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Monday, December 13, 2010

Holiday Buying Guide

Ah, Christmas, you sneaky devil. How is it that one minute I'm trying to squeeze the last dregs of heat out of a fleeting summer sun and the next there you, are, ringing a damn bell? Amazing. Well, in any case, here it is, the middle of December, and I am only just about to begin shopping. If you're like me, you'll be looking for a few ideas, pronto. Well, for that beer fan in your life, here are a few suggestions.

1. A beer cellar starter kit.
Everyone should have a beer cellar. Not everyone can--you do really need a stably cool place--but everyone should. It's a relatively cheap way to turn good beer into something more rare and special. Most people don't realize that beer ages, or that it changes when it ages. You can do someone a big favor by presenting him with a selection of aging-ready beer and instructions on how to manage them. Beer likes stable temperatures, preferably below sixty degrees. Suitable beer is stronger than 8%, and beer stronger than 10% is especially good. Dark beer generally ages better than light beer, and bottle-conditioned beer better than standard bottles. If the bottle is corked it's best to lay it down, but store it upright if capped. That's it--for thirty bucks you can set someone up with a half dozen great beers and the beginnings of a cellar program.

2. A Good Book
This was a great year for beer books. The market has been weak since Michael Jackson died, but it seems like publishers are finding good writers to do serious books now (rather than just cashing in on a fad, as they once did). Here are some of the titles I'd recommend:
  • Brewing With Wheat, Stan Hieronymus. This is a fantastic book for anyone interested in the history of beer. I have gone back to it time and again over the past year, and never to consult it for brewing info. A first-rate treatment of a number of world styles, and now an indispensable part of my library.
  • Yeast, Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff. More suited for the advanced beer geek--and probably mainly for those who brew. For that crowd, a wonderful resource, and a book I'll be revisiting regularly as fermentation questions arise.
  • Amber, Gold, and Black, Martyn Cornell. Those of you who read Zythophile know that Martyn Cornell is the go-to man on the history of British brewing. Cornell's account is painstaking and debunks a lot of the received wisdom about beer styles. Another must-own.
3. For the Aspiring Homebrewer
Every year, homebrew shops are inundated with wives and daughters buying homebrew kits for husbands and fathers. I'd say ditch the kits, though, and start with a book. Those kits get a beginner in the door, but they are designed to be low-cost and stripped down. Most homebrewers that stick with it overhaul all their equipment within the first year of homebrewing. Rather than dropping a hundred bucks on a bunch of extract equipment, get Dad a nice book and let him think about the system he wants. When he goes to the homebrew store, he'll be able go assemble the equipment himself. Best bets:
  • Complete Joy of Homebrewing, Charlie Papazian. This is still the best entry to homebrewing for the non-techie novice. It's easy to read and encouraging.
  • How to Brew, John Palmer. Palmer's guide is the recognized standard among homebrewing books. Far better for advanced techniques than Charlie's guide.
  • Designing Great Beers, Ray Daniels. For even more advanced brewers, with lots of technical information. Not for the beginner (unless she's an engineer--and even then, get Palmer's book, too.)
4. Beer
I know, it's obvious. But keep in mind that beer is a consumable, so drinkers constantly need new infusions. Your local bottle shop will provide you with numerous options, nearly all of which will be greeted with a smile when pulled from the stocking.


  1. Books.
    I purchased Pete Brown, UK Beer Writer of the Year 2009, three books via used books site. The 2nd book arrived 1st; the 3rd book, 2nd; et cetera.

    I read 'Three Sheets to the Wind: One Man's Quest for the Meaning of Beer' [2007] in less than a week; I am 40% into 'Hops and Glory; One Man's Search for the Beer that Built the British Empire' [2009].

    I recommend both. Much was learned.

    In 3Sheets Brown discusses / describes the beer culture in 12 countries; in Hops&Glory, the history of British India's IPA [researched at the British National Archive and emulated by a trip from Burton upon Trent to Kolkata (Calcutta)]

  2. I'd really not recommend Charlie Papazian's "Complete Joy of Homebrewing" for the newbie, as it has some statements that are simply not true (especially in terms of time for fermentation and bottle-conditioning). The recommendation about John Palmer's "How To Brew" stands; it's not only much more accurate, but can also be read online for FREE at (though the online version is older than the printed edition).

    For the sake of completeness I went back and read Papazian after I had several batches of brew going according to the Palmer book, and I also read and enjoyed "The Dummies Guide to Homebrewing"; it's quite readable and useful, situated somewhat between Palmer's more technically-sound presentation and Papazian's breezy "beer is good" authorial style.

    But that's just based on my experience as a homebrewer with 47 batches brewed, including a finalist in the 2010 OBC/Widmer Collaborator project.

  3. The distinction that I will make between Papazian and Palmer is this:
    Papazian wrote a book in a time when people didn't think beer brewing in the home was possible or worthe the hassle. Charlie convinces you that you can and should.

    By the time Palmer wrote, that you could brew beer was common knowledge. Palmer best explains how.

    Bible vs Technical manual, if you will.

  4. I think that's well-said, olllllo. What I'd add is that a lot of people still think it's too hard and complex. A little evangelism can be a good thing for the newbie. So many old-time homebrewers forget what it's like for the average guy who takes it up.

    I would recommend different of these books to different people, but I would definitely keep Charlie's in the rotation--it's just right for some folks.

  5. Love your suggestions, Jeff. I have already purchased one copy of Yeast as a gift for somebody. You know what I'd like, though, is a nice set of glassware with all the styles accounted for. I've yet to find one but I'm sure they exist online. Have you seen them anywhere?

  6. Great suggestions Jeff. Some of my personal favorite beers to age that are not expensive include Alaska Smoked Porter, North Coast Old Stock, Orval and anything from Hair of the Dog. These brews change significantly over time and cover several styles also they all bear a date which is helpful. As far as books go the Campaign For Real Ale ( has some great ones and I like Randy Mosher's "Tasting Beer" as a beginner beer geek book. Cheers!

  7. LOL. I'm one of those wives who's planning to buy a kit for my husband. He's asked for one. We both love beer and want to brew. I've done some research on what's included. Looking at Steinbart's middle kit. Would you recommend buying individual components instead? Seems like a good deal from what I've been reading...

  8. Great list...

    What exactly do you mean by a beer cellar starter kit, like a wine cooler fridge?

    You're right about aging, and also for home brewers, it helps avoid oxidation in the long run...

    As far as books, How To Brew and Designing Great Beers alone are great... also Yeast is very informative although a bit harder to read...

  9. Scott, I haven't seen anything like that--glassware is a woefully overlooked area of the beer world. Holler if you find anything.

    Sean, this weekend we sampled both Fred (3-y-o) and Adam (2-y-o) and I agree--those beers were almost designed to be aged.

    Anon, I won't work too hard to dissuade you from the kits. One of the biggest pitfalls is buying an undersized brewkettle. My suggestion is don't buy anything under 7 gallons. A lot of first-timers buy kettles that are less than five gallons, assuring that they'll need to buy a bigger one down the road if they go to all-grain. Since that's one of the major expenses, it's good to just start out big.

    Jorge, I meant mainly the beers to put in the cellar. If your home/apartment doesn't have a cellar, it's hard to do this. The problem with fridges (aside from the expense and carbon footprint) is that they are set for very low temperatures--below 40 degrees, usually. At that temperature, beers will stay in near stasis and take a lot longer to develop. You actually want beers to evolve if you're aging them.

  10. @Jeff, Scott New Belgium had a great deal on some glassware recently.

    I picked some up as late thank you gifts for my thesis committee.