So, you’re into beer. Like, really into beer. You’ve got friends that are beer fans too, and you’d all like to try more brews and learn a little bit more about beer. There are plenty of great books and websites that offer beer education, not to mention beer dinners at bars and breweries. Still, for my money one of the most enjoyable ways to try new beer and learn about it with your friends is by hosting a beer tasting.
While I would hesitate to call myself an expert on hosting beer tastings, I have had enough to offer a bit of an outline about how to set up one of your own. Hopefully, this post gives you enough information to set up a beer dinner with some of your nearest and dearest. The barest basics of hosting a beer tasting are deciding what kind of tasting you’d like to host, selecting beer for the tasting, getting supplies and a location for the tasting, and discussing the beers as a group.
What type of tasting to host;
The three main types of tastings I’ve taken part in are educational beer tastings, food pairing/dinner tastings, and casual get-togethers. For an educational tasting, the aim of the event is to educate everyone about the beers being tasted. If someone in the group fancies themselves a beer expert, they can talk a bit about the differences in beer styles, history of a certain style, what flavors to look for, and so on. If no one is quite up to being an expert, a great beer manual like Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer can be passed around to drinkers. For a beer dinner or food pairing, you can plan a meal around the beers and pair each course with a different brew. A lot of breweries are great about providing suggested beer pairings, and books like The Best of American Beer and Food and The Brewmaster’s Table are a great resource. For a casual tasting, set-up is pretty simple; get a bunch of different beers, hang out, and talk about them. Most of my tastings are a bit of a mix of the three.
In terms of how many people I have for tastings, I tend to aim for somewhere between 5 and 7 guests. This is small enough to have some lively discussion without getting too big to reign in the beer talk.
Selecting beer for the tasting;
There are a lot of ways to select beer for a beer tasting, but three of the most popular are horizontal, vertical, and (for lack of a better term) general beer tastings. The terms horizontal and vertical are stolen from wine tastings, where a horizontal tasting is wines that all come from the same vintage, and a vertical is wines from different vintages but all from the same winery. Modifying these slightly for beer, a horizontal beer tasting is all beer of the same style (milk stout, IPA, tripel, etc.) from different breweries. A vertical beer tasting is the same beer from different batches – for example the ’09, ’08 and ’07 Sierra Nevada Bigfoots. This obviously takes a little more planning, but the differences among the vintages and the complexity age adds to many beers make it worth it. A general tasting is everything else, and can vary from a wild mix of beers to the entire lineup of a single brewery.
When it comes to actually picking and paying for beers, I usually spread the cost out among the people attending. If we have 6 people, each of us brings a 22oz or 750ml bottle of beer. This makes sure that everyone gets a 2oz sample of each brew, with plenty left over to enjoy after the tasting. This also works out to about 5-10 bucks for each person, which is plenty cheap for the chance to taste a half-dozen different beers.
What you need for supplies;
Other than the obvious need for beer and a location, my bare minimum suggested supplies are water, food, tasting glasses and note cards. Water is crucial for a number of reasons – rinsing glasses, keeping attendees hydrated, cleansing palates and helping lessen the impact of the alcohol. Food is also important to soak up alcohol and keep tasters upright and lucid. Food also plays in as something that can enhance the flavor of certain beers (and vice versa), and obviously takes on more importance at a beer dinner. To serve the beer, I suggest investing in some tasting glasses. Katy and I have quite a collection from the Beer Advocate beer fests, but a number of breweries sell sample glasses. Small fluted glasses can do the job, too. Finally, one of the most fun things about my tastings has collecting beer reviews from the guests. Rather than trying to remember everything that everyone says, I scatter around some note cards that people can use to scratch out their reviews.
As for location, maximizing comfort and minimizing distractions are the two biggies. I go for lowish light and a bit of music (although some beer geeks think music is too much of a distraction). The most important thing is trying to minimize strong smells, since they can really screw with everyone’s ability to smell and taste their beer.
What order to taste the beer;
Conventional wisdom is to drink beers from lightest to darkest – and conventional wisdom is wrong. Instead, tasting should go from weakest to strongest beer – determined either by strength of flavor, hop bitterness or alcohol by volume. Ending with high-IBU, alcohol-heavy brews ensures that they don’t wreck your palate early in the evening.
With all that in mind, hosting an actual tasting goes a little something like this…
- Pick a theme for the tasting, and get in touch with everyone about what beer they should bring to the tasting.
- Once you know what everyone is bringing, buy some food that will pair well with the beers. Make sure that all your other supplies are on hand as well.
- Once everyone arrives the night of the tasting, make sure that everyone is comfortable. Snack a bit, and chit-chat. Try to make sure to keep all the beers at room temperature.
- Usually I start the evening with an introduction to the beer style we’re sampling, and then talk a bit about the first beer.
- Starting with the first beer, pour everyone about a two-ounce sample. Look at the beer, smell the beer, and taste the beer. Discuss, debate, and let people take notes if they want. Pair the beer with food. Sip. Savor. Enjoy.
- Repeat until all the beer has been tasted. End the night by talking about favorites, bests, worsts, and finishing off the leftover beer.
And that’s about it. I’ve tried to be thorough, but I don’t doubt that I’ve left things out. Questions? Suggestions? Let me know in an email or in the comments.