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.