Do It Yourself: A Tale of Two Beer Tastings
May 25, 2010
There is certainly no shortage of places to drink beer in the D.C. area. ChurchKey, Pizzeria Paradiso, the Galaxy Hut; the craft beer revolution has greatly improved our options all the way around.
But you don't have to go out to try great beer. You can do so at home, too. (Hold the "no shit" comments and stick with me.)
Hosting a wine tasting has been a favorite pastime of oenophiles for years, while beer tastings still seem to be limited to brewpubs and specialty beer bars. But the idea is the same -- a bunch of folks get together to experience their favorite beers or some new ones -- and the event can be just as interesting (if not more so). And if you do it right, you might just expose a few people to the revolution.
So in this post, I'll share a few tips on holding a successful beer tasting. Trust me, it ain't that hard.
There were no novices at the beer tasting I recently attended or held. A couple weeks ago, The Washington City Paper's Lagerheads -- Tammy Tuck and Bruce Falconer -- invited me and a couple other local bloggers (PJ Coleman of DC Beer and Eric Axelson of DCist) to their place for a beer tasting. A week later, I held a tasting with Tammy (Bruce was sick), as well as fellow DC Foodies writer Rob Rutledge, Franklin's brewer Mike Roy, and my wife Trish.
Tip 1. Have a theme. Even a loose one will help focus the event.
In this case, Tammy and Bruce based their tasting around Batch 19, a new "old" lager that Coors made from a recipe the company says it used prior to prohibition. The beer is being test marketed around the country, including in D.C. In turn, PJ brought Straub, an American-style lager out of Pennsylvania, Eric brought the Silver Bullet itself, Coors Light, and I contributed Anchor's Liberty Ale, the first modern American IPA (Yeah, it's not a lager. Yeah, I didn't read Tammy's instructions very thoroughly.).
The theme for my tasting was a little more loose. Some friends of mine from Tampa recently brought me a few bottles of Cigar City's Humidor Series IPA. As a homer who likes to spread the word about his hometown's craft brewers, I offered it up for the tasting. Everyone else was to bring something "interesting," too. Like I said, it was loose.
Tammy brought a bottle of Van Twee Belgian Ale (a 7.5 percent dark Belgian ale made with cherry juice), Rob brought a bottle of Lost Abbey's Avant Garde, and Mike contributed a growler of his Hop Zen, a hopped Scotch ale, and Old Salty Barleywine from 2004. With a tasting of such big, distinctive beers, preferences were all over the map.
Of the beers we "officially" tasted, I liked Mike's Hop Zen the most, followed by Cigar City's Humidor Series IPA. However, the beer that won the crowd was the J.W. Lees Harvest Ale aged in Lagavulin Scotch whiskey casks, which Rob offered up after the tasting. It was a very good beer. (Yes, we had a post-tasting tasting. Technically, we also had a pre-tasting tasting of my homebrewed IPA.).
Tip 2. Organize the tastings.
For the Lagerhead's tasting, we did a traditional blind tasting. After talking about what we brought and posing for photos, Bruce took the beers into the kitchen and poured four tasting glasses. Without knowing what was what, the rest of us observed the color and body the beers, as well as the aromas, before tasting. Once the beers made their way around the table, we proffered our guesses and discussed the results (the Liberty Ale was easy to identify, Batch 19 was Ok, Coors Light had no flavor and Straub was surprisingly good).
Blind tastings are good when you're tasting the same or similar style of beer (like American lagers) because it allows you to taste the beer without the bias of knowing the beer.
For my tasting, I didn't bother doing it blind. All the beers were quite different, so there was nothing to be gained by not knowing the brewery when tasting. The intent was to try a new beer or a favorite of one of the participants. So I organized the tasting from malty to hoppy (I figured going from sweet to bitter would help preserve everyone's palette) with the Old Salty leading things off. From there we moved on to the Lost Abbey, the Van Twee, Hop Zen, and finally Cigar City.
Tip 3. Swallow, don't spit.
When you're tasting beer, you really should swallow. A lot of the flavors occur at the back of the tongue and in the throat. So if you spit -- as many people do with wine -- you're going to miss out. If you're worried about driving home afterward, have a designated driver or call a cab.
Tip 4. Have food.
Food will also help mitigate the drunkenness, as well as serve as a palette cleanser. How much food to provide is up to you. Bruce and Tammy provided crackers and spread. I set out snack mix and pretzels. No muss, no fuss at either tasting. If you want to make it a more involved event, provide some snacks during the tasting and then fire up the barbecue afterward (you can find plenty of recipes here). I just wouldn't eat a full meal before the tasting. If you do, you might not be as interested in trying a bunch of different beers.
Tip 5. Have something on hand when you wrap it up.
The tasting is going to last an hour or two, so unless you plan to kick everyone out once it's over, make sure to have a few beers on hand. Bruce and Tammy were nice enough to pop open a bottle of Lost Abbey's Red Barn Ale (it's good). Rob cracked open the J.W. Leeds, which became the hit beer of the night.
Once the bottles were empty and the conversations ran their course, everyone headed home. By then, all I had to do was load the recycling and fill the dishwasher. Easy, easy.
(Bonus!: There are a number of shops in the area that carry a number of great craft beers and imports, including Chevy Chase Wine and Spirits, Connecticut Avenue Wine and Spirits, Schneider's of Capitol Hill, D'Vines, Rodman's, and Whole Foods in D.C.; Westover Market, Whole Foods, Total Wine and Lost Dog Cafe in Virginia; and Gilly's, Franklin's and The Perfect Pour in Maryland.)
Where did Rob get the J.W. Leeds?
Posted by: Jason | May 25, 2010 at 10:22 AM
Got the JW like 2 years ago at Half Time in my hometown, Poughkeepsie NY. Check 'em out on Beer Advocate; seriously, one of the biggest beer stores I have ever seen. Always hope to find something interesting when I go visit the parents.
Posted by: Rob Rutledge | May 25, 2010 at 04:24 PM
They have those JW Lees bottles and others at Chevy Chase Wine right now. Check out their website.
Also, regarding beer tastings, I belong to a group that does monthly beer tastings in Washington DC. It's a lot of fun and we've had the opportunity to try a lot of great beers (including many from Franklins). I got hooked into this group through www.ratebeer.com. Feel free to check out the DC Metro Forum.
Posted by: anon | May 25, 2010 at 05:33 PM
Posted by: Drew | May 25, 2010 at 05:56 PM