The order that beers are served at tastings is of great importance to those that attend the events, and to the beverages themselves.
Some of the liveliest discussions I have heard at beer tastings revolve around what order to drink the beers that have been offered. Consensus can often be reached, but often not without some minor hiccups.
I’ve given this a fair bit of thought recently after a tasting where we failed to do a perfectly good beer justice.
To explain: At a recent tasting we put two high alcohol stouts back to back, but we served one that weighed in at 20% ABV before one that was roughly 10%. While both were good beers, the second one seemed simple and light in comparison. Folks around the table generally agreed that we didn’t serve the beer in the order it deserved and thus really didn’t get the full experience of the beer that was offered.
Perhaps there is a better way.
Beer tastings can be done in a multitude of ways, but generally they can be narrowed down to a few different models.
1. Random bottle shares. One or more attendees bring beer to be shared amongst the guests. Due to its random nature, this type of tasting is typically the hardest to sort beers for.
2. Vertical tasting flights. Multiple different years of the same beer are served and compared to each other to see how the beer has aged. Some of these tasting may allow variations on the base beer, such as wood-aged versions.
3. Style based tastings. These tend to focus on a selection of beer styles or sub-styles. The individual beers can vary, but are tied together by a common brewing heritage and culture.
4. Theme based tastings. While the beers in these tastings tend to vary, they are also paired to a theme. The themes can be everything from a unifying ingredient (pepper spiced beer for example) to pairing to a particular food (what beer to serve with something like duck confit?) and even pairing a beer to an idea or concept (what goes well with Valentine’s Day?)
With these and many other variations on tastings, how can we determine the best order to serve beers for them?
The short answer is that we can’t. There is never a perfect way to serve several different beers that does justice to all. However, we can come up with some guidelines to point us in the right direction. Lastly, we can add a few ideas that can help steer the event to greater success.
A quick search on the Internet reveals many different ways to order beers, some of which are more intuitive and useful than others.
Many folks suggest that beers should be ordered from lighter to darker, maltier to hoppier, and lower alcohol to higher booziness. At first glance this makes lots of sense, but closer examination reveals that there inherent problems.
Some beer can fit in more than one category, and thus the rules quickly break down. A high ABV beer can be quite light or quite dark. The same beer can also be quite hoppy or quite malty. So where does this leave someone planning out the tastes for the event?
Here is what we often do and have had a fair bit of success with.
Whenever possible, keep like together.
The tasting should progress from light flavoured beers to stronger ones.
Beers that are odd, unique or able to dramatically impact the palate deserve a place of prominence, although this is not necessarily at the beginning or end of the tasting.
There are a few other little techniques that I like to use to make the tasting go well.
- When sorting the beers, come up with a rough plan and for any beers you are unsure of just poll the group.
- It’s always a good idea to have some beers on hand as palate cleansers or as calibration beers. Some sort of mental break and change of pace for the palate is always helpful.
- Folks often suggest having food at tastings, and this is a good tip. Unfortunately, some folks would have tasters rely on unsalted crackers and perhaps some cheese. Many of the best tastings that I have attended offered a variety of foods. Foods with a variety of temperatures, textures challenge the brain and taste-buds. A big hit in many tastings are various charcuterie with their blend of salt and fat. The addition of a variety of fruits is always welcome as well.
- While perhaps counter-intuitive, it is always beneficial to take breaks. Getting up from the table, taking a walk around the room (or even outside as applicable) having a snack and a beverage that isn’t beer helps to refreshen the mind and palate.
Will these suggestions solve everything? Of course not. But I think they represent a good jumping off point that have worked for many people.
If you have something to add I’d love to hear from you.