Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Craft Capitalism: Mr. Beer

As Chrismahanakwanzica approaches, you may be tempted to buy a Mr. Beer for your slovenly brew swilling couch dweller. Watch out! While the sentiment may be appreciated, it’s sort of like buying an easy bake oven; it’ll be kind of fun to make one time and inevitably end up in the attic or garage with mouse poop in it. Tiny crappy cakes are synonymous with toy- brewed play beer in this metaphor: it’s going to be more fun to make than to eat, and when you’re done you’ll probably be unsatisfied (and have more dishes to clean than if you’d made a proper Bundt.)

I see this Mr. Beer thing everywhere including Bed Bath and Beyond, Amazon, and most recently Hammacher Schlemmer (where most rich shoppers go to pay double – “The Best EZ-Brew Plastic Barrel, only $129.99! ”) It should tip you off that these kits look like toys and are generally stocked in stores that sell low quality useless gadgets to hapless consumer zombies but if not, let’s discuss why this is a poor value.

I’ll be the first person to tell you that it costs more money to brew your own beer than to buy it from somebody who has large-scale equipment. Mr. Beer claims that you can enjoy “premium, handcrafted beer” with this home-brewing kit at a “fraction of the cost.” What is that fraction? Sixteen fifths? Where I come from, we call those compound fractions; they make things bigger, not smaller. The kits cost fifteen US dollars (not monopoly money, as I incorrectly assumed) and make 20 bottles of beer at max. If it were really premium beer, that’s about the same as a real homebrew kit per bottle. Call me a skeptic, but you’re starting with ice-t mix and yeast (no grain, no hopping) which can’t possibly result in a “premium handcrafted beer.” It also involves using your own kitchen equipment like measuring cups, pots and pans, etc. which are most likely not sterile.

Hijacking the homebrew market with a piece of crap of this magnitude would really get my goat, if I had a goat. There are probably more of these sitting unused in attics than bread machines and ice cream makers combined. So why is this ploy so successful?

Computer Printer Marketing

Buying the printer is really cheap, but the ink is overpriced. I’ve actually thrown out printers and bought new ones because it was cheaper than replacing the cartridge. Mr. Beer Premium costs about sixty dollars, but basically only replaces the Primary Fermenter (which isn’t expensive,) the bottles (which are basically free,) and two kits (which are inferior and make half as much beer.) Where they really get you is the fifteen dollars every time you buy fifteen cents worth of ingredients from them.

I could go on a pretty long rant about the low quality materials used in Mr. Beer, especially the plastic bottles, but I’ll refrain. What’s the use of pointing out a problem unless you offer a solution?

A comparable starter kit to Mr. Beer is available on Amazon for $77, without ingredients. If you want all the extra doodads you can spend some money, but you don’t really need anything else besides a 5-gallon stock pot (or the pot from a turkey fryer.) That means that the difference in price between the toy and the professional equipment is marginal, but the utility you gain is enormous. If you’re not convinced, by all means make that impulse purchase. Otherwise, Gene and I scoured Amazon for real equipment. Check out our listing if you want to give somebody the gift of brewing this month.

Side Note: Markup

Consider this: When you buy beer from a major brewery it’s not really the beer that costs money, but the aluminum can, shipping, distributor markup, and retail markup. They could fill that can with WD-40, schnapps, or crickets and it would roughly cost the same. Homebrew isn’t about making cheap beer, it’s about making good beer. We care about what we put in our bottles, Mr. Beer only serves to undermine that idea.


  1. I'm so love this blog, already bookmarked it! Thanks.

  2. Sorry if this posts twice, as I didn't get confirmation on the previous one:

    I have a Mr. Beer kit, and I've been wondering more and more what the cost breakdown is like, when compared to just going to the store and buying a 6 pack of premium beer. While I don't yet have an answer, I can say that my last brew - the Winter Dark Ale - was fantastic! Even though the Mr. Beer setup is a little on the generic side, as you've pointed out, my personal opinion is that it serves as a great introduction to brewing. I picked up the "premium" kit from JC Penny last year for $25, which is half of the usual price.. pretty reasonable, though I hate those plastic bottles! And as long as you buy refill kits from places like Amazon and such (and not directly from Mr. Beer), you can save some money.

    I checked out the kit you linked to on Amazon, and I just don't have space in my tiny apartment for those big buckets. So, in closing, Mr. Beer is a little limited, yes, and I wish I was learning more about the overall process. For now, though, it's working for me.