Recently I’ve gotten a lot of questions lately about how to set up a beer tasting for friends. Luckily, I was interviewed on the subject by Lisa Hoekstra along with my colleagues, Roger Mittag and Tracy Phillippi, for Quench Magazine. Just read the story below, and you’ll be ready to host a tasting.
Not into DIY? I often lead tastings for special occasions and corporate events. I put a pretty package together listing all of my guided tasting services, like team-building, beer dinners and food pairing workshops. And thanks to BizBash for including my services in their 6 Ideas for Fall Entertaining in Toronto.
NEW DISCOVERIES by Lisa Hoekstra
I ENJOY A GOOD BEER. It’s always been the go-to beverage when I’m out with friends. What I’ve only recently learned is that craft beer has nuances and flavours, like those of fine wine. I’ve always bought the name brands — Keith’s, Heineken or Corona — mostly because I just never knew which craft beers I’d like.
So it only makes sense to have a beer tasting. Tasting a variety of bottles — and better still, learning what it is in those frothy glasses that I love — gives me something I can actually take out with me when browsing the beer aisle. The question is, how do I host a beer tasting? As with any new and exciting undertaking, it’s best to approach it one step at a time … And ask for some expert advice.
My advice comes from three people who have explored the nuances of beer and enjoyed every second. Crystal Luxmore, a familiar name in Quench, is a Toronto-based beer writer, editor, Certified Cicerone and Prud’homme Beer Sommelier; Roger Mittag, also known as the Professor of Beer, runs the Prud’homme Beer Certification program and founded Thirst for Knowledge Inc., Canada’s leading beer education company; and Tracy Phillippi, the Marketing and Communication Coordinator for Garrison Brewing Company, a home brewer and a craft beer fanatic. Now that the introductions are over, let’s get down to business.
WHO, WHERE AND WHEN
Who, where and when are the important questions at this juncture. I can’t really help you with the when — though I can suggest you do it on a Friday or Saturday evening, just in case things get … rowdy. Nor can I tell you WHO to invite, just how many. Keep the group small. “Try to stay around 12 people,” suggests Mittag. You want to be able to seat everyone and keep conversation flowing. Too many and the volume level will be too high to easily discuss each sample as a group.
As for where: “the best thing, quite honestly, is to make sure there is good light so that people can really observe the beer,” says Mittag.
Now we move on to what. If this is your first time hosting a beer tasting, try a sample of styles from small breweries. “Most people want to try the basics and learn the difference,” says Luxmore. You’ll need to narrow down your selection to a small enough sample that your guests can enjoy the evening and still identify the nuances of flavour in the glass. “I like to work with eight to 10 different beers,” says Mittag. “Anything more than that will saturate your taste buds and you won’t pick up the details on the last few.”
The five styles that Mittag, Luxmore and Phillippi all agreed should be included in a first-time tasting are: Pilsner, British Pale Ale, Belgian Wit, German Wheat Beer and Porter or dark Lager. For the remaining styles, they suggest you pick from India Pale Ale, Saison, Stout, fruit beer, bitter or brown.
“I like to throw in something different people don’t expect, like a sour beer,” adds Luxmore. She usually points wine drinkers to Old Brown or Flemish red, which have a lot of notes similar to a wine.
“My tastings primarily centre around Nova Scotia craft beer (and Ontario craft beer when I was in Toronto, and Wisconsin craft beer when I’m home),” states Phillippi. She ends with a strong specialty beer, to finish with a kick. Phillippi also suggests having a “starter beer” because people, “start to get antsy if they are attending a ‘beer party’ and are not handed a beer when they arrive.
”Try something light and easy on the palate, like a Pilsner or a Coles Lager, for the reception, suggests Luxmore.
Avoid serving a meal during the tasting itself. “If you want to really notice the flavours
Beer and cheese go very well together,” says Phillippi. “The carbonation in beer scrubs your palate and allows you to taste the subtle flavours and fat of cheese.”
Luxmore agrees, “I love tasting beer and cheese together … I think it’s really mind blowing.”
The how is up to the space you have available and the furniture at your disposal. When it comes to the table, you could have a round table set up with the glasses; a buffet style with a table along the wall and comfortable chairs for seating; or a U set-up with yourself in the middle to host. “I always set people up in a circle with a table in the middle. It’s very approachable and makes everyone feel equally involved,” says Phillippi. Mittag, when he’s hosting formal tastings, likes using the U formation so that he can work with every person there.
However you choose to set up your table, “try to keep it social, because beer is a social experience,” says Luxmore.
Like wine, beer shows best in a specific style of glass. Some companies, like Final Touch, offer a beer tasting set with glasses sized for this occasion. But wine glasses will do. “Each style of beer has a different glass that it should be served in, which most people don’t own,” says Phillippi. “I suggest red wine glasses because it allows you to swirl the beer and release the aromas. For non-beer drinkers, I think this also restores a little bit of classiness to the beer.”
If you have a collection of red and white wine glasses, even better. According to Luxmore, lighter beers should be served in white wine glasses — the shape concentrates the aromas for a better tasting experience; and darker beers served in a red wine glass, which will open up the aromas.
If you still don’t have enough glasses for everyone, because let’s face it, not all of us have 96 wine glasses — which is how many you will need for a 12 person tasting of eight different styles — you can always wash the glasses in between tastings. Or allow guests to rinse the glass. Mittag suggests serving beer in a wet glass. “To prime your glass for a rich head, rinse it in cold water just before you pour.”
Alternatively, if you prefer not to wash dishes, pick up those tiny plastic wine glasses. They are actually the perfect size for a tasting, since you’re only supposed to have two to three ounces per beer. You can always warn your guests that the plastic glasses aren’t optimal and provide them with one wine glass for when the tasting is done, so they can taste their favourites afterward.
At the very least, have enough paper and pens for each guest in case they wish to take notes. “It helps if you provide people with an opportunity to record their observations, but this is totally dependent on the group,” says Mittag. “A lot of people just want to try different things and have some fun, and that is really the important part.”
Alternatively, you could create tasting note sheets. On the sheet, make sections for look, smell, taste and second taste. Include the notes from the label and producer so guests can compare and have a basis for their tasting experience. “I always bring tasting sheets for people,” adds Phillippi. “I also offer several suggestions for each category because people often need suggestions in order to identify the flavour or aroma they are sensing.” She suggests offering a one or two sentence description of each beer on the sheet itself. That way people can compare what they’re sensing with what the producer says should be there.
Don’t pour the beer until it’s time to taste. Pouring too soon will allow the key aromas to escape from the glass and prevent a full tasting experience. “I pour one sample at a time and bring it out,” says Phillippi,. “The aroma (and sometimes head retention) dissipates very quickly so I want people to focus on that beer when it’s freshly poured.” In addition to the aromas and head, the appearance of the beer will change as it airs out. “To really appreciate a beer, you need to have it freshly poured,” says Mittag. “That wasy you can get a good perspective one the appearance…the aromas and flavours. If you pre-pour, the head will dissipate and it will look terrible.”
Temperature also plays a very important part in a beer tasting. As with wine, the aromatics and flavours will change depending on the warmth or coolness of the beer. “Even a lager and a wheat beer should be out of the fridge for at least 10 to 15 minutes,” Luxmore goes on to say.
“Some high gravity (alcohol) beers with caramel and chocolate notes taste nice at cellar temperature,” says Phillippi. She points out that most brewers will suggest a serving temperature on the label.
In contrast, Mittag suggests enjoying each sample at a slightly warmer temperature. “I take my beer out of the fridge at least 45 minutes before I start,” he states. To him, sampling the beer too cold is a big faux pas for beginner tasters.
When pouring, you should keep the samples between three to six ounces. “Everyone drinks at a different pace and a full 12 ounce beer sample will create a very distracted group of people,” says Phillippi. Keep the remaining bottles on the table for guests to enjoy afterwards.
The trick to pouring? Always pour with an inch or two of head. “Aside from great appearance, foam allows all of the wonderful aromas to leave the beer and go to you,” says Mittag. The head also protects the beer, preventing the oxygen from getting in and the carbonation from getting out. This keeps the beer fresh for longer.
When pouring, tilt your glass to a 45 degree angle, Phillippi advises. “When the glass is half full, slowly tilt upwards and pour directly down the middle. This will give you the perfect head retention.”
That works for all beer except one. German Wheat beers have yeast in them that needs to be included in the glass to open up the aromas, says Luxmore. To do this, you pour three quarters of the bottle into the tasting glasses, then swirl the remaining liquid around to get the yeast worked up. Then you pour the yeast-filled beer into the glasses to top them off.
All of your preparations are complete and the fun begins — the tasting! Taste the beers in order from lightest to heaviest in alcohol. “Colours are not always a marker for intensity,” says Luxmore. “It can be darker in colour but lighter in flavour.” However Phillippi and Mittag state that you can go by colour with the IPA at the end. Take for example the beers suggested earlier: Lager/Pilsner, Pale Ale, Saison, Bitter or Brown, Belgian Wit, German Wheat Beer, Stout, Porter, India Pale Ale and ending with a strong, specialty beer.
When in doubt, use the alcohol percentage as your marker for order. There is room for error, though you don’t want to overwhelm the senses at the beginning — which is why you go lighter to heavier in flavour.
Once the beer is in the glass, you want to go through the motions, so to speak. Smell it first and note the different aromas in the glass. THEN look at it and mark down colour, clarity and head. Follow that up with a taste — take the time to analyse the different flavours in the mouth. And then do a second taste; you’ll get different sensations in the mouth both times. “I usually keep smelling throughout the tasting,” says Luxmore. The aromas change as the head dissipates and the carbonation escapes. This will change the experience in the mouth.
Any one sample could merit a third and fourth taste, though you’ll want to caution guests to take it slow. They can re-taste it at the end if they want. “Slow down and start thinking about where you might have smelled or tasted that particular item before,” says Mittag.
Encourage your guests to share their observations. Discuss each sample and make sure they know that there is no right or wrong answer. “Everyone experiences beers differently and no one is wrong!” says Phillippi. She suggests encouraging guests to think about what their experience is in terms of the memory it evokes, if they can’t describe it with specific characteristics. “Think of a memory…Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, farm fields, etc.”
It’s not about the beer in the glass so much as the experience it invokes and the discussion you have. With the right people and the right atmosphere, you will discover that every style lends itself to more than just the flavours and aromas; it becomes an evening of friendship. As for me, I’ll be tasting as many craft beers as possible so that the next time I’m out on the town, I can order with confidence and class.