What can you do for a friend, relative, or significant other to surprise them after you’ve watched them spend tireless hours scanning store shelves, trekking into the hinterlands, or cackling maniacally over a frothing pot in search of great beer?
Well, you can be my awesome wife, for starters. Before I get into a rundown of some great beer gift ideas for the last minute shopper, let me tell you just how she surprised the living daylights out of me a few weeks back. As has been hinted in other posts, we’ve had a lot going on which is why when I do post, it’s a glut of two, three, or more posts in a row then what seems an eternal silence. On the very night I had stopped by Kilroys two weeks ago, I was in fact meeting a buddy for happy hour to toast a promotion I’d gotten out of the blue at work. Go figure, he was 40 minutes late, which made me anxious since I was supposed to be home in time so my wife could then take me out for a similar celebratory dinner. But then I got informed that the babysitter was also late and to take our time. Score!
Friday Night Flights: Kilroys then occurs, and as we’re winding down I notice I’m due in just a few minutes’ time. Cue tearassing out of the parking lot and back into our neighborhood and arriving only two minutes late. As I’m careening into a stop in the driveway I notice that Ben’s truck is there (he and his wife were our babysitters), and I’m thinking to myself, “why the heck did they drive that instead of the Jeep or ‘stang?” To the back of my mind that thought goes as I stumble inside to see my wife sitting despondent at the table, with sounds of our daughter down in the basement screaming. Screaming? An hour past bedtime? In the basement?! My wife mentions hesitantly, “you should go see what your daughter did downstairs.” Uh-oh. Not only is the basement anti-infant, but that’s where all the big electronics, wine cellar, and other toys reside. Did she rip the new couches somehow? Knock the TV over…?? Practically jumping down the stairs, I suddenly notice this curly blue thing hanging from the light, but as soon as I query aloud, “what the heck is that?” I’m showered by shouts of “SURPRISE!!” Yes, my wife had just sandbagged me with a finished-degree/promotion/month-early 30th birthday surprise party. As I made the rounds, someone asked, “did he see what’s in the corner yet?” It was quite the beer gift, but more on that in a moment…
What NOT to Buy a Beer Lover as a Gift
Cookie cutter homebrew kits. As in, the ones you find at wholesale clubs, department stores, or supermarkets. Not that a homebrew kit isn’t a good idea, it’s just that the quality of these items is, well, lacking. The parts are typically proprietary to an off brand, the included recipes a bit dull, and they won’t teach you how to brew good beer – including the pressing need for proper storage/temperature control. I had a neighbor who went down this path, and when he unveiled his first batch, I had to ask him if he liked ESBs…turns out that was meant to be a lager. Remember: if it’s a great deal, it’s a gift fail.
Beer of the Month mail clubs. Again, not a bad gift in principle, but execution matters. With these clubs, you have little control over the beers chosen and the shipping process can subject the bottles to all sorts of Hellish environments. I speak from experience on this one, as two years back my sisters convinced me to chip in on such a gift for my Dad, and six months later when we visited him we found him sipping Budweiser as a plethora of “exclusive” beers – in clear bottles!! – sat in the back of his fridge. If you do want to go this route, try to work with a local shop instead – a good one will help you pick out a good lineup and schedule, and maybe even help on deliveries.
Dinner at a just opened brewpub – even a chain. Like any new restaurant, sometimes customers experience growing pains right along with the staff and ownership. On the beer side, you may experience an other-than-normal selection, initial releases that didn’t have the right amount of QC (or even TLC) during brewing, and servers not quite up to speed. I won’t name any names, but I experienced this self-inflicted wound three times this past year, and two were at chains (including the self-chosen spot for my last birthday dinner!) This can be a great occasion to give as a gift, but unless word is they nailed the opening, try to give it a month or two. Oh, and shop local if at all possible!
The Best Gifts for Beer Lovers
Beer Tours. If you’re in an area where several breweries or brewpubs are clustered nearby, odds are that some services exist which mimic the wine tours some limousine companies have promoted literally to death. Ben participated in one this year to fairly good success, as they hit Mad Fox, bluejacket, DC Brau, and 3 Stars in one fell swoop. Always try to stick to a reputable company even if you know-a-guy-who-knows-a-guy, as you could end up being Hamilton where the expected limo driver forgets and goes to service a wedding instead, then offers to pick you up anyways after a few rounds at an open bar… If you’re in the NOVA/DC area, check out Reston Limo as they even let you customize the stops!
