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The price of pleasure
April 10, 2001: 10:23 a.m. ET

From home brewing to astronomy, beloved hobbies can cost thousands
By Staff Writer Martine Costello
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - There are beer lovers, and then there are people like Jay Berman. Whether it's pale ale, English bitter or Big Dog Red, he spends thousands to brew them in his garage.

A 44-year-old data processing consultant from Vista, Calif., Berman has eight taps, two refrigerators, two fermenters and a custom-welded system with three giant propane burners so he can brew just like the pros. He's also building his own bar.

You can start brewing beer for as little as $25 or $30. But many home brewers spend much more. (CNN/file)
"I enjoy my beer," Berman said simply. "It's a fun hobby, and you get to drink your handiwork."

Hobbies like home brewing are a passionate, serious business for people. They dig into their wallets for books and equipment. They join clubs, build Web sites and travel across country for conventions and competitions.

They spend hours tracking down a baseball player's autograph or staring at the Big Dipper at "star parties" under a twinkling sky. They build elaborate gardens with model trains, waterfalls and bridges in their backyards. They fire up ham radio equipment so they can talk to people in India or China.

According to surveys by Kalmbach, a leading publisher of hobby magazines in the United States, bird watchers spend an average of $932 a year, while people who collect classic toy trains spend $1,480 annually.

The sky's the limit

Bill Stepka, 47, a horticulture consultant from San Francisco, got interested in astronomy as a kid growing up on a farm in Wisconsin. Somebody gave him a star chart and he was able to track down the Andromeda Galaxy.

graphicAndromeda is 2.2 million light years away from Earth, and is the most distant object you can see with the naked eye, he said.

"You're looking at a whole other galaxy like ours," Stepka said. "You're looking at light that is 2.2 million years old. The concept blows your mind away. Astronomy is like a time machine."

Jay White, director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, a non-profit organization that caters to professional and amateur astronomers, said the cost to be a star gazer can vary widely.

At one end, some astronomers spend nothing on equipment.

"Some people do nothing but naked-eye observing," White said. "That's the beauty of astronomy. It doesn't cost you anything but a darkened sky."

At the other end of the spectrum, people spend "tens of thousands of dollars" on research-grade telescopes and other equipment, White said.

Some amateur astronomers spend $10,000 to $15,000 on telescopes. (NASA)
A telescope might cost $250 or $300, but some people own two or three telescopes costing $10,000 to $15,000 each, he said. Many amateur astronomers also buy special cameras to photograph the heavens that can cost up to $1,000 each.

Others build their own observatories, or an astronomy club will pool resources and build one together.

"These facilities can be better than what the professionals are using," he said. "They're dedicated. In every hobby, you're going to have people who are fanatical."

Taking to the air waves

Mike Gilmer, 42, an electrical engineer from Utica, N.Y., said his amateur radio hobby stems from a lifelong interest in electronics.

An amateur radio operator's equipment. (Courtesy: and Clinton Herbert).
Gilmer is installing a 100-foot radio tower in his backyard that he bought used for about $3,000. He dug a four-foot by six-foot hole and poured the concrete himself.

"People get really passionate about it," Gilmer said.

The radio equipment needed ranges from a few hundred dollars used to $3,000 to $4,000 new, he said. Besides the radio, other accessories, like antennas, must be considered as part of any spending plan.

Gilmer has a desk-top radio unit at home and a mobile one in his car. Some people also have a hand-held device that clips on your belt.

There's also a license fee of $10 to operate the equipment, and three levels of certification. A license is good for 10 years. And if you want special call letters it costs $14.

"The average ham spends $1,000 to $2,000 a year," said Gilmer, whose call sign is N2MG.

One of the more expensive aspects of the hobby are contests where people try to contact a many people as possible around the globe in a certain amount of time, Gilmer said. He might spend 40 hours at his equipment during a competition, but averages about four hours a week.

"The contests really suck you in," Gilmer said.

Julia Roberts, $350 and rising

Sometimes hobbyists get sucked in by celebrity autographs. Ed Bedrick, an autograph collector from Rhode Island, has gotten signatures from actor Keanu Reeves and director Steven Spielberg, among others.

Collectors sometimes keep the famous signatures, and sometimes sell them. An Oscar-winning actor's signature especially right after the awards ceremony can be a big winner, Bedrick said.

Click here for's special report about the Academy Awards, The Business of Oscar.

An autograph of Best Actress winner Julia Roberts, for example, would normally sell for $150 or $200. Now, the price is up to around $350, he said. A hard-to-get celebrity, like singer Madonna, would cost around $350, too.

Some people spend thousands on airfare to travel to New York and Los Angeles to track down stars. Others go to shows where celebrities will sign photos and other items for a price. The cost can be $20 or $25 each.

Roberts won Best Actress for her role in "Erin Brokovich." Her autograph could sell for $350. (Source: Universal Studios).
Gary Price, 33, a graphics designer from Denver, specializes in Star Wars autographs. He's gotten all of the first- and second-level stars from all of the movies and is working on third-level stars.

"I've enjoyed them many times, watching these films," Price explained.

Other collectors aim to get all of the actors in a TV show cast photo. For example, Price is trying to get the signature of Gary Burgoff, who played Radar on "M.A.S.H."

"That's the Holy Grail of collecting -- if you can get the whole cast," Price said.

Hops, yeast and taps

Carroll Goldsworth, an owner of Brewers Resource, which sells brew making equipment in its California store and on the Web, said you can start making beer for $20 and equipment you have in your kitchen, like a big spaghetti pot and a strainer.

Hops and grains are among the ingredients you'll need to make your own beer. (CNN/file).
A lot of people start with a brew kit for about $25 or $30, which includes the grains, hops, and other ingredients. A complete home brewer system, which includes a kettle, strainer, bottle capper and other items costs about $160, he said. The average brewer probably spends $500 a year.

Berman, the home brewer from California, knows he spends more on his hobby. He named his operation Bones' Brewery and is on the board of Barley Literate Home Brew Club and the Society of Barley Engineers.

"I've flown airplanes, and I've done boating," Berman said. "Brewing beer is less expensive ... It's a great hobby." graphic