Pairing beer with the winter holidays started way before all those pumpkin ales began showing up every August. The past few centuries in Britain featured “winter warmers”; before that, Viking law decreed that households must brew for Yule; before that, Romans brewed for the pagan festival Saturnalia. If there’s an ale enthusiast in your life, you can merge this tradition with that of gift giving: make a gift of home brewing!
A generation ago, home brewers were (illegally) mucking around in dusty basements, sending away for equipment via mail-order catalogs and clustering in scrappy home-brew clubs. Today knowledge is more widely available, and sleek online catalogs and ready-to-go kits make brewing less daunting for the first-timer. Here’s what to consider in giving the greatest gift of all.
First, consider size. A five-gallon kit is the standard home-brew setup, but it’s not the only option. Has your recipient talked about home brewing before? If so, is she someone who tends to delve deeply into a hobby (as opposed to being more of a dabbler)? If the answer to both questions is yes, a conventional five-gallon kit is probably what she’s envisioning.
But if your giftee hasn’t talked about home brewing before—or if he has, but you fear the home-brewing kit will eventually be shelved alongside his decoupage set, leatherworking tools, canning equipment and kombucha setup—consider a one-gallon kit. As Emma Christensen at the Kitchn successfully argues, a one-gallon setup isn’t home brew lite. It’s a good option for people who home brew solo (handling five gallons of wort is cumbersome), and because you’ve got just one gallon, not five, of water and wort to heat and chill, the whole process goes more quickly and makes for easier cleanup. And it’s an easily upgradable part of a larger kit: If he falls in love with home brewing enough to invest in a five-gallon setup on his own, he’ll eventually want to experiment and will appreciate having the one-gallon kit for brewing test batches of the wild stuff before scaling up. You know what’s worse than one gallon of habañero-cardamom milk stout? Five gallons of habañero-cardamom milk stout.
Even a good kit isn’t 100 percent complete. Home brewers are expected to supply some of their own equipment, but a good kit will minimize what you need to bring on your own. The first section of this list at the Kitchn’s Beer School includes items that don’t usually come with kits: a stockpot, long spoon, mesh strainer or colander, kitchen scale, thermometer and timer. To that, I’d add a bucket or other vessel for sanitizing equipment; even plastic will do—you don’t need a special one. Most kits send only the amount of ingredients you need for the first batch, so your giftee won’t require a scale right off the bat, and most of us have built-in timers on our phone. But she’ll need everything else, so if the kit doesn’t include these items (most won’t), make sure she has them or consider supplementing the kit. This is another sell on the one-gallon size: Many five-gallon kits leave out the brew kettle, an essential piece of equipment. Finding a five-gallon vessel to brew in can be a hassle, but all you need for a one-gallon kettle is a roomy stockpot.
Make sure you get the right thing. Online outlets tend to offer a decent array of kits, but if you’re not paying attention it’s easy to get a recipe kit (suitable for people who are already brewing and just want all the ingredients neatly packaged), not a true beginner’s kit, which includes equipment. Search for some variation on beer-making kit, the term used by two solid purveyors, Northern Brewer and Brooklyn Brew Shop. Avoid beer recipe kit and the like.
Also know that getting “the right thing” for your potential zymurgist may mean not getting a kit at all. The Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian is the classic guide to the craft, and it’s entertaining enough to be a good read even if your giftee is only halfheartedly considering the practice. Good kits contain easy-to-follow instructions, so a separate guide isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s helpful for new brewers to know why they’re doing what they’re doing instead of just following instructions by rote.
Brewing is a hobby that lends itself to endless upgrading, so if your giftee cottons onto zymurgy, you’ve got a deep pool of future gifts to give her. Which works out nicely for you. What better way to thank a thoughtful friend than with a home-brewed six-pack?