Homebrewer Christmas: For the Love of God, Not Another Pint Glass...

Beer Christmas.jpg

It's Cyber Monday, and you've undoubtedly already blown a substantial amount of your net worth on gifts for your friends and family, because you love them so much and...well, enough about that - let's get selfish here.  What are they getting for you?

Fellow brewers, this post isn't so much for you to read as much as it is something for you to share far and wide.  Because this December 25th (or whatever particular winter holiday date you celebrate), I want to help save us all from our perpetual and terrible fate: unwrapping that Guinness holiday gift set with logo pint glasses and bar towel and having to smile (as we die a little inside) and thank the person who gave it to us.

So brewer-adjacent people, I'm talking to you this week.  Follow these guidelines, and your beer geek friend/spouse/sibling/parent/child will thank you.  Ignore them, and St. Arnold of Metz will personally stop by your house this holiday season and shake his head in disappointment at you.

What I Don't Want, Didn't Ask For, and Can't Use

I acknowledge a certain flexibility in tastes and preferences, but I'm pretty comfortable with the idea that virtually no brewer will genuinely enjoy the following gifts...

The Pint Glass

And by this I mean in virtually ANY form.  I suppose that in theory I might appreciate a branded glass from an obscure brewery that evokes a pleasant memory of a great night, but we'd have to be talking one hell of a great night.  As in "Emily-Blunt-feeding-me-bacon-wrapped-dates-while-petting-my-dog-and-watching-the-Eagles-win-the-Super-Bowl-on-Oscar-Night-after-a-day-at-the-spa" great.  Otherwise, I can safely say that your average beer enthusiast has as much use for another pint glass as he/she does for herpes. 

I could go all "Greek celebration" and smash every pint glass I drink out of from now until Rapture, and I'd still probably never run out.

Roughly the same logic applies to beer t-shirts (especially if they say anything about Corona and a "whole new lattitude").

The "Guide to Breweries in [Place]" Book

This is a little uncomfortable because I have friends who have written these, but the reality is that in the modern beer world, they're simply not practical or helpful.  For one thing, that book was out of date about five minutes after it was printed: there are so many new breweries out there, and they're opening all the time, and others are folding up shop.  For another, while I appreciate the input of a dedicated beer geek in terms of evaluating the places in the book, it's hardly the only opinion I want.  Maybe I like modern, and he/she likes rustic.  Maybe the beer has gotten better since the author reviewed it.  Maybe they changed chefs.  Maybe they realized that Black IPA isn't a thing (column coming up on that one...) and decided to focus on locally-sourced beer ingredients.  Anyways, long story short, I have the internet and all that entails.  Buying me a local beer guide is the beer equivalent of buying me a Playboy subscription.

Cutesy Beer Paraphernalia you found at a chain store

I get it - you're walking through Bed Bath & Beyond and see a bottle opener/"I'm here for beer t-shirt" combo pack, and think, "Oh, Tammy likes craft beer and brews - she'll love this!"  No, she won't.  Tammy will think you got taken, and that a fool and his/her money were parted.  If Tammy is so into her hobby (beer) that you're aware of it, then I'm about 99% sure that what she wants isn't to be found on an end cap at Target.  Resist the urge to buy her that Multicolor Beer Goggle Six Pack (awww, they're GOGGLES for BEER BOTTLES!) - she'll thank you (and she doesn't drink beer out of the bottle anyway).

Beer Ingredient Kits

If you're not standing in a homebrew shop surrounded by surly dudes with facial hair, don't buy beer ingredients for me.  I know that Williams-Sonoma has kits that look (and, possibly, are) pretty sophisticated, but there's just as good a chance that you're buying a box of mediocre and stale ingredients that wouldn't make good beer if you doughed in with Westvleteren 12.  You wouldn't buy cigars for someone in that setting, would you?  Or a fancy box of no-cook and ready-to-eat bacon?  The same kind of environmental care is required for beer ingredients, and the shipping department probably isn't all that fastidious when it comes to storing and handling them.

OK Alehole, then what do I buy?

