So here we are in early December, the run-up to Christmas firmly in our sights. Perhaps you’ve started working your way through a beer advent calendar. A seasonal selection of 12 or more often 24 beers selected to keep you sudsy throughout December – what could be more fun? From a punter’s POV these boxes can be a good way to try new beers, and ensure you have enough supplies to drink in the comfort of your home as the evenings outside become increasingly cold, dark and miserable.
Essentially you’re putting your drinking choices into someone else’s hands in the hope that they can do a better job than you, with access to better beers and all the advantages of working in the trade.
In this season awash with booze the selection has to feel special. This presents a challenge for the person putting the selection together. You want the box to feel Christmassy, but you need to keep it varied. Not many people will want to work their way through 24 dark spiced ales.
You need the big hitters in these boxes. But these big star boozy beers will be subject to huge competition at the wholesale end of things. Our fireside treats come at a cost and this must be balanced out by the inclusion of less adventurous beers. The risk is that these feel like filler tracks on a lacklustre album.
It’s a pretty common complaint in fact.
Just hook me straight up to the brewery!
You can get advent calendars directly from breweries. To me this misses the point. You’ll be drinking a limited offering in a format designed to feature variety and exploration. Why do it?
Just look at this 2017 offering from Beavertown. Maybe it floats your boat. Maybe you just can’t get enough of those skully beers. For me, I have to say, it just looks dead boring.
Opening Pandora’s box
What I’m not going to do here is bring you a round up of all the beer advent calendars out there. For one thing, it’s already been done pretty well elsewhere. For example, Chris Martin has put together a nice round-up over on his blog Alcohol By Volume. And over on Google Drive, this spreadsheet gives good details of what was in some calendars from 2016 and 2017.
Side note: if you want to consider advent calendars based on other boozes, check out this article in the Independent.
Instead let’s explore all of these issues in microcosm by examining one of the big boys on the advent calendar scene, Honest Brew.
Honest Brew have decided to package this selection as an actual advent calendar. This looks like a nice idea in the marketing photo but think about your actual house for a moment, and now think about your actual house with that box in it. Where are you going to put it? I don’t know, perhaps you have a bigger house than me. I’d have a hard time finding room to keep this box out on display.
Now consider that some of those beers will want chilling. There’s no indication which though, because each beer is hidden away behind it’s little door. You can’t put the whole thing in the fridge. So what to do? Open the door in the morning just in case you need to chill your beer for later? Open the door in the evening and make do with a quick – and therefore subpar – half hour in the freezer to cool it down? Or just drink the beer warm? Perhaps you’ve got a chilly shed or garage where you can store this, in which case that might do. But for the rest of us this presents a bit of a challenge. And yet Honest Brew use the fact that it’s stored cold at their end as a selling point… Someone somewhere hasn’t thought this all the way through.
I’m not saying all this to pick on Honest Brew in particular. I’m sure the same things will be true of lots of advent calendars out there. These are just the limitations of the format.
Now let’s move on to the contents. I’m not going to give you all the details – google exists, people – but having glanced over them myself here are a couple of thoughts.
For the base offering, close to £70 will get you what looks to be a decent mix of breweries and styles. Some of the names that catch my eye here are Azimut and Popihn (both from France), the Garden Brewery (Croatia), Edge (Spain), and from the UK Burning Sky, Buxton and Cloudwater.
Or you could splash out £140 on the Ultimate Advent Calendar. This will bring you beers from plenty of interesting breweries. I’d have my eye on the ones from Verdant, Lervig (Norway), CR/AK (Italy), Stillwater (USA), Puhaste (Estonia), Schneider Weisse (Germany) and from the UK Verdant, Wander Beyond and Wylam. The box also promises “1 more big name to be revealed”. Are you excited now? Hm. Me either.
But to be fair, the list of styles in there looks good too. Among others you can expect a blueberry sour, a brut IPA (come on, it’s 2018 after all), a doppelbock, a mixed fermentation sour, and a salted caramel wee heavy – how excellent does that sound? You will also get some bourbon barrel aged stouts; in particular two imperial versions, one cinnamon and one raspberry. I’d put money on at least one of these being from Lervig.
Before you get too excited, just remember this little caveat.
Beers subject to change due to: beer availability, mini tornadoes, a light flurry of snow or power outages.
Not everyone has been thrilled by their past offerings either.
To add context, here are details of their past offerings.
These look pretty decent. I’m medium-whelmed by last year’s base level box. The ultimate one looks better – really quite good in fact. But the price is a bit steep. For comparison, here’s the same year’s offering from Hop Burns & Black, which I feel measures up pretty well against it for about £35 less. (They’re doing one again this year but if you haven’t ordered already then you’re out of luck – they’re all sold out.)
How to do better
One way is to stop outsourcing your drinking decisions. If you buy your own you can be sure you’ll like it. And if you have an understanding friend or partner you can even keep a little element of surprise.
And certainly there’s scope for some enterprising person to make these selections really special.
To give Honest Brew some credit, this does seem to be a direction they’ve headed in this year. As I noted above, there are some interesting looking foreign breweries listed in both their basic and their premium selections. Fair play.
Boxes like this represent extra work for bottle shops: putting the selection together, the associated sales effort, the packing and shipping. Margins on these boxes can end up tighter than you’d think – all the beers ordered in on top of the usual inventory might necessitate hiring extra storage space or employing some extra hands to get the boxes out on time.
So why do shops do it? The sales are obviously important – no one would do it if they couldn’t expect to make at least a small profit out of it. But there are other intangible benefits too. Reaching new customers, for instance. Or raising their profile generally. For those who’ve done calendars in past years, it can become a case of maintaining their position within the marketplace.
Pressure to drink
I’ve saved this until last. It’s the most common complaint about these beery advent calendars, and the reason I generally don’t bother with them myself. As I’ve already mentioned, this end of the year is pretty awash with booze already. There are office parties. There’s catching up with mates you haven’t seen for longer than you’d like. There’s a general culture of indulgence and partying and getting through the bleakness of a northern European winter using self medication. It’s not like we need any more pressure to drink. In this context, taking delivery of a hefty whack of beer with the expectation that you’ll get through one a day might not be the best idea.
Have you had a beer advent calendar before? If so, which one and what did you think of it? Tell me in the comments below.