Some of them were wrapped neatly in holiday-themed paper; others, like mine, were simply in gift bags sans the tissue paper. We set them all under a tiny Christmas tree in a tiny apartment, helped ourselves to some beer and waited as numbers 1 to 7 were written down and cut into squares.
It was our white elephant swap a week or so before Christmas — except that instead of tossing bows onto random, mostly useless items we’d found around the house or in a store, we had taken care to find each other either really rare, or just really tasty, craft beer. There was one four-pack, Sierra Nevada’s Narwhal Imperial Stout, in the mix. The rest of the beer was in bombers, 22 oz. bottles. All of it we wanted.
In the end, I carried out Jester King’s Gotlandsdricka, which the Hill Country brewery modeled after the farmhouse ales the Vikings might have once brewed.
That was the version of Christmas gift swapping that only beer lovers could have created. The seven of us write for an all-female-run blog about craft beer in Austin and around the U.S. It’s taken us to prestigious beer festivals in Colorado, nearly wiped out our bank accounts and helped us to meet an incredible community of like-minded people.
Although we didn’t share the white elephant bombers with each other (at least I sure didn’t), there have been plenty of other times in the past two years when we’ve participated in bottle shares. At those gatherings, beer aficionados dust off a bottle or two of the rare brew that’s been aging in their pantries or other storage areas for a year and share them with each other in small tasting glasses.
The beers don’t have to be hard to find to be enjoyable. And participants of either a white elephant bomber swap or a bottle share don’t have to be well-connected with Austin’s craft breweries to host one of their own, right in time for the holidays.
Just understand that good beer is so often meant to be shared.
"You could enjoy a bottle of Pliny by yourself, but then you couldn’t talk about how awesome it is," Sarah Wood, another writer for Bitch Beer (bitchbeer.org), said to me recently about the bomber exchange. Pliny the Elder, a flagship beer of California’s Russian River Brewing, is a double IPA that isn’t distributed in Texas, so it always goes fast if someone with a precious bottle is willing to share it.
Texas, of course, isn’t lacking in other delicious brews made both in state and out. Where to find them in Austin? For a bomber swap or share, a liquor store like Spec’s or a grocery store like Central Market are solid bets. But don’t overlook convenience stores. Some of the ones in town, such as East 1st Grocery, the MLK Food Store and Sunrise Mini Mart, might not look like much on the outside, but one step inside reveals craft beer havens packed with bombers and bottles that are frequently new to the state or in limited release.
Take the Sunrise Mini Mart on West Anderson Lane, for example. I walked in on a recent cold and rainy Monday afternoon not surprised to find the small shop full of people, many of them on a first-name basis with Sam Rojani, the beer buyer there. He rang up one guy who beelined for the stack of just-arrived Austin Beerworks’ Heavy Machinery English IPA, as well as a couple who spent nearly 20 minutes perusing the beer selection. In between, he spoke with me about beers he’d recommend for a bottle share.
Bombers, which are 10 ounces larger than a typical bottle and often more expensive (expect to pay anywhere from $8 to $15 on average), aren’t an "everyday vessel," as Sarah put it. They’re perfect for sharing with big groups of people, not least because the beer in them can be higher in ABV, or alcoholic content.
That’s certainly true of one of Rojani’s top picks, Uinta Brewing’s Labyrinth, a black ale that clocks in at a solid 13.2 percent ABV. Uinta, from Utah, arrived in Texas earlier this fall with its Crooked Line series, and Sunrise carries those beers right alongside what was possibly the only Southern Tier Pumking left in Austin.
Here are more great beers in bombers that you might like to see or bring to your holiday bottle share:If you’re looking for a beer to pair with Christmas dinner, try Rogness Holiday, a winter ale brewed with cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, oatmeal and vanilla. You might think of an oatmeal raisin cookie when you try it.For the IPA lover among your friends, go with the Firestone Walker Wookey Jack, which balances big, roasty malt flavors with hop bitterness and spicy rye. It’s the sort of IPA a dark beer lover can also enjoy.The Gypsy Belgian IPA, a collaboration between Adelbert’s Brewery and Christine Celis LLC — whose founder’s father, Pierre Celis, brought his Belgian beer recipes to Texas in the 1990s — is a great conversation starter if you know your beer history. Fans of dark, bold beers might like Great Divide’s Yeti, an Imperial Stout that warms up cold nights. Though it actually comes in cans, Hops & Grain’s The One They Call Zoe is a pale lager that can serve as an easy-drinking introduction to craft beer for the uninitiated.Any Jester King beer that you can purchase to go during the brewery’s tasting room hours on weekends is worth gifting — but look for Atrial Rubicite, a sour ale refermented with raspberries that doesn’t have the typical sweetness of a fruity beer.