The snow is flying outside, here in Maine and its feeling rather festive with my Thanksgiving mix playing songs I haven’t heard since 2002. The holidays are upon us. And while I feel as though they should be spent sharing a brewed beer, or brewing a batch with family and friends, odds are we’re going to search for something to gift to someone else – possibly a brewer. Hence, this post.
I recently got my latest issue of Zymurgy, and inside they had their holiday gift guide. I read through it and thought it was not adequate enough, so I thought I’d toss out my suggestions. Why do I feel qualified to give out advice? I’ve used a LOT of equipment over the eleven years I’ve been brewing. I’m a frugal person and try to buy things that are effective and useful, rather than flashy gear that does the same job for more money. I’ve done extract, BIAB, batch sparge, fly sparge on 5 gallon, 10 gallon, and 50 gallon systems in all seasons. I’m sure there are a million other opinions on what to get, but here are some things that will be useful and also pack a little excitement. I’ve broken this down into stuff to get a new brewer, and stuff to get any other brewer. A few easy sites to navigate and purchase from are RiteBrew, Northern Brewer, Adventures in Homebrewing, More Beer, and Amazon. I’ve tried to include a few links to every site so I don’t seem biased, and it allows the reader to check out some new providers.
I don’t get any money from any vendors, so shop around for these (or similar) items as you see fit.
For the “Newer Brewer”
For the newer brewer, skip the prepackaged kits and build one yourself. Start with the minimums someone needs to get into the hobby. Usually extract is the starting point, but I recommend going all-grain using the Brew in a Bag method. It allows excellent control over the brew and produces a fantastic product. Not all of these are cheap so team up with family members if you want. Here’s a DIY starter kit of sorts:
Things you’ll need for a 5 gallon brew setup:
- A mash tun/boil kettle: I recommend an 8 gallon stainless steel stockpot. Something like this will do the job. Or here is another similar one for half the price. The advantages of a thinner taller pot is it could be used on the stove, albeit if the brewer has permission from his significant other.
- A BIAB setup filter bag. You can get something as simple as a straining bag, or there are manufacturers who make pretty elaborate setups. I recommend starting simple.
- If you’re not allowing your brewer (or he isn’t allowed) to brew indoors, some kind of burner makes sense. For 5 gallons, something simple like this will do the trick.
- After making her beer, she’ll want to rack it into a fermenter. To rack, an autosiphon is a simple way to start.
- This siphon sends the beer into a fermenter. Due to all the stitches I’ve seen online, I’d recommend a Better Bottle 6 gallon plastic carboy. You can order them off any major supplier’s site. Why is this recommended over a bucket? a) buckets tend to be more permeable to oxygen, and b) she can watch her beer ferment without the temptation of lifting the lid.
- For packaging, she’ll also need an airlock, a bottle capper, a hydrometer, a thermometer (see below), and some bottle caps.
- Finally, some good reading. How to Brew by John Palmer is a classic and a book I highly recommend as it is easy to read and has great photos.
If you don’t feel like piecing it all together, some vendors offer a starter BIAB kit, this can also be a good way to go depending on the kit, however I prefer to piece together my own kit as often times you’re given equipment you don’t always need.
For the Established Brewer
There’s lots of great things that can make beer better or brewday easier. Here are a few great items and ideas.
Fermentation control is a quick way to get so-so beer great, and let’s face it, a chest freezer (generally ferm control means chilling down the ambient temperature) doesn’t scream happy holidays – especially when they can be found on craigslist much cheaper used. There are a few on the market, including the all new Black Box, as well as your standard Johnson Controls unit. I have the latter and have had a fine time with it, although I hear the Black Box is lately the hot new item with dual controls at a lower price point (if you can get your hands on one).
Like a hydrometer, a refractometer allows the brewer to determine how much alcohol a beer will have. This is a fun tool that makes reading these measurements quick and easy.
A pH meter is for anyone looking to start controlling their mash pH, especially if they have hard water. Don’t skimp on this purchase if you’re going to get one, go for a reliable meter. Here’s one I’ve found to work great.
There’s two thermometers I recommend, both made by the same company: ThermoWorks. In my mind, they have the best probes on the market, along with top notch customer service. The Thermapen responds in 3 seconds, and can be used in any part of the brewing process. The TW8060 is also a great product, is waterproof, and allows for hands free temperature monitoring. You can read my full review here. It is also great if your brewer friend smokes meat or uses a grill often. Both can be used in all parts of the kitchen and are fantastic. The Thermapen is one I highly recommend due to its versatility. (It’s on my list too!)
One can never have too many fermentation vessels. Trust me. Here, the sky is the limit for how much you want to spend. Honestly, I’d avoid all the hype and just get a glass carboy. If your brewer tends to drop things, try a plastic Better Bottle.
A grain mill can allow the brewer to store grains whole, allowing for less trips to the brew store and the ability to purchase in bulk. Many are on the market, however one that works great is the Barley Crusher. With either a 7 or 15lb hopper this crusher works well with an electric drill, is virtually dust free when used with a bucket, and simple to calibrate. A little more spendy, but a fantastic gift.
While not terribly exciting, this is an item we can all use in our brewery. It should be able to weigh to 0.1 oz and the best would be up to 20lbs. There are a million of these out there, choose one you enjoy having left around the house.
Here’s a few I recommend:
How to Brew, John Palmer – for all brewers
American Sour Beers, Michael Tonsmeire – for the brewer thinking about sour/wild beers
Wild Brews, Jeff Sparrow – a great read, again for traditional sour/wild beers
Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation by Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff – a great starter for looking at yeast wrangling
The first, and most versatile bang for buck, savings inducer is the Siphon Sprayer. This little guy is probably the cheapest sparger and aerator you can get for your money while still having solid performance.
The Wash Bottle
The Tattoo Wash Bottle. Seems odd, but it has been helpful for putting sanitizer easily in odd places. This little guy helps you get more sanitizer in hard to reach spots. Its quick, clean, and easy to use – but best of all, cheap.
A personalized idea: “Let’s Brew It!” – for a special brewer in your life.
My final thought works for any brewer, and that is to assemble a gift that gets you to brew together. Look up a recipe, even a clone recipe from a beer you both love, take it in to your local homebrew store, and buy the ingredients. Surprise him or her with all the ingredients (don’t forget the yeast!) to make a beer you both enjoy. Make a label that represents something for both of you, and have it be a brew you can only drink together. If you want to make it really romantic, brew a wild/sour beer that has to age for a year (how could I not mention a wild brew in a post??) You’ll be able to look back a year later and reminisce on what a fun time it was. Awww.
Whatever you choose, have fun with it. You don’t even have to buy anything. Personalized gift cards for “100 bottle labels removed”, “10 carboys cleaned”, or “Will make emergency run to the homebrew store when you forget something” can also be thoughtful without costing you money. Happy Holidays.
Edit: Oh, and anyone reading this, I’ve got this gem on my wish list 🙂