For the past seven years the London Homebrewers Guild has been running an Advent exchange, and over that time we have streamlined this process to make it a straight-forward and seamless event. This is an excellent opportunity for brewers to share brews and recipes, to enjoy the brewcraft of others, and to get feedback on their beers. I know it is my favourite event of the year, and it has proven so popular in our club that we’ve recently introduced a “Christmas in July” simply so we don’t have to wait a year between advent exchanges.
For those of you who’ve never been in an advent exchange, the concept is simple: you brew a beer, bottle it, and shortly before December, you exchange those beers with the other brewers participating in the exchange. Then you count-down to Christmas day by drinking one beer a day – in a predetermined order – with the last beer enjoyed Christmas eve. It’s essentially the same as those Christmas advent calendars most of us had as kids, but in place of crummy chocolates you get beer (or cider, or mead, or wine)!
On the surface, advent exchanges seem simple, but they can be a bit of a challenge for organisers. This purpose of this article is to help you organise an advent event with your group, and to avoid some of the pitfalls we’ve run into over the years.
The key to a successful event is to plan early. The first step is to figure out how many brewers your exchange can support. “Tradition” is for 24 beers, consuming those beers from December 1 through 24. However, this may be hard for smaller clubs to achieve, and larger clubs may need a longer exchange to let everyone who is interested participate. In our case, we set the maximum number of entries as the number of days between our November meeting (last Tuesday in November) through to December 24. Give our club size this works well, but tweaks may be needed for larger or smaller clubs.
We begin promoting our advent exchange in August – this gives brewers enough time to prepare a beer on time, and helps to ensure a full roster. Many brewers prepare their advent beers long before the “official” announcement, but by advertising early you can help ensure a full roster of well-brewed beers. While there are many ways you can manage sign-up, but we have found the spreadsheet tool in google docs to be an excellent tool to manage this portion of the exchange. Create a sheet with enough rows for the number of beers you have space for in the exchange, with columns for the brewers name, beer name, beer style, and any additional information you wish to collect – an example from our 2016 exchange (with brewers names removed) can be found here. Brewers’ sign up by filling in the spreadsheet. We configure our spreadsheet such that brewers sign up by their name, and allow brewers to fill in the columns for the other details closer to the exchange. We have also found it beneficial to include an additional column for brewers to request a “slot” early or late in the exchange – this way, beers with a short shelf-life can be ensured an early spot for enjoyment at peak freshness, while beers that need additional time to carbonate (or which benefit from an extra few weeks of ageing) can be given a slot later in the exchange.
Depending on the size of your club, you may need to set some additional signup rules. In our case, we typically have a near-equal number of interested members and available spaces, so we allow brewers to sign up for multiple entries with the stipulation that only one entry is guaranteed – this way we maximise the number of brewers participating, while ensuring a full exchange. Larger clubs may need to run multiple “calendars”, while smaller clubs may need to consider options such as taking one day a week “off”, starting after December 1, or including commercial beers in the schedule.
Once beers have been entered, the organisers need to arrange a drinking order for the entries. There are many ways of doing his, but I’ve found an easy method is to use the “rand” command (random number generator) that is included in google sheets. I simply separate the “early”, “late” and “no preference” entries into three groups, then use the rand command to assign a random number to each entry in each group. I then sort each group such that they are ordered from lowest to highest by the random number. I then append the “no preference” group after the “early” group, followed by the “late” group, thus creating a randomised list of entries while fulfilling requests for early or late time-points in the exchange. We’ve found that this is a simple way to avoids bias in the ordering, while still allowing for brewers to have their beers positioned early or late in the exchange if needed.
Day of the Advent Exchange
The last major hurdle for organisers is the day of the exchange. I’ve run exchanges which worked like well-oil machines, and I’ve also run exchanges that were total messes – complete with participants going home without a full set of beers. Over the past two years we’ve homed in on an exchange process which works very well. You need enough table (or floor) space to give each participant room for the bottles they are going to receive, and the organiser needs about 5 minutes to setup before the exchange. Prior to the exchange, print each participants name on a large label – we’ve found it helpful to also number each brewers beer (in the order of consumption), and to request that the brewer write that number on their bottle caps. At the exchange, spread the labels across the tables, making sure to leave enough space between labels for the bottles each participant will receive. As participants arrive, they leave one bottle of their beer at each label – meaning that shortly after the last participant arrives, there should be one bottle of each beer at each label. The brewers can then collect their bottles (from the space indicated by the label with their name on it) to take home from the exchange. By numbering the caps, it is easy to identify any missing or duplicate bottles.