Beer School. You don’t have to be a Cicerone to enjoy tasting or talking about beer, but it can sure as heck be fun to learn how to become one! From private tastings to actual programs, look for a combination of brewer interaction, food pairings, and beer culture. Extended festivals such as DC Beer Week sometimes have limited seating events which can be very similar.
Limited Releases. I have a friend who loves Hopslam to no end. The problem with it is, it’s hard to find, sells out quickly, and they limit it to one per customer. When I was in Falls Church I had a source nearby who didn’t put their entire stock out at once, so every few days I could pick up another pack, then surprised my buddy with a whole case of it later on. Most of these beers will be seasonal, and an astute retailer will inch the price up as stocks dwindle. So if you have someone who has an itch for an annual release of this nature (say, Hamilton with Hardywood’s Gingerbread Stout), bring a few friends along and make a custom case out of your haul. Not only do they get to unwrap a giant box to discover BEER! but they’ll love you to death as it’ll take them (hopefully) months to consume it all!
Custom Brew Kits. As I noted, this can be a great idea, but it takes a bit of logistics to get it right. If you’re going to brew beer at home, you have to have a whole lot of patience (or be a sadist) to brew a 12-bottle batch and just watch it sit for weeks (or months) on end with nothing to do in the meantime. Ideally, you’d want the ability to have 2-3 batches all going at once, which would mean additional storage, a spot with dual zone temperature control, a broader variety of ingredients/recipes…and a supplier. While it may be impossible, for instance, to buy hops from Lickinghole Creek or Flying Dog’s new experimental farm, brewers can be good sources to identify local suppliers. Or, if you’re Wild Wolf, you have a homebrew store right on the premises! This is a complicated gift, though, so do your homework and don’t be afraid to ask around for advice.
Beer Festival tickets. No, I don’t just mean GABF or Oktoberfest, though both are great times if you can make things work from a timing perspective (especially with tickets/hotels!) But if you’re in the Northeast, you could try one of Beer Advocate’s shindigs in Boston, or one of the weekend craft brew throwdowns in Washington, DC. A key to look for is where the festival will be hosted, the number of brewers present (not just shipping beers for the event), and how accessible any activities are. You don’t necessarily need to splurge with VIP or premium tickets to give you more hours in the main event hall, as a good 2-day event will let you pace yourself more, and oftentimes offers a beer-themed dinner. Again, do your homework as without the brewers present to answer questions and guide tastings, these can turn into glorified keggers. If you can’t make it to a big city for a large festival, you can still find beer festivals attached to other events such as fairs, so you won’t be relegated to a small number of offerings if you go this route. And since we’re in VA, there’s always the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest!
Kegerators. Or, what I eventually found waiting for me in the corner during my surprise party:
As with a homebrew kit, this requires good homework and sourcing. Thankfully, Ben helped my wife out in choosing a decent dual-tap system which can easily fit two sixtels. This is not a gift that can be done blindly, nor should you trust a DIY job off Craigslist. If you have someone who wants to build it themselves, a minifridge and some hoses aren’t going to cut it, either. If you’re not sure on setup, again – ask for help! If you don’t know that you should wait 24 hours between keg delivery and first pour, or that your CO2 pressure should be somewhere between 8-10 PSI, then you run the risk of having a giant glass of foam on your hands.
Choosing the beer to place in the kegerator is also of huge importance. Remember: you’re investing in anywhere from 40-125 beers for that special someone, so if you don’t get this part right they’ll have months’ worth of subpar offerings on hand. In my case, two of my favorite beers from my favorite brewery did the trick quite nicely! That would be the Optimal Wit and the Essential Pale from Port City, thank you very much…it even led to this exchange on twitter:
Ben S.(uperhoo): Drinking an Optimal® Wit by
@PortCityBrew @ Cav Manor — http://untp.beer/s/c138372155
Port City Brewing Co:
@The_Superhoo New keg? If so, great choice!
@PortCityBrew Actually messed up the location. Im at @h4ximus‘ house. Picked up this keg for him for his new kegerator!
@The_Superhoo @PortCityBrew they know what I like. Optimal wit is teh h4x
But it wasn’t over there, not quite, as the best gift of all is…
BEER!!!! Obviously, if they like beer, and you have an inkling as to what kind, a fridge full will always do the trick! Everyone at the party decided to bring along a different sixer, so that my beer fridge overflowed into our main one!