I'm glad you asked.  There are a great many things you can get for the beer geek in your life that will bring a genuine smile to their tipsy face (and why do people look at me funny when I pop open an Oktoberfest at 10AM?  You're drinking mimosas, you judgmental snobs...).  

Atypical glassware

I don't need another pint or pub mug.  But you know what I can sometimes use?  A nice tulip or thistle glass.  Perhaps even (kitschy though it might be) a bierstiefel or "boot" (I already have one though, so not for me).  But you just said not to buy glassware!  No, I didn't.  I said not to buy something every beer person already has dozens of.  But a great gift idea is to find a well-reviewed beer from a particular regional style and then gift a sixer of that and a traditional glass that pairs with it!  That way I can now show off to my beer geek friends that I'm drinking Gaffel Kolsch out of a hand-blown German stangen.  Score.

Beer and Brewing Books

There's a lot of information out there, and beer geeks tend to like learning it!  But the beer internet is a bit soured as a source for sour beer (or any beer) knowledge, so it's nice to get a well-researched and reviewed tome from an expert in the field.  Consider picking up a new title from a place like Brewers Publications, which has a great selection of recipe, style, process, and ingredient books!  Or even a classic like De Clerck's two-volume "Textbook of Brewing". 

Beer

Get me beer.  It doesn't even really matter what kind.  If it happens to be something interesting or rare (this list is a good place to start, though of course it isn't comprehensive or exhaustive), then fine.  Something new and local is great, too, and gives me a chance to check out another local brewery.  But even something run-of-the-mill is still a nice gift - my father-in-law once bought me a six-pack of Boston Lager, and I was more than happy to receive it! 

Quality Brewing Equipment

No joke, you know what's basically the only thing on my Christmas list this year?  A Thermapen.  Because it's the perfect kind of gift: it's a very high-quality item (thermometer, for those who don't know) that costs more than I would part with easily, and I can't justify the expense when I already have a decent thermometer.  But it'd make a GREAT gift!  Talk to the crew at the local homebrew shop about fun and useful toys, and you may find a wonderful gift.

A Cool Brewing Ingredient

Don't know much about beer, but want to encourage your beer-obsessed gift recipient?  Pick her/him up a rare and valuable honey, obscure spice, or exotic fruit and challenge that brewer to make something that lives up to your ingredient.  They'll love the challenge, and you've got something to talk about when the beer is done - and if you're lucky it might even end up named after you.

Homebrew Supply Gift Cards

I hate to say it, because gift cards are kind of a dodge, but most brewers can really use them.  Either they're saving up for an expensive piece of equipment, or they could use a fresh sack of Maris Otter, or it's hop rhizome season - but in any case, an extra bump will almost certainly be appreciated.  $50 buys a full batch of ingredients in most cases, and makes a nice dent in even an expensive capital brewery purchase.  

A Word in Closing

In all sincerity, homebrewers are often very passionate about their hobby, which makes us a tremendous pain in the ass to shop for.  I get that.  And if you do happen to give me a Newcastle Brown Ale t-shirt for Christmas, I'm honestly going to smile and thank you and be touched that you remembered that I'm into beer.

But I'll also die a little inside before nipping off to the bathroom for a hit off of my Sierra Nevada Celebration.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Your Beer Sucks (and Other Things Your Friends Won't/Can't Tell You)

Your beer sucks

I’m sorry – but it does.  It’s horrible.  It’s so oxidized I feel like I’m swallowing liquid cardboard.  It’s hotter than Satan’s urine.  It bears NO resemblance to whatever you told me it was (Pilsner?  Really?  Why is it jet black then?).  There’s more bacteria than yeast in it, and it smells like wet goat ass.  When I sniffed it, I was reminded of huffing glue as a teenager (well, not really because I didn’t do that, but you get the idea).  I'm horrified thinking of what this is going to do to my urethra later.

This is the kind of feedback you won’t normally get, even if your beer deserves it.  Outside of a few borderline-cruel and overly-honest people, most of us have a native reluctance to completely blow up your beer in front of your very eyes.  But here’s the thing: a lot of brewers (and I’m not excluding myself) need that from time to time if we’re going to get better and not leave people with the impression that homebrew sucks.[1]

Let’s start with where you don’t get good feedback.

