5 Best Beer Gifts to Give Craft Beer Lovers for Christmas in 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (MainStreet) – When you're putting together a holiday shopping list for a beer lover beer, it starts with beer and ends with just about anything else.

We've already provided some suggestions for holiday beer presents this year. We've espoused the virtues of the varied and relatively inexpensive holiday variety 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've traveled across the country and waited in line for a pack of The Alchemist's Heady Topper, a pint (or growler) of Russian River Brewing's Pliny The Younger, or a bottle of Cigar City's Hunaphu's Imperial Stout, your beer presents aren't going to amount to much other than a nice little drinking session. Some of the more potent picks may linger in the cellar for a year or so, but beer's seasonal cheer is fleeting.

Still, there are a lot of folks out there putting beer on their wish lists. 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 $105 this year, judging by figures from the National Retail Association. For brewers at one of their lowest points in the season, it's a holiday miracle.

But there are better ways to enjoy that beer and items that will help in that endeavor. The following are just five options still available late in the holiday season:

uKeg

The big knock on the half-gallon growler jugs that have become a more common sight around taprooms in the U.S. is that they just aren't very good at keeping beer fresh or carbonated.

Once you open a freshly sealed standard glass growler, you have about two days until you're essentially drinking flattened beer tea. Rubber gaskets, insulated flasks with locking caps and other takes on the growler formula have managed to extend growler beer's life a bit, but it's still a tough serving size to consume if there are any fewer than two of you working on it.

That is what made Portland-based GrowlerWerks' uKeg such a stroke of genius. An insulated growler with a regulator cap, the uKeg distances itself from the rest of the growler market with a CO2 cartridge within the cap itself and a keg-style tap handle for easy pouring. A sight glass lets you know just how much beer you have left, while a gauge just below tells you how much pressure your pint is getting.

It isn't expected to release to the public until spring, but hasn't stopped a whole lot of folks for placing dibs on one. When the uKeg first appeared as a project on Kickstarter, its creators were seeking $99 for a 64-ounce growler and $500,000 in total startup funding. They ended up with nearly $1.6 million and sold out of their first run so quickly that the second — available now for $120, or $140 in a copper-clad edition — won't be available until July.

When it made the rounds at the Portland Holiday Ale Festival earlier this month, the only question from most observers related to how they could get their hands on one. Ordering one now is the equivalent of a Christmas IOU, but this should be well worth the seven-month wait when that Fourth of July picnic saison is still cold and foamy.

The Randall

If you're the kind of beer drinker who's willing to blow $120 on a more technologically refined version of a jug that typically sells for $3 to $5, you're going to be willing to upgrade just about every piece of beer-dispensing equipment in the same fashion.

Sam Calagione and his team at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery aren't above making seemingly minor tweaks that have a profound impact on beer. 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 making those little, pedantic changes just for the sake of producing a better beer. 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 all of the 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.

We wanted to feature it last year, but it flat out wasn't available. This year it is — for nearly $300. Hear us out: The Randall 3.0 — the third incarnation of the tap system that appeared in 2010 and got its first overhaul in 2012 — uses its first chamber to infuse beer with with hops, spices and many other ingredients that a drinker may want the added flavor of, but may not necessarily want brewed into an already powerful beer. The second chamber is a de-foaming chamber that catches foam generated during the infusion process and allows you to pour a less foamy pint. That chamber also has an outer tube for holding ice and keeping beer cold and carbonated between pours.

Meanwhile, its adjustable tap balances out the pressure and further minimizes foaming, especially in wheat beers. At roughly $300, it's fairly cost-prohibitive and usually is reserved for breweries and taprooms that want to experiment. A dedicated beer drinker will get more than his or her share of use out of it, though, while a home brewer may use it to make and dispense beer that just won't allow for further hopping or flavoring in the process itself.

But if you're less than positive your flaky beer friends have $300 worth of creativity in them, that's where the Randall Jr. comes in. For $20, a beer fan gets the same effect by taking Randall Jr.'s 16-ounce container, loading it up 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's a one-pint-at-a-time process, but it's a far cheaper way to get the same effect.

