5 Best Homebrewing Gifts for the Holidays

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Does someone on your holiday gift list want to brew beer at home, but seems way too into it for one of those plastic-jug-and-packets kits at the local discount shop? Don't worry, their newfound homebrewing habit won't bankrupt you.

Little more than a decade ago, home beer brewing was a niche that required a whole lot of research and an equal amount of money. The American Homebrewers Association had a little less than 8,500 members, down by nearly 10,000 from a decade before -- after the microbrew boom of the 1990s went bust. This year, the association added its 30,000th member, saw homebrew spending increase by almost 20% and saw four out of every brewery supply shops in the U.S. sell more beginners' kits than the year before.

That growth has made it a whole lot easier to get started. While starter brewing sets from Cooper's or Mr. Beer sell for $40 or less, a professional-grade beginners kit that will come in handy even when a brewer gets to be an old pro costs only between $80 and $110.

As wizened homebrewers can tell you, supplies don't have to be expensive, either. The five-gallon pot you use to boil pasta sauce or steam mussels will work just fine. That recycling bin full of holiday beer empties? Rookies may want to keep them around for the first case.

Gary Glass, director of the 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.

You don't have to knock yourself out sweating the basics, either. The association offers Zymurgy: An Introduction To Homebrewing as a free online guide to help new brewers tackle the process a step at a time. Meanwhile, free online books such as John Palmer's How To Brew offer additional insight for refining those first batches of porter and IPA.

We decided to do a little holiday shopping and came up with five recommendations for the folks on your list either looking to start their homebrew journey or who've just started their first few batches and wonder where to go from here:

Maltose Express starter kit

Just about every brewing supply shop will have a kit like this, but few are put together by the folks whose book you'll need to make your first attempt at a Lagunitas IPA or even a Heineken lager.

We've recommended this particular kit before and Tess and Mark Szamatulski, owners of the Maltose Express brewing supply shop in Monroe, Conn., are a big reason why. They put this $110 kit together themselves and packed it with a primary 7.8-gallon plastic fermenter with a drilled and grommeted lid, a secondary stage five-gallon glass carboy, airlock and stopper, racking cane, five feet of flexible tubing, bottle filler, capper, caps, sanitizer, hydrometer, floating thermometer, bottle brush and two books. The first volume is Byron Burch's how-to guide Brewing Quality Beers (which can be replaced with Charlie Papazian's Joy of Homebrewing) and the second is the Szamatulskis' taste-alike recipe book Clone Brews.

You're on your own for ingredients, through the Szamatulskis offer kits of ingredients for their cloned beer recipes. The kits of malt, hops, grains, yeast or malt extracts for beginners range from $36 for a clone of Lone Star lager to $98 for Dominion Millenium barleywine. The brewing kit and the kits of ingredients are pretty middle-of-the-road price-wise, but are still a tough investment if your brewer doesn't have a lot of time or spice. If that's the case, may we suggest:

Brooklyn Brew Shop brewing kits

Another one we've recommended before but, frankly, until someone comes up with a better solution for the apartment brewer, this is the best on the market.

The Brooklyn Brew Shop homebrew kit was put together by Erica Shea and Stephen Valand after Shea found a vintage fermenter in her dad's basement and began brewing. After a beer tour of Europe, the two deduced that all they needed to brew a decent beer in their small Brooklyn apartment was a one-gallon fermenter, an air lock, a screw-top stopper, thermometer, plastic tubing, a clamp, a racking cane, some sanitizer and a kit full of ingredients.

They demonstrated their brewing system at the Brooklyn Flea before selling equipment-and-ingredient kits to the public for $40 apiece. Though the little system still requires boiling your mash, sparge water and wort and finding bottles for the finished product, its creators guide users the whole way through with written and video instructions, a recipe book and a blog of formulas and pairings.

It's not only a sound, sturdy set, but it also includes holiday starter kits such as Coffee & Donut Stout, Chocolate Maple Porter and Chestnut Brown Ale. As the seasons progress, $15 seasonal refill packs offered throughout the year have featured varieties such as Everyday IPA, Rye PA and Jalapeno Saison.

KegWorks keg kits

Know what's awesome about bottling your own beer? Nothing.

You spend a whole lot of time sterilizing equipment and bottles, a whole lot of energy filling them all to the right levels, even more time capping them and then, if you're lucky, a few weeks later your beer won't come out a flat, lifeless version of its former self.

If the novice homebrewer on your list has already braved the fires of this minor hell, it might be time to get him or her a keg. The standard five-gallon homebrew keg is basically a movie theater or restaurant soda keg given a higher purpose. For between $50 and $60 (in KegWorks' case $60), you can give your brewers the ability to pour themselves a pint at a time while maintaining consistent carbonation and pressure. A CO2 kit for the fridge will run you $140 to $160, while a portable homebrew dispensing kit for tapping your keg on the go sells for $60.

Oh, and when the kegging experiments get a little overzealous, Buffalo, N.Y.-based KegWorks has a Draft Beer 911 section for just such emergencies.

Northern Brewer brew kettles

Yes, you can use your existing pots to brew your beer, but that can not only take its toll on the cookware but get really messy if your stockpot isn't quite the right size.

While you can find brewing pots and stock pots on Amazon ( AMZN) or even in a local homebrew supply store, it can get a bit dizzying if you don't know exactly what you're looking for. First off, a new homebrewer making five-gallon batches is going to learn quickly that a five gallon pot won't make much other than a mess. Secondly, a homebrewer just starting out can get by without the built-in theremometers, spigots and other items that tend to drive up the price of something like this.

For a new brewer, a 7.5-gallon kettle will do. It's small enough that it can be put to work on a stovetop without getting in the way and big enough to accommodate a new brewer once he or she moves on from starter kits to all-grain recipes and from the stove to a high-powered propane burner. Should your brewer's needs change down the road, Minnesota- and Wisconsin-based Northern Brewer can show something in a 10.5-gallon spigoted kettle or a $400-plus 10- to 55-gallon kettle with an "autosparger" that trickles water through your grain so you don't have to.

Portland Growler Co. growlers

Once your brewer's made a batch or two and starts meeting other brewers, it's going to be time to share.

For homebrewers or even craft beer lovers in general, that usually means growlers: 32- to 64-ounce resealable jugs for your beer-toting pleasure. Now there are schools of thought on growlers that are about as diverse as the craft beer community itself. One brand of drinker won't spend an extra dime beyond the $5 to $7 most breweries or bars charge for a glass-handled growler with a screwtop. Another disdains such barbarism and will part with about $35 for a jug with an ornamental metal handle, Grolsch-style porcelain flip-top and rubber gasket to keep beer as cold and fresh as possible.

The last group wants a growler that stands out, but feels bad shelling out more cash just for aesthetics. That's where the holiday season comes in handy and when earthenware growlers such as those sold by Portland Growler become a great gift option. Made by a group of Portland-based designers and ceramicists with locally sourced clay (no, this isn't a Portlandia tie-in), Portland growlers come in two sizes (32- and 64-ounce), four colors and three styles -- including one with a handle shaped like a bike sprocket.

Homebrewing gets awfully serious and expensive for a hobby that produces beer. At least the container carrying that beer can be as fun as the product itself.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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