Your non-craft-beer-drinking friends

That friend of yours that just won’t let go of his/her Rolling Rock doesn’t have much to offer to you in terms of feedback.  One of two things usually happens.  One – you get a nondescript, “that’s really good, thanks!” response that carries no real weight because you might just be getting a polite, “leave me alone” answer.  Two – you get negative feedback, but you immediately dismiss it because he/she isn’t a craft beer person.  This is beer snobbery/alehole-ishness, but it’s also kind of a fair response.  In any case, you’re not getting what you need.

Your craft-beer-drinking friends

I know – this one makes a little less sense, but I’m standing by it anyway.  The craft beer enthusiasts in your circle of friends may have a little more breadth and depth in terms of their palates and their experience, but they still don’t necessarily want to tell you that your beer sucks.  You might hear this: “That’s not really my style of beer.”  Or, “that’s really good, but it’s a little too bitter for me.”  These are the beer evaluation equivalents of “It’s not you, it’s me,” and they’re equally as meaningless as that trite phrase is to someone who just got dumped.  And, as above, if they tell you your beer is good, they might just be trying to spare your feelings (and don’t ignore the possibility that they might not know what they’re talking about even if they are sincere).

Strangers

You may, at some point, have the opportunity to pour your beer for the beer festival crowd.  Here, at least, are people that don’t know you and can give you a truly unvarnished opinion!  Well, maybe, but keep in mind these people have tasted 32 beers before yours, including a Triple IPA, a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout with cinnamon basil, thirteen Goses and nine pumpkin spice beers.  Your Munich Dunkel might as well be dyed water.  Palate fatigue aside, they’re not likely to straighten you out, because it’s easier to move on to the next table after giving you a cursory, “that’s interesting…”  And, most patronizingly of all, they may think that you deserve some kind of handicap because you’re not a professional brewer (unfair though that idea might be).

So who’s left?  There actually are some places where you can count on solid feedback. 

Homebrew Clubs

If you brew beer and don’t belong to a homebrew club, find one near you NOW.  Do not pass go, do not collect $200: go to the AHA’s searchable listing of clubs and contact a club near you.  Homebrew clubs almost always allow for members to bring in beer for feedback, and the best of them provide open and detailed discussion of your beer, whether it’s enjoyable, whether it fits what you were aiming for, how to make it better, and how it compares to others they’ve had.  Some clubs, regrettably, are clique-ish and snobby, but they’re in the minority (though you frequently find this in large clubs, where smaller sub-groups tend to form).  Look for a club that has structured tasting, even if that means you might not get to bring a beer to every meeting.

Homebrew Competitions

Don’t enter competitions to win (though it’s fun, and the prizes are a good way to subsidize your brewing habit!) – enter because you’ll get trained, subjective feedback from two or three beer judges that had no idea who brewed what was on the table.  You’ll also get feedback on how to fix any perceived faults.  Get into the habit: I enter EVERY beer I brew into at least three (and usually four) competitions to get a good variety of opinions - you can find upcoming competitions here.  It has two added benefits.  First, it guards against the reality that some judges – just like some beers – suck and don't know what they're doing, but if you enter multiple times you’ll find a consensus emerging as to whether or not you brewed a good beer.  And second, it lets you see how your beers change over time; some will get better after a short rest, others will peak early and fade steadily, while still others may be rock steady until six months out and then drop off a cliff.  Knowledge is power, and once you get into the routine of entering, you’ll have a more-complete sense of your beers’ quality and limitations.

Competitions aren’t vanity exercises, and I wouldn’t recommend you “brew to win,” but there’s no denying that it also makes brewing a little more interesting, in addition to connecting you with other homebrewers!

Yourself

Learn what “good” beer is, and hold yourself to a high standard.  So what’s good beer?  Well, some say, “I like it, and that’s what makes it good.”  I hate that view.  You may prefer it, but that doesn’t make it good, which is a different thing altogether.  Good suggests that not only do I like it, other people will as well, and while someone might share your love of beers-that-taste-like-permanent-markers, it’s unlikely.  My sister-in-law likes her tuna cooked so thoroughly it resembles cat food – and no chef in the world would say that her preparation results in “good” tuna.