One-gallon hard cider kit

Brewing beer isn't easy, but brewing a hard cider is fraught with all sorts of peril. From the sheer amount of produce involved to a final product that loves nothing more than to go into a secondary fermentation after it's been bottled and turn a six-pack into the equivalent of a sack of hand grenades, it isn't a lateral move from beer brewing in the slightest.

Fortunately, the folks at Brooklyn Brew Shop are here to help. The folks who helped make apartment brewing a fairly simple process with the one-gallon brew kits once sold solely at the Brooklyn Flea applied the same concept to cider. They've billed it as “even easier than making beer” and, in this case, they're onto something. Their recipe involves picking up a gallon of regular apple cider, throwing in some yeast and letting it ferment. Granted, purists can still do this by chopping up a bunch of apples, juicing them in a blender or juicer and fermenting it, but the larger batches that make all that labor worthwhile can provide a tough learning curve for a brewer who's new to the game.

Brooklyn Brew Shop at least gets brewers started with a gallon glass fermenter, airlock, tubing, tubing clamp, three packets of sanitizer, three packets of hard cider yeast and a screw-cap stopper. It gets a little trickier when you actually try to bottle some of it, but when you're only producing a gallon at a time, it's far easier to have friends over or take your cider out to be enjoyed immediately. If you really want to make cider, but aren't quite ready to follow the instructions from author Anna Proulx's cidermaking bible Cider, this is the easiest baby step between Points A and B.

Growler On Board

Mention to the wrong persons that you're driving a half-gallon jug of beer home and you'll draw a gasp and some breathless concern about a state's open container laws.

It's a bit of an overreaction, but it's worth addressing. In many states, a growler strapped into the front passenger's seat still qualifies as an open container even if the cap hasn't been unscrewed since the bottle was filled. In other jurisdictions, even a growler buckled up in the back seat out of the driver's reach is considered an open container. Your safest bet is the trunk, but unless you have some ballast for that bottle, get ready for a shaken or spilled 64 ounces of beer by the end of your ride.

The good folks at Growler On Board have devised the closest thing to a solution to that problem we've seen by creating a sturdy foam base that not only accommodates three growlers, but keeps them stable and cool for the duration of the ride. The Growler On Board has a slot for an over-the-shoulder belt built into it, but it's broad and sturdy enough that a belt shouldn't be necessary. Put it on the black floor, put it in the trunk: It'll stay put and keep your growlers safe and sound.

Oh, and it also has spout-sized holes in the bottom so it can double as a growler drying rack — a fairly handy feature when drying out a vessel that's extremely top-heavy when standing on its head to drip dry. It looks completely superflous, but Growler On Board (despite its dated, nearly 30-year-old reference) is one of the most useful beer-related tchotchkes you can place under the tree.

Beer of the Month Club

Live in the Northeast, but really want to try a beer from Colorado-based New Belgium? Live in the Northwest but have heard great things about Atlanta-based Sweetwater? Maybe you just want to try Cigar City, Mikkeller, Lost Abbey, Fantome or The Bruery without trekking across country?

Well it's illegal to ship alcohol in many parts of the nation, but it is not illegal to ship, say, well-protected collectible beer bottles. If they happen to have beer in them, all the better.

The Beer of the Month Club has been shipping craft brewers' beers across the country for 20 years and has a tasting panel including brewmasters from throughout the U.S. You can send out a 12-pack of U.S. craft beers for $25 a month ($40 with shipping), mix 12 craft beers and imports for $31 ($46) or get a half case of international beers for $34 ($49).

Easily the most intriguing of all Beer of the Month Offerings are the Rare Beer Club selections once curated by the late beer author and expert Michael Jackson. For $35 a month ($49 with shipping), member get two 750-milliliter corked bottles of selections such as Mikkeler's sweet, malty Santa's Little Helper and Grand Teton's rum-barrel-aged Vintage 2014. You can bump that up to two of each for $53 a month ($69 with shipping) or three of each for $70 ($89 with shipping).

Remember when we said that the best present a beer lover could get is beer? Well beers that person can't usually find make some of the best gifts of all.

— By Jason Notte for MainStreet 

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