5 Best Beer Gifts for Christmas 2013

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The best gift a beer lover can get on Christmas is beer. It just may not stick around to see another Christmas.

We've gone into great depth about the merits of holiday beer giving already this year. We've espoused the virtues of the varied and relatively inexpensive holiday 12-pack and we've offered enough holiday beer picks over the past three years to put together the best holiday beer case any recipient could ask for.

The only problem is that unless you traveled the country this year picking up high-alcohol Russian Imperial Stouts such as Portsmouth Brewing's Kate The Great, Three Floyds' Dark Lord and Deschutes Brewing's The Abyss, those beers won't be in your friend or loved one's possession for very long. While we're big fans of cellaring some of the more high-octane varieties and seeing how they develop, there's something to be said for enjoying beers in the moment as the brewer often intends.

It's not that we're opposed to the instant gratification that comes with that approach. Why shouldn't a beer lover get to spend the holiday and the long winter that follows enjoying the beer he or she holds dear? Besides, U.S. shoppers are already spending 15% to 25% more on seasonal beers in recent years, according to Symphony IRI, and have increased holiday food and drink spending from $86 in 2008 to $110 this year, judging by figures from the National Retail Association. Why not help out brewers at what's typically one of their lowest points in the season?

Because there are beer gifts out there that will not only be around for multiple seasons, but can help beer lovers enjoy their brews all the more -- conceivably resulting in more beer spending all around. While we typically reserve gift lists for the homebrewers out there who've turned beer appreciation into a hobby or side business, this year we have recommendations for folks who may never make a pint of their own. Here are just five options available late in the holiday season:

Beer 101

Don't let your beer snob friends fool you: Unless you're born into a brewing family, it takes a while to amass any amount of beer and brewing knowledge. If you spent your formative beer-drinking years getting your hands on the cheapest 30-packs in the supermarket pile, a broader beer education can get a bit daunting.

If you know someone who likes the different beers you've been passing them, but is still overwhelmed when they get out of familiar taproom and 12-pack territory, it might be worth sending them to Beer 101. For $15, you can enroll a friend or relative in a one-hour online beer course offered by the Brewers Association craft beer industry group that touches on the basics -- what's typically in a beer, what's the Standard Reference Method (and what does it mean for your beer's color) and how many International Bitterness Units are too many?

You'll get audio lessons from brewers including Jim Koch of Boston Beer  (SAM)


Wooden beer carrier

What is beermaking if not a science of efficiency and reclaimed materials? A good brewer can make a strain of yeast last for years and batches at a time, sterilize any bottle into a refillable vessel and make that regrettable turkey fryer purchase into an essential part of his or her brewhouse.

That thrift and value should apply to their accessories as well. We've seen several incarnations of wooden beer bottle carriers and notice that most of them fall well off the mark. When they were introduced, they were made out of old, recycled milk and beer boxes or packing crates. Eventually, opportunists came in with shoddy materials and worse craftsmanship to make similar products out of first-use lumber to make cheaper, more disposable versions of the same product to market almost exclusively to men as "groomsmen gifts."

That's typically how a good, creative product dies, but the folks at Frick and Frack Scraps in Georgia aren't letting the idea go quietly and are determined to do this the right way. The owner still uses reclaimed industrial wire and wood to fashion a carrier built to fit four 22-ounce "bomber" bottles of beer or cider. The apple-tree limb handle suggest the creator prefers it be used to transport the latter, but it'll fit big beers just fine as well. At $32, not only is it less expensive than its cheap, bro-tastic competition, but it'll hold 88 ounces compared with the standard six-pack's relatively lightweight 72.

The Randall Jr. 

Sam Calagione and his team at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery didn't make names for themselves by leaving beer alone and sticking to standard recipes.

They've won awards, earned their short-lived show Brew Masters and struck up a deal with chef and restaurateur Mario Bataly's Eataly franchise by pushing limits and toying with beer's potential. Out of that creativity came The Randall, a two-chambered tap add-on that allowed bars and brewers to infuse their beer with the flavor of the hops, fruits and spices in the one chamber while sucking excess foam into the other. Hop-heavy breweries such as Bale Breaker in Washington's hop-growing Yakima Valley have used the Randall to great effect with their own beers, but at $288 it's a bit cost-prohibitive for more recreational drinkers.

That's where Randall Jr. comes in. For $20, a beer fan gets the same effect by taking Randall Jr.'s 16-ounce container, loading it with hops, cinnamon sticks, citrus peel or anything else that sounds appetizing and allowing drinkers to pour their favorite beer over it. Once they've let their concoction steep a bit, drinkers can pour it through the Randall Jr.'s strainer into a pint glass and enjoy.

It seems like a whole lot of work for some flavor and aroma, but when you're a beer lover looking constantly for the next great flavor, sometimes you have to make it yourself.

Leather beer gear

When we arrived in Portland, Ore., we got the sense that its brewing community and its artisans got along just fine. From brewpubs built with reclaimed furniture and fixtures to growler jugs fashioned out of earthenware, there's a whole lot of overlap between the two groups.

There were few places this was more apparent than in the pages of now-defunct regional beer magazine Beer West, which at one point last year featured the wood, leather and wool creations of Portland's own Walnut Studiolo. While we've already featured one upcycled bottle carrier in this story, it was Walnut's strappy leather four-pack for 22-ounce bottles ($94) "Spartan Carton" six-pack ($89) that drew our attention to the studio in the first place.

We'll admit, those two offerings are on the pricier end of this list, but there are equally impressive gifts a bit further down the pricing scale. There's a six-pack cinch ($24) that attaches to the top tube of your bicycle's frame and keeps a six-pack low and out of the way while you ride, a set of strap-downs ($36) to keep your growler attached firmly to your bike's cargo rack or a can cage ($76) that puts a brew right within reach on your handlebars.

Granted, you really have to love either biking or hitting house parties with a mix from the bottle shop to have interest in any of the above. But we're going to take an educated guess that such folks form a nice little Venn diagram with craft beer brewers and the folks making accessories for their beers.

Brew cave

There's a reason Neiman Marcus puts out its Wish Book every year. It's the same reason Lifestyles Of The Rich and Famous and MTV's Cribs fared so well among viewers -- conspicuous spending is extremely entertaining.

U.S. Cooler's Brew Cave is the offspring sired by just that kind of drunken spending. Billed as "the largest kegerator on the residential market" and hovering around $6,500, this is just a giant, walk-in beer-store cooler with a tap attached. There is room for 30 cases of beer and six kegs, a lockable glass door, LED lighting, a CO2 regulator and tank for the tap. It's nearly 7 feet tall, 7.5 feet wide and 5 feet deep and requires a whole lot of expendable space just to fit into your home.

The good news for buyers is that they'll now have a fittingly impressive place to hold the 720 beers they'll have to drink within the next three or four months before it turns. The bad news is that despite laying out the cost of a small room renovation on a kegerator, you still have to assemble it yourself with an allen wrench like a common Ikea shopper.

-- 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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