How do you become a better critic of your own beer?  Brewing clone beers is a place you might start – try making a perfect match for a beer that’s already well-reviewed.  If you hit it, you’ve got your recipe for the future and you know your process is solid!  If you don’t, you can start dialing things in.  Another great way is by studying for and taking the Beer Judge Certification Program exams and becoming a certified beer judge.  The preparation itself (especially when you take a formal course) is the best education a homebrewer can get, and judging beer in competitions exposes you to a wide range of beers, interpretations, and faults/virtues that make you sensitive to the quality of your own beer.

In Closing

The short version?  Get your beer out there, and get it to people who have an incentive to give you the truth, and a high-quality version of it.  You can sit in your bedroom, in the dark, under the covers, and drink your beer free from all judgment and input, but you’re probably going to be robbing yourself of the chance to make something better that you’ll enjoy even more. 

“But I like it…isn’t that enough?”

Frankly, no.  Not if you’re ever offering it to anyone else.  What you do as a brewer affects me as a brewer, and I want people to think of homebrewed beer as being better than the stuff they buy at their corner bar.  I want them excited about the hobby.  I want them to ask you how to make it themselves.  And they’ll never do that as long as you’re peddling Wet Goat Ass Belgian Dubbel.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

[1] Pro brewers take note – you need to hear this too.  Just because it’s on Untappd it doesn’t mean the review isn’t accurate – maybe they’re right and an asshole.


The "Beer Talk" Terrorist: How Not to be an Alehole When Discussing Beer

GUY WALKS INTO A BAR...

...and accidentally exposes himself to what appears to be a doctoral-level dissertation on the finer points of fermentation and how "100% Brett-fermented beers aren't actually sour, you know?" even though he didn't bring up Brett beer.  He doesn't know what Brett is.  He doesn't even know anyone named Brett.  All he did was ask the bartender about one of the taps, and the bartender gave a stock answer that was given to him/her by the distributor, who probably misunderstood it when the brewery rep explained it in the first place.  Then, our friendly neighborhood alehole, lurking in a dark corner of the bar, overhears the exchange, decides to jump in, and we're off to the races.  First, he/she corrects the bartender, which does wonders for over-the-bar relations (expect saliva and/or urine in your next tulip glass of exotic Trappist ale).  Second, he/she decides to crack an egg of knowledge on the fellow bar patron who asked the initial question.  Said patron might even be stupid/polite enough to ask follow-up questions of the alehole, despite the gleam of hop-fueled mania in the alehole's eyes.  We LOOOOOVE beer.  And we love talking about it.  But this can quickly turn on us.  If we're not careful, we're not scoring a victory for beer knowledge: we're being off-putting and (probably) irritating, and also not that helpful.  We're being Beer Talk Terrorists.

These situations can be the most treacherous arena of beer-person's life, and if you're conscientious you can make them positives for everyone involved.  But you can also wreck them and deprive people from good-beer-fueled happiness for the rest of their said, Aspen Edge-swilling lives.

Four quick vignettes will illustrate what I mean, and hopefully give you some useful guidance on Talking Beer without being an alehole.  Let's talk about The Eavesdropper, The Faux Beer Geek, The Casual Questioner, and (my favorite) The Victim.

The Eavesdropper

Look, if you really get into beer and hang around long enough, the day will inevitably come when you overhear a beer server or bar patron say something that is just balls crazy.  TRUE STORY: A bartender, on being asked, replies as follows to a query about one offering at his bar.  "Dopplebock?  It's like regular bock, but less hoppy, like an Amber Ale."  I've been pondering that one since June 2004, and I swear to God, I still don't know what it means.  What should you do?

NOTHING.  DO NOT ENGAGE.  I know the impulse to jump in is strong.  And I know you're thinking, "but I can be polite and informative to all involved and save the beer day!"  No you can't.  Gandhi couldn't thread this needle.  You're going to have to do a 180-degree correction on the server without wildly embarrassing him/her, while at the same time imparting useful information to the patron without boring him/her to death (see the many iterations in "Airplane").  It can't be done.  Sit there, shut up, and hope that someone asks you for your opinion (which almost certainly won't happen).  This is NOT the time to "train up" those around you.

