at Beer Pulse
High-quality supplies and equipment are direct investments into an equally high-quality result. Even with his budget at the time, McKean could not afford all the equipment on his wishlist, such as:
A grain silo, … a third 30 bbl fermenter, a spent grain removal system, a separate mash mixer, a well-equipped lab, a decently sized pilot brewing system, and a tasting room cold box.
As you can imagine, established commercial breweries have significantly larger budgets to spend on the latest brewing setup.
Commercial brewing techniques vs homebrewing
All beers share the same general process. They start with barely, then wort, which is fermented, aged, filtered, and bottled. However, the techniques used to achieve these steps vary greatly between commercial and homebrewing. There are a number of differences, from malting to maturation, which could make an entire essay.
Here are a few to consider:
Due to the size of production, commercial brewers crush grains by multi-roll or wet milling. In wet milling, the malt is kept hydrated to increase moisture in the husk.
Some commercial brewers use adjuncts, like rice, that are milled with a different type of machine. Many producers that use adjuncts also have a cereal cooker and a certain mash mixer.
Mashing is a similar process commercially as at-home, but most commercial breweries use heated mixers with agitators to keep the mash at an even temperature. Brewers that use adjuncts complete an additional step, during which they boil the mix to gelatinize the starch.
An additional difference is that commercial breweries closely monitor ingredient yield, achieving much higher percentages than at home. Two most important yields are brewing material efficiency (BME) and hop utilization.
For mashing and wort separation, some small breweries use infusion mash tuns. For small-scale production, you can even find options on Amazon, such as Brewer’s Edge Mash and Boil or Klarstein Mundschenk Brewing System. A brewer could use a mash paddle to spread the mash evenly and a rake to remove the spent grains from the mash tun.
At a large scale, some commercial breweries use lauter tuns, while others use mash filters to separate wort from malt. Lauter tuns use rakes to slowly sift through the grain bed to separate wort and later, spent grain.
Another difference in the process is wort boiling, mostly due to batch size.
Home or small-scale brewers often use large kettles or pots over a flame. Commercial brewers make thousands of gallons of beer, so they rely on calandrias.
A calandria is a tube-shaped, steam-powered heat exchanger, that heats wort quickly and evenly. It can be internal, heating the surrounding liquid, or external. When external, the wort is pumped out of the vessel, through the calandria, and back.
A small difference, but worth a mention, is pasteurization. Most commercial breweries pasteurize their beer, while small craft breweries do not, simply because this step requires equipment. When done right, pasteurization does not affect the flavor and ensures that the beer lasts longer.
Commercial brewers have better access to ingredients
Both home- and commercial brewers can purchase fresh, quality ingredients. However, commercial brewers simply have better access to a variety of raw ingredients. While serious homebrewers can take the time to research quality ingredients, some options may be unavailable for small purchases.
Commercial brewers generally have established relationships with several suppliers. This way, brewers can observe and maintain the standard of ingredients used in beer production.
Additionally, commercial brewers may hire a filtration provider, to maintain a certain water pH, or a quality control professional to ensure top taste.
The Brewing Industry Guide provides a comprehensive directory of suppliers, from ingredients to packaging. A quick look at the categories reveals just how many aspects commercial brewers may choose to control.
Commercial brewers are able to experiment with many batches
Commercial brewers have the capacity to experiment and to produce various beers in large quantities. While a homebrewer may have a friend assist in production, commercial brewers have entire teams working to consistently produce at commercial standards.
Through experimentation, a brewery develops its competitive edge, such as a secret recipe or technique. For instance, Anheuser-Busch uses beechwood chips as a (not-so-secret) aid in lagering.
The average homebrewer makes 1 to 5 gallons of beer per batch. Commercial brewers make thousands of barrels of beer. For reference one barrel is 31 U.S. gallons. In 2020, according to the Brewers Association, brewers produced the following volumes:
Taking a look at brewpubs, for example, that makes 436.45 bbls per brewery.
(For definitions of types, please see Craft Beer Industry Market Segments, by the Brewers Association.)
Can my homebrew compete?
Let’s take a few steps back to the start of this blog. When assessing beer in terms of output and consistency, it makes sense that commercial breweries have a clear advantage. They have the team, the experience, and the equipment. However, the scale of these breweries should not discourage your homebrewing efforts.
Look back to the chart in the previous section. This chart is not all-encompassing, it’s missing nano breweries, for example. And it’s missing you. The chart looks at quantity, but not necessarily quality.
Keep in mind that you are not competing with commercial breweries.
Think of it this way, beer may start at the same point, in terms of ingredients, but the process diverges early on. The beer you make is yours, which is what makes it great. (Even if the first few rounds don’t taste like it.) And if you think of expanding, now you know some of the many aspects to consider. You can start by joining a team, bringing the experience that you gained at home.