This article on running an Advent exchange first appeared over at the Canadian Homebewers Association – Canada’s equivalent of the AHA. This article is written by members of several Canadian Homebrewing clubs – myself, writing on behalf of the London Homebrewers Guild, Alex Cochran on behalf of Vancouver’s VanBrewers, and James Kennedy on behalf of Toronto’s GTAbrews. The article is an excellent guide that takes a deep-dive into several ways to run an advent exchange.
I am re-posting my portion of this article below for those who are interested, although I encourage you to check out the original (which includes the contributions of all three authors) over at the CHA. And while you’re there, if you are a Canadian homebrewer, why not join the CHA and help them in their mission to promote the hobby of homebrewing in the great white north.
And while you’re visiting the CHA take a look around…you may get a preview of an article I wrote on wild brewing that won’t appear here for a few more weeks…
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.