Have you ever been to or hosted a wine tasting? How about this for a new twist -- why not host a beer tasting? Now that craft-brewed beer is blossoming across the American landscape, people are anxious to learn more about it. Here's a good excuse to have a great time and learn more about beer all at the same time.
The cardinal rule of a beer tasting is that it must be fun. While there is a serious side to tasting and evaluating beer, why go to all the trouble if you can't enjoy this gustatory adventure with good friends? Therefore, these recommendations are for a social beer tasting. I'll save the rigid rules for the hard-core beer geeks.
Your first task will be to assemble a collection of beers for your tasting. If you are already a serious beer enthusiast you may have a nice selection of beers you've been saving for the right moment. Otherwise, amassing beers for your tasting may be accomplished in short time if you're lucky enough to have a reputable beer retailer nearby who stocks a broad selection of beer styles and takes proper care of them. If not, it may take you longer -weeks, even months - to assemble a nice selection of beers depending on how particular you are about the beers you plan to serve and how far you must travel to find a good retail selection.
Plan to serve six to 12 different beers at your tasting and about 3 ounces of each beer per guest during the tasting session. It is quite a letdown when there is no good beer available for drinking after the tasting, so try to have on hand extra bottles of the beers you're serving during the tasting in case your guests would like more. Otherwise, be sure to have some good beers available for post evaluation drinking.
There is a myriad of different variations of beer tastings you might consider. For example, seasoned beer collectors may host a vertical tasting whereupon only one brand of beer is tasted but several vintages of that beer are served. It would require a beer style suitable for laying down, in most cases a high alcohol beer that can survive years in the cellar. Another variation in beer tastings you might choose to host as you and your friends become more experienced with craft-brewed beer is a blind tasting where you serve several brands of one style of beer but don't reveal each brand until the tasting is completed. Your guests could have a great time trying to name each brand.
Some of the easier variations include a tasting of strictly microbrewed beers beginning with the lightest style in both color and alcohol and progressing to the darkest in color and highest in alcohol. Your retailer should be able to advise you on the serving order if you're not sure. Or consider a tasting that's not blind but several brands of only one style are served such as Octoberfest beers in the fall or wheat beers for a summer tasting.
Any room, porch or deck with a large table is a great place to stage your tasting. I recommend limiting your guest list to six. Although it loses much of its intimacy and more beer is required, I have hosted tastings with up to 10 guests -- I simply set up two tables near each other.
Furnish a pitcher of water and a "swill bucket" for palate cleansing and glass rinsing. Unlike our wine brethren, no one should be spitting out their beers, (beer, unlike wine, must be swallowed to taste the hop bitterness on the back of the tongue) but they may want to rinse their tasting glasses between each beer and empty them into the bucket. I use a glazed earthenware crock for swill dumping, but any sturdy container will do.
Provide each guest with a clear beer tasting glass, a glass of water, and a pen and paper for note taking. If you have any beer guides or style books, be sure to have them out in case your guests want to refer to them. I like to create and furnish each of my guests with a beer menu which lists each beer in tasting order while leaving space for note taking after each entry. I also recommend listing the brewer, the style of each beer and any other pertinent information. If you have the time and resources, you might even research each beer and include a brief description or the alcohol content of them. Each beer style has its own recommended style of glass designed to express its characteristics such as appearance, bouquet, body, flavors, and finish. Since few of us have an extensive collection of proper beer glassware, a stemmed wine glass or goblet will work just fine.
Try to have the beers chilled to an appropriate temperature which can vary somewhat from style to style. A good rule of thumb is to serve ales around 55 degrees and lagers around 45 degrees.
I am a strong believer that food should be served at a beer tasting. You guests will appreciate the food to help absorb the alcohol in their stomachs, and it can be used to cleanse the palate between beers. Another benefit to serving food with your beer tasting is the fun of pairing beer and food flavors. It doesn't have to be an extensive food menu. You might consider a buffet assortment of cheeses, breads and crackers, and fruits, all pleasing complements to beer. If you would like to make it more elaborate add deli meats and pates, which also pair well with beer.
Now for the piece de resistance, pour about 3 ounces of the first beer you'll be tasting into each glass. Notice the color, then the aroma of the beer. Each should reflect the beer's style and the care with which it was brewed. Leisurely sip and savor your portion of beer. Try a sip with some food. Feel free to share your impressions and experiences of each beer with your fellow tasters, making tasting notes as you go. The atmosphere of the tasting should remain pleasant and sociable. No one should feel pressured into discussing a beer's character, but lively discussions about the beers you're tasting can be most engaging. The person sitting next to you might pick out a flavor or aroma that you missed. Feel free to linger over the finish of each beer.
If you and your friends keep good tasting notes, you will soon have a whole library of notes to refer to when you have any questions or conversations about beer, and you will quickly have an entire repertoire of beers you can discuss with confidence. Add to that some wonderful memories of a special evening with friends, and you now have no excuse for not hosting a beer tasting.
Recommended readings for hosting a tasting and evaluating beer:
Beer Basics: A Quick and Easy Guide
by Peter LaFrance
Published by John Wiley & Sons, New York
A Taste for Beer
by Stephen Beaumont
Published by Storey Communications, Pownal, Vt.
edited by Brewers Publications
Published by Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colo.
Recommended readings for beer guides and style guidelines:
The Simon & Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer
by Michael Jackson
Published by Simon & Schuster, New York
The Beer Enthusiast's Guide
by Gregg Smith
Published by Storey Communications, Pownal,Vt.
Michael Jackson's Beer Companion
by Michael Jackson
Published by Running Press, Philadelphia
Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland
by Tim Webb
Published by Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), St. Albans, England