Like the steady creep of Christmas carols onto shopping mall playlists, the launch of beer advent calendars is a becoming a handy reminder that, while it might still be months away, the year's end is fast approaching. Since their first appearance in Australia, each year has seen both the number of boxes on offer and their diversity grow.
Carwyn Cellars' Can-Vent Adventure Calendar, for example, is made up entirely of tinnies from Australian breweries that have been brewed exclusively for the Thornbury bottleshop. It's a scene far removed from years gone by when there was a chance the beer inside a box might be as stale as the chocolate populating a more traditional advent calendar from the local two dollar store.
One of the first local business to get its 2018 offering on sale is Sydney based Beer Cartel. Co-owner Richard Kelsey says they sent out 3,500 in 2017 and hope to double that this year.
"It's amazing how big they've become,” Richard says. “It's a lot of fun with the gifting aspect – you don't know what you're going to get."
Often Beer Cartel’s calendars, which this year includes an expert edition too, are bought as gifts and Richard says they've found a great deal of interest comes from businesses; one in Newcastle snapped up 210 for its clients in 2017.
"It will just become more and more popular,” Richard says. “There's a lot of corporate gifting at Christmas [and with advent calendars] you're giving something early, which means you can stand out before the other gifts, making it quite memorable.
"These calendars can change a client's perception of a business."
It’s not just bottleshops that have embraced the concept but breweries too, with Bridge Road Brewers producing one of the first Aussie beer-vent calendars in 2015. The Beechworth brewery now releases two separate boxes, one filled with 25 of its own beers, the second called Bridge Road and Friends and featuring 24 beers of which half are sourced from other breweries.
Brewery founder Ben Kraus says the idea to create their own advent calendar came after being contacted in 2014 by Craft Beer Importers Canada who wanted to include an Australian beer in their Christmas pack. The distributors had discovered Bridge Road through the brewery’s collaborations with Norway's Nogne Ø and Ben's friendship with Kjetil Jikiun.
“They wanted an Australian craft beer that had to be above seven percent ABV and a one-off release designed for Christmas,” Ben says.
That led to Fat Man, Red Suit, Big Sack, a red IPA brewed with all Australian hops. It’s a beer that’s since stuck around and, along with Magical Christmas Unicorn, is released for Christmas every year.
“We were one beer in 24 in that pack and they ordered an entire shipping container of that one beer," Ben says.
"I think they sent 16,000 packs out across Canada and North America.”
Amanda Rushford, head of “All Things” at the Beechworth brewery saw the scale of what they were making and suggested Bridge Road should produce its own advent calendar. The subsequent decision to launch the Bridge Road and Friends box came from Ben’s hope it would let Bridge Road’s fans discover new beers.
He says the rise of Christmas beer boxes means it's important to offer a point of difference so the brewery's fans can try something they wouldn't normally drink. For their box four years ago, Craft Beer Importers Canada featured beers from as far afield as Europe and Australia.
“That’s obviously hinting that you can’t have something run of the mill because otherwise people could just buy that beer anyway, so I guess we’ll see that happening more,” Ben says.
In a way, it represents an ongoing evolution of online beer clubs too, with a desire to offer something out of the norm for drinkers a feature for the likes of Carwyn Cellars, with its Club Wild and Club Hops offerings, or Sydney's Bucket Boys and its multi-tiered system.
For most of The Crafty Pint's existence, the monthly or quarterly mixed packs from online "beer clubs" tended to feature the sort of beers you could pick up with relative ease elsewhere, sometimes in tandem with merch or other produce. Given how many of those businesses are no longer operational, offering a point of difference seems a smart move.
It's something Bucket Boys looks to do with its mixed boxes. Year round, they offer various levels, including the For The Cellar box made up of four rare large format bottles suitable for cellaring, and various other 16 beer packs selected by their in-house Certified Cicerone Johnathan Hepner, all with the aim being to satisfy the adventurous beer drinker.
“It’s people going: I’m still going to seek out beers that I love but in the meantime I’d love to get a box of beers every month or quarter that helps take me on a journey," he says.
The approach has carried across to the 2018 Bucket Boys advent calendar, a Christmas tradition the Marrickville store has run since opening in October 2016.
“We sold about 70 the first year, last year it was 180 and this year we are shooting for around 300. So we’re definitely on the smaller end of how much people buy,” says Johnathan.
For this year’s release, they've teamed up with long-running Sydney based podcast Sessionable. The hosts will taste the beers blind as they're unveiled then discuss the story behind each beer and style. Each 12 Beers Of Christmas box contains a dozen beers, a glass, a t-shirt, tasting notes and the bottleshop’s take on the Christmas cracker, with the decision to include less beers but more accompanying material taken to give both the Bucket Boys team and their consumers more fun.
“We encourage people to pour the beers out blind and taste them first before they open them up and find out what it is,” Johnathan says. “We even put a sheet in that has the [appropriate] glassware, temperature and ABV so, even though you are tasting it blind, you have an idea of how to serve it."
Surprises, anticipation, cool beers and education all the way... sure beats a morsel of chocolate every morning.