BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Kits are a big step when holiday shopping for a beer lover, but good ones will ensure home brew for many holidays to come.
Shoppers considering a splurge on home brewing equipment for their favorite beer fan this holiday season should know they have plenty of drinking buddies doing the same. The Boulder, Colo.-based American Homebrewers Association surveyed home brewing supply shops earlier this year and found that their gross revenue grew 16% last year, matching growth in 2009. Roughly 82% of those shops also saw an increase in beginner-kit sales.
Part of the appeal, especially for cash-strapped holiday shoppers, is that it doesn't take a whole lot of cash to get your gift recipient brewing. All-in-one novice brewer sets can be had for $40 or less, but even a professional-grade beginners kit that can follow a brewer from his or her first batch to the 150th runs between $80 and $110.If shoppers want to cut costs, there's a good chance that some of the key home brewing supplies are already in a friend or loved one's kitchen. The five-gallon pot he or she uses to boil pasta will work just fine for boiling beer. Their empty Christmas Eve beer bottles? Keep those around for the first case. Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association, recommends starting with a plastic bucket fermenter, an air lock and stopper, thermometer, racking cane for siphoning, tubing, bottling bucket, bottle filler, bottle capper, sanitizer, bottles and a bottle cleaning brush. While most of those can be found in simple starter kits, some of the seemingly extraneous items that accompany them will come in handy later. "They don't really need a hydrometer, though pretty much every kit on the market will include one," Glass says of the alcohol-content measuring device. "However, once someone gets a brew or two under their belt, they will likely want to have a hydrometer, so it's worth buying a kit that includes one." Matt Simpson, owner of The Beer Sommelier and TheBeerExpert.com, recommends that gift givers giving a beginner's kit to a serious brewer should also consider investing in a turkey fryer. The combination burner and five-to-seven-gallon pot requires some space to use, but beats making a mess in the kitchen or making the whole house smell like hops and malt. He does note, however, that it's not a must-have and can stay on the shelf with advanced gadgets such as refractometers, pH strips or a fancy framework setup with multiple pots and pumps. Aside from a long spoon for stirring, Simpson says the only other extras that should come with a home brew gift set are a meet-and-greet with the home brew store owner who sold it and perhaps a brewing session with people who've done it before. "Make friends with your local home brew shop keep and pick his brain about everything -- recipes, ingredients, the brewing process, etc., and try to find a local home brewer to shadow and learn as much as possible," Simpson says. "Brewing is always easier to understand when you can see it done firsthand and even pitch in." A little light reading doesn't hurt either. The American Homebrewers Association offers its Zymurgy: An Introduction To Homebrewing as a free, online guide that takes new brewers through the process a step at a time. Simpson, meanwhile, recommends John Palmer's free online book How To Brew as a blueprint for making one's own lager and IPA. Throwing in a $25 to $40 "kit" of malt extract, hops, grain and yeast for a brewer's favorite beer wouldn't be such a bad idea, either. Tess Szamatulski, who owns the Maltose Express brewing supply shop in Monroe, Conn., with her husband Mark and contributed to beginners' light beer reading with the recipe books Beer Captured and Clone Brews, has produced more than 400 such kits for brewers trying to clone everything from a Sierra Nevada IPA or Guinness (DEO) to the long-discontinued Pete's Wicked Ale or extremely rare Brouwerij Wesvleteren 12. Not only do the kits make it easy for novice brewers to make a batch of something they'll like, but the cost of producing it is roughly one-third of what it would cost to buy a case and an even steeper discount for some of the pricier Belgian offerings. "It couldn't be easier," Szamatulski says. "And like I always tell potential brewers, 'If you can boil water you can make beer!'" With the quickest route from Point "A" to Point "Beer" in mind, we poured through the home brewing market and found the five best starter kits for the burgeoning home brewer this holiday season: