On Tap: Gifts for Beer Geeks

After the birth of my son, a coworker walked sheepishly toward me with a six-pack in tow.

The beer was a gift of congratulations, a stand-in for the old cigar. He exhaled as he placed it on my desk.

“It’s like buying a car for my mechanic,” he said.

Of course I appreciated the gesture, but I took his point. Buying gifts for beer geeks can be intimidating. There can be an odd sense of self-consciousness that FOBS (Friends of Beer Snobs) feel about giving beer. Their credentialed friend makes lofty pronouncements about drinking some wild-fermented Belgian beer aged for three years in Cognac barrels, of which only five bottles were released. It’s like they’ve tasted everything you could imagine. It will be impossible to impress or surprise them with your gift.

There is a way, however. Don’t buy them beer.

There are lots of ways to appeal to their passion without simply buying a sixer and slapping a bow on it. Nor should you go for the “Beer of the Month” club, which I’ve found to be overpriced and underwhelming. There are all sorts of items, in all price ranges, that would make any beer-swirling, sniffing, sipping connoisseur you know happy.

Tasting Tools — No, I’m not talking about the “beer helmet” or any of the juvenile stuff sold at a shopping mall novelty shop. Real beer drinkers want to taste beer, not chug it. So help them with a set of glassware.

I’ve been amazed at how many craft beer fans lack some of the basic glasses in their cupboards. A decent glassware set might include a pilsner glass, mug, snifter, weizen glass and “stange,” or a slender cylindrical glass used for summer-type beers such as kolsch. Ceramic steins are fun, too, but they somehow always end up on a desk holding pens rather than beer.

Tasting kits are another neat way to learn about beer. There are a lot of products that market themselves as “tasting kits,” but include only some evaluation forms and a small booklet as a guide. A better option, I think, is one that has not only a guide, but also hop samples to help you smell and identify different varieties in the beer as you taste it, as well as a chart to judge color. These sell for around $40 (beer not included).

Homebrewing — If your loved one is interested in homebrewing, then this will set you up for holidays and birthdays until the day they stop. There are so many gadgets that you can buy for homebrewers. If you have someone who is thinking about getting into homebrewing, now is the perfect time to push them over the edge.

Starter kits can be assembled yourself or purchased pre-assembled. Plan to spend at least $50-$60 for the basic equipment. The guys over at Lebanon Health Food Store, South Royalton Market or Woodstock Hops and Barley can help you out. If you go down this route, however, it might not be a bad idea to include some kind of introduction book to homebrewing as well.

Books — Last year, craft beer fans everywhere had the newly released The Oxford Companion to Beer on their wish lists. Edited by Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, this book provides just about everything you’d want to know, A to Z, about beer. For foodies, Oliver has also written The Brewmaster’s Table, an indispensable guide for anyone who is interested in pairing beer with food. It not only includes recommendations, but offers historical context for beer, flavor profiles and explains why beer is such a great accompaniment to a meal. Also, anything by the late beer writer Michael Jackson is a must.

If the person you’re buying for happens to be a homebrewer, the options become infinitely greater. Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing is an accessible introduction to the hobby. For more advanced homebrewers, one of my favorite books is Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels. It is chock full of historical notes about beer styles, as well as how they evolved and provides suggestions for achieving appropriate flavor profiles. Greg Noonan’s New Brewing Lager Beer is also excellent, if much more technical. Noonan, who founded Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington and The Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon, died in 2009 but continues to be revered among brewers everywhere, particularly in New England. His influence on this region’s brewers, and beyond, is profound.

Beer Trips — Not every gift has to be “a thing.” Sometimes, you can give an experience. Some small breweries, including the Norwich Inn, offer “brew weekends” where guests can come and not only drink beer with the brewer, but also help make the beer. The Norwich Inn is partnering with King Arthur Flour in late January to offer a “Bread & Brew Weekend,” which includes two nights lodging, a beer and cheese pairing, bread baking class and brewer’s banquet.

These events are pretty relaxed — no need to feel obliged to stay all day in the brew house on Saturday, when Norwich Inn brewer Jeremy Hebert is showing people how the magic happens. It’s just intended to be fun, he said.

“If you’re a die-hard and want to see what goes on from the start of the first push of the button, you can spend the entire day in the brew house with me. Or, you can just pop in and see what’s going on,” he said.

This full package is pricey — $384 for single occupancy, or $499 for couples. But locals who don’t need lodging can buy tickets to specific events for much less, such as the Friday night cheese pairing ($19 for four beers, four cheeses) or Saturday banquet ($59 per person.)

If you’re not into organized weekends like this, think about taking your friend on a personally designed beer tour. Vermont and New Hampshire have so many great small breweries to visit and sample beers. And the states are small enough so that you could hit a good number of breweries in a day.

There are ready-made brewery maps that you can download for free online for both Vermont and New Hampshire, though you may want to do a little additional research, as the maps could be slightly out of date. Vermont’s can be found on the Vermont Brewers Association website (http://brewersvt.com/tours) and New Hampshire’s is on http://visitnh.gov. Go to the “tasty itineraries” tab at the lower right of the page.

Finally, if you’re broke and cost is a concern, just get a decent bottle opener. Honestly, of all the gifts I’ve received, that $2 hunk of metal at the end of my key ring is probably what I use the most.

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.