The Faux Beer Geek

Your sister tells another attendee at her cookout that you brew your own beer, to which the individual responds, "Oh, I love craft beer!"  You think, "nice!  This could be fun..." when all of a sudden they follow it up with, "I totally prefer stouts to ales."  And your heart sinks.  The objection of "stouts ARE ales..." leaps to your lips - but hold it back.

This person is the Faux Beer Geek.  They don't drink macro beer (or, possibly, they think that Amstel is "craft" beer because it's imported), and they think because they know what an IPA tastes like (maybe) that they're the second coming of Michael Jackson.  DO NOT go all alehole on them.  They usually mean well - in other words, they're probably not just saying it to show off - and by putting them in their place with your massive beer knowledge, you may just crush their spirit like a can of fine craft beer (like Shock Top, you know?).  So what should you do?

FIND WAYS TO AGREE.  Don't talk down to them.  Steer clear of technical details and science.  Focus on flavors, and maybe make recommendations of things they might like based on what they tell you they like to drink or share the names of breweries you know to be solid that they may like.   Encourage their love of beer, and try to get them in the door of a place that has a great beer list - over time, they may develop a more-sophisticated knowledge of beer.  Maybe get them to a local homebrew shop to start doing it for themselves!  Nudge, don't shove, in the right directions.  You know, like cult recruiting, but with more vinyl tubing.

The Casual Questioner

This one is dangerous.  Maybe you're at a workplace event, and you notice that the company has sprung for some decent local beer - score!  You express your delight at finding a bottle of craft beer instead of the usual aluminum bottles of macro, and a colleague asks casually what makes your ESB-inspired-but-uses-New-Zealand-hops beer better or different.  What should you do?

BE BRIEF AND SIMPLE.  Hit the high points using language that isn't too jargon-y, and mainly talk up the ingredients and care-in-process aspects.  If I told you a bakery made awesome cake - way better than that supermarket cake - because they use fully-emulsified peanut oils and not propeller-expressed palm oil, you'd have no idea what the hell I was talking about.  And the longer I talked, the worse it would get.  Instead, imagine I just said, "Oh this stuff?  Pure Moroccan Vanilla in the icing and the baker is the third generation of her family to make them all by hand!  So how about that kickball game later?"  Give them something that leaves a positive impression, and don't belabor it.  In all likelihood they haven't been waiting for months to have an intense beer talk with someone, but maybe they've been thinking of giving craft beer a try.  If it's a good beer they ask you about, recommend they try one or others in the brewery's lineup, and leave it at that.  Less is more.

The Victim

This one is just sad.  I've been the perpetrator here a few times: you think you hear real interest in beer from the other person in the conversation, but what you're really hearing is a desperate need to keep a conversation going at all costs.  This might be someone who has tremendous fear of silence and pressure of speech.  It might be someone who is insanely polite and must constantly ask follow-up questions because you seem so pleased by them.  But this person DOES NOT WANT TO TALK ABOUT BEER!  You just think they do.  So what do you do to prevent this from happening and weighing on your conscience, as it so heavily weighs on mine?

GET THEM TALKING.  If they're REALLY interested in beer, it will be obvious when they answer some questions.  Ask what they drink and why.  Ask if they've ever thought of brewing for themselves.  Ask if they've ever visited a brewery or gone to a beer dinner.  You'll know right away what you're dealing with: short, vague answers will cue you in to the fact that this is probably just polite conversation, so don't jump in with both feet.  If the answers are longer, enthusiastic, specific - and especially if the person in question loves to cook or works as a scientist, two huge tells in the beer community, I've found - then you may have a larval beer geek on your hands.  But play it safe; offer them multiple ways out of the conversation, either by bringing up a new topic or apologizing for going on and on about beer.  If they want out, that will give them plenty of opportunity.

In Closing

The ratio of the number of people who REALLY know about/love/want to talk about beer and brewing, versus the number of people who just DRINK beer, is pretty extreme.  Be a good beer ambassador.  Talk up the culinary, not the technical.  Educate, don't correct.  Be enthusiastic, not boorish.  And always leave them wanting more - the next sip, if you will.  

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).