|How to host a beer-tasting party
Just like a wine-tasting party, this is a fun excuse to get together with friends and sample the many different varieties of beer.
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Four to eight people is manageable.
Decide whether you will focus on a particular region or type of beer (ales, or beers from Belgium, for example). Assign one style or region to each person, and have him/her bring two bottles of at least two different beers.
If you’re supplying the beer, plan to serve six to 12 different beers at your tasting and about three ounces of each beer per guest during the tasting session. 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.
Provide 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 tasters may want to rinse their glasses between each beer and empty them into the bucket.
Either have your tasting pre- or post-meal, with plenty of popcorn, bread or crackers (nothing too salty) and water on hand to cleanse the palate between tastings. If you want to have more food on hand, serve a selection of fruits, cheeses and pates. Or make it a leisurely evening and serve a meal, pairing different beers with each course (see “Which food with which beer?
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. You might also provide a menu listing each beer in tasting order.
Another option is to make the tastings “blind.” Have everybody bring their beer in a paper bag so no one else can see what they brought. Assign one non-drinker person as bartender. This person pours some of each beer into everyone's glass so nobody knows which beer you're trying until after you've sampled it. This makes more of a difference than you might expect because we all develop pre-conceived notions of which brands or types of beer are good – ideas that often change after a blind test.
If you like, keep a journal of what you’ve tasted, what you liked and didn’t like, and why.
ANATOMY OF TASTE
How a beer is served will affect your perception of it. Your glass should be clean and well-rinsed, with no oil or soap residue. The temperature should be suitable for the particular style you're tasting. North Americans generally drink beer too cold to experience all the flavors and aromas. This is an effective strategy when drinking most big-brewery beers, but diminishes the full flavor of many other beers. Lagers, wheat beers and lighter beers are best served at cooler temperatures, between 3°C and 10°C (35°F-45°F). Ales, particularly English ales, are best appreciated somewhat warmer, at what is known as cellar temperature (10°C-15°C, 40°F-50°F).
Begin by pouring the beer into your glass and looking at it. Color and clarity are the two first impressions, and both are dependent on the style of beer being tasted. Darker beers are often, though not always, stronger flavored and heavier but some brewers use dark malts in light-tasting beers, and some even use food coloring to make beers look darker. Most beers are intended to be clear, but some wheat beers or unfiltered beers should have a cloudiness to them. Chill haze looks like yeast in suspension, but disappears when the beer warms.
Before the head disappears, smell the beer. It is largely the head that releases the aromas of the beer. Listen to the head after pouring. A fizzy, popping head which quickly disappears indicates less malt and more sugars in the brew, and excessive carbonation, which leads to a sour-tasting beer.
Next, take a sip of the beer, holding it in your mouth and swishing it around your tongue before swallowing. Are the flavors in balance? Is the sweetness of the malt matched by bitterness from the hops? What taste sensations make up the flavor? Does the first impression change as you savor the beer, and does it leave a pleasant aftertaste or finish? Take another sip and do the same again. Some beers take a couple of swallows to fully experience all the flavors. How does the beer feel in your mouth? Thick or thin, creamy or cloying? Fizzy, flat, or zestfully effervescent?
HANDLE WITH CARE
You might be surprised to learn that beer is the most fragile and perishable of all alcoholic drinks. Always buy the freshest beer possible, and never buy unrefrigerated beer. Some beers have expiry dates, which can be helpful. Also, avoid beer that has been displayed under fluorescent lighting or in direct sunlight.
Handle your beer gently, shaking it as little as possible. Don't keep it in your trunk any longer than necessary to get it home. Don’t heat and cool your beer repeatedly -- it increases the pressure in the bottle and creates chemical reactions that can alter the aroma and flavor of the beer.
The best place to store beer is upright in the warmest place in your refrigerator. Storing it upright ensures the damaging metal in the bottle cap doesn't touch the beer and also minimizes the surface area in contact with oxygen.
You should drink your beer within a week or two of purchase. Unlike wine, very few beers improve with age (see below for exceptions). Most beers, including virtually all lagers and plenty of ales, are matured at the brewery and filtered. The fresher you drink them the better they will taste.
Only a few special beers -- including many of the strong winter beers -- will improve over time. The best candidates for aging are barley wines, strong ales, some stouts (particularly imperial stouts), Belgian Trappist and abbey beers, and gueuze. Of course, you won’t find many gueuzes outside of Belgium, and when you do you can't be sure how they've been handled, so they’re best left where you found them.
POURING THE PERFECT BEER
How to properly pour beer is a matter of heated debate for some. Here’s one method: Hold the bottle and glass almost horizontally when you start pouring. Tilt the glass and begin pouring the beer down the side. This helps keep the carbon dioxide in the glass and maintains flavor.
When the bottle is half poured, straighten the glass and pour into the centre until the foam nears the top of the glass. Leave just enough space for the foam to rise to the lip of the glass.