In gloomy times, with real wages shrinking and talk of tax hikes from Canberra, you might think Aussies would be pouring an extra glass of shiraz or cracking another beer to cheer themselves up.
In reality, it’s not that straightforward. Studies from around the world have had a hard time finding a simple correlation between the business cycle and the boozing cycle.
And yet, having reached a 50-year low of 2.2 standard drinks per day, it’s unlikely Australians are going to be much more abstemious than that for some time.
So as belts are tightened, some households will want to reconsider how much they spend on their favourite tipples. The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) puts average household consumption at $32.50 a week, or $1690 a year.
For boozy libertarians out there, that represents a pretty big chunk of excise money going straight into the federal government’s coffers. When GST is included, it’s 34 per cent of a $50 carton of beer, 33 per cent of a $25 bottle of wine or 55 per cent of a $40 bottle of spirits.
So if you’re sick of dedicating one in three toasts to Treasurer Scott Morrison, you might want to look at the legal way of dodging all that tax – namely, brewing your own grog.
What’s your poison?
In terms of the volume of alcohol consumed, beer is still the national favourite (41 per cent), closely followed by wine (38 per cent). Spirits account for 12 per cent, with the dregs being made up of ready-to-drink mixed drinks (7 per cent) and cider (2 per cent).
For households wishing to make a stand against the tax-man, then, beer and wine are the relevant DIY refreshments.
Spirits, officially, are not part of this story – in Australia it’s illegal to distil alcohol without an excise permit, and permits are only available for production volumes too large for a household’s own consumption. So in theory, if you distil legally you are by default setting up a business.
In practice, home distilleries are still very popular in some communities – particularly amongst older southern Europeans – and distilling equipment and advice are widely available in home brew shops.
Beer and wine, then, are where most households could save a fair bit of money – both by avoiding excise payments and in terms cost/quality equation.
Home-brew is easy to do badly, but once a recipe has been perfected it is genuinely a superior product to most shop-bought beers.
That might seem hard to believe, but home-brewed beer is a centuries-old style of product, whereas mass-market bottled or canned beer has been adapted for longevity and ease of distribution – after fermentation it is heated to kill the yeast culture, and then re-carbonated to produce the fizz.
Wine generally takes more practice to get right, but again the home wine-maker has the option of making a more traditional product with fewer preservatives and other additives.
John Preston, who runs Melbourne-based brewing shop Grain & Grape, sells starter beer kits for around $100, but says his keenest customers sometimes ramp up their investment over time to run systems worth up to $4,000.
Brewing in small pressurised kegs is popular, with a full home beer-tap set-up costing about $700 to install.
Entry level beer kits, with a sprinkling of good hops and perhaps some specialist brewing sugars, cost about $30 for a brew of $23 litres, according to Preston, though he says most of his customers move quickly into ‘all-grain’ brewing, which costs more like $50 a brew.
Converting that to a standard 24 bottle carton of beer, that’s about $12 for a carton of standard-kit beer or $20 for the all-grain version.
There is, of course, a fair bit of labour involved. However, put alongside craft beers of similar quality, such as the Little Creatures or Mountain Goat brands which cost around $60 to $70 a carton, the home-brewer’s ‘hourly rate of pay’ isn’t bad. And again, the tax man doesn’t see a cent.
Wine brewing is quite a different proposition – the brew has to be done in one big batch at the time of year the grapes are ready.
Preston says an entry-level grape crusher costs $900 and a press around $400. The fermenting juice is contained in a large vat, which starts from $135, and secondary fermentation takes place in glass demi-johns, often 50 litres in size, or a larger stainless steel tank costing around $600.
That’s a pretty big investment to save a few bucks, but Preston points out that set-up will “last for life” – which, if you stay off the home-made grappa, could be a long and happy one for you, and quite miserable for the tax man.