Adding More to the Exchange
The above procedures should allow you to operate a successful exchange, but these approaches are just a starting point. We’ve added three additional aspects to our exchanges which I think greatly improves the value and enjoyment we get out of the exchange. The first thing we have added is a feedback system. All beers get a dedicated thread in a dedicated Advent sub-forum on the club website. This thread includes a picture of the brewer’s bottle, the brewers name, the beer’s name and style, the date in the exchange when that beer is supposed be consumed, an indication of whether the brewer wants feedback (which the brewer indicates when they sign-up), and whether the brewer is part of our label competition (more on this below). Brewers are encouraged to reply to the thread for their beer with details such as the story of the beers “conception”, entertaining anecdotes from the brewing process, the backstory to the beers name (we never did get an explanation for John’s cock-blocking ale), the recipe, and any other informative or entertaining information. If a brewer requests feedback, participants in the exchange post replies in that thread with tasting notes – which range from “tastes great” to full BJCP score sheets. We’ve found this feedback system to be invaluable, both in the feedback the brewer receives, but also because it has created an unofficial club recipe book, complete with detailed brewing and tasting notes for each beer.
The second addition we have made is an optional label competition. Our more artistic participants (or less artistic, in my case) design labels for their beers. We then use surveymonkey (another free on-line tool) to vote on our favourite labels, across a range of categories (most artistic, most humorous, etc). Most years we also manage to scrounge up a few cheap prizes for our winners. This adds a lot of fun to these entries, and because the photos of each bottle are posted to our club website, it allows brewers not participating in the exchange to still be involved via voting for their favourite labels.
The last addition we have made is, in my mind, one of the more valuable parts of our exchange. We request that brewers participating in the exchange to bottle an extra four bottles of beer, which we then give to the four craft breweries which host our club meetings. Prior to this, we gifted beers to the person who hosted our nascent club in his workshop. This is a gesture that is appreciated by our hosts, and is a small way that we as a club can give back to the people and businesses which support us.
Other clubs who are running an advent calendar this year:
Each September we announce an opportunity for members in good standing to participate in the annual Vanbrewer’s Christmas Advent Calendar. The Advent Calendar is a box that contains 24 unique bottles of home brewed alcoholic beverages, to be enjoyed between December 1 through 24. These beverages are mostly beer but may also be cider or other any other fermented beverage such as mead or fruit wine. The only requirement is that the beverages are alcoholic and that they are made by our club members using their own equipment.
Each participant is asked to supply 28 bottles of their finest home brew, enough to make up 28 Advent Calendars so that each of the 24 participants get one and so that there are extra calendars to give to the major supporters of our club.
The process begins with the announcement made by the Organizer of the Advent Calendar via the VanBrewers’ public Facebook page. This announcement includes a link to a Google form that is used to explain the rules, and also to gather the pariticipants’ names and contact information. Applications for the Advent Calendar are filled in a first come, first served basis until the limit of 24 participants is reached. Applicants understand that this is a serious commitment, and failure to deliver their homebrews by the deadline will result in them being black listed from participating in the future events, and relentless public shaming! Once we have a full list of participants, we add them to a closed Facebook group dedicated to Advent Calendar discussions separate from the main Public VanBrewers Facebook page. Although this group is a closed group, anyone who is interested can request to be added to the group if they are interested in following along.
Participants pay a nominal fee to cover the cost of materials which includes 28 empty 333 ml beer bottles and the Advent Calendar packaging.
Participants are required to use these bottles in order to ensure that all submissions are uniform in size and will fit in the box. Creative and fun labels are encouraged and there is always considerable variation, ranging from professional quality labels with waxed caps, to painter’s tape labeled with a Sharpie.
VanBrewer Jeff Tichbourne works for a company that specializes in custom packaging. Jeff provides the boxes and also arranges professional artwork to decorate the boxes. This year the artwork theme is Christmas grafitti, and the boxes look absolutely stunning. We are very lucky to have Jeff as a member of our club!
We are also very fortunate to have the support of a local brewing company, who have provided us with the use of their brewery space as a drop off / pick up spot for our Advent Calendars over the years. Participants drop their homebrews off at the facility before the last weekend of November, when volunteers assemble the Calendars, usually on a Sunday afternoon. With enough volunteers, Calendar assembly is a fairly quick process. Empty boxes are laid out in straight lines and two volunteers walk around the line of boxes, one holding a box of an entrant’s homebrews while the other places one bottle in the same location of each box so that everyone gets the same home brew on the same day. Once the boxes are completely filled, we seal the lids and the Advent Calendars are ready for pick up.
Starting December 1, we open our calendars and enjoy each other’s home brews. We use the closed Facebook page to discuss recipes, process, and generally discuss the experience we are having while we drink them.
I was looking for a craft beer advent calendar five years ago, and the only one I could find was only available in Western Canada. I was chatting with a buddy of mine in the advertising business and we decided to put a proposal together for the OCB. (We thought) they could put a bunch of great OCB beers in a case and sell it through the LCBO. They were already doing the six packs, so it seemed like a good idea to us! Well, the OCB was less than enthusiastic about the idea citing legal and logistic issues. That’s what lead me to suggesting it to our club. Why not create a homebrew advent? So we did.
I’ve got a background in graphic design, so I created a printout that we distribute at the swap. It has every beer laid out randomly like one of those awful waxy chocolate calendars. I think it jumbles the information enough that it feels almost like searching for the correct little door to open (except there’s no shitty chocolate inside.) I’ve changed the calendar design slightly each year and decided I’ll probably reformat next year, so it’s got a pretty weathered/abandoned building look.