Beer Tasting Parties: Swallow with Relaxed Shoulders!

By Sarah Jaquay

Say “holiday beverages” and many think of eggnog, mulled wine, maybe hot cider with apple schnapps. Beer buffs, however, crave suds year-round. To counterbalance the unrelenting advance of cold and darkness, TheWineBuzz asked a couple of experts how to host a beer tasting party – not just for the holidays, but a format that will sustain fun in any season.

“Generally, beer tasters swallow. There are flavor experiences that require passing your palate,” explains Fred Bueltmann, partner and “beervangelist” at New Holland Brewing Company in Holland, Michigan. Bueltmann started as a home brewer in the early 1990s, worked at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo and has conducted lots of home tastings.

Bueltmann advises choosing a theme. December’s are obvious: solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or “Festivus for the rest of us.” When the holidays are in the rearview mirror, “pick a single brewery, style or seasonal.” Beer and cheese tastings are easy. For home cooks who prefer a beer-pairing dinner: choose the beer styles; research foods that pair well with them in Garrett Oliver’s classic, The Brewmaster’s Table (2003).

Chicagoan Randy Mosher, author of Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink (2009), has been brewing and writing about beer for decades. Mosher suggests serving 8-10 styles, two ounces each, and “serve three or four ounces with food.” Within the theme Mosher recommends offering both familiar and new selections. “You want to present your guests with beers they recognize and some you want to push them to try.”

When asked about possible faux pas – to swirl or not; to sniff or not – Bueltmann says, “Most beer drinkers don’t worry about faux pas. We taste with relaxed shoulders and aren’t rigid about rules.” He and Mosher agree wine glasses work for sampling; brandy snifters are better for more robust styles and tulip-shaped glasses are ideal. Room to swirl can revive a dissipated head, but it’s not necessary before tasting.

Mosher suggests noticing the sequence of tastes with each beer: initial sweetness, acidity, then the level of bitterness and, as the beer warms up, flavors that hit mid-palate. Finally, there’s the aftertaste or finish – what lingers on the tongue. Provide little note pads in case guests want to remember their impressions.

Wine tastings usually progress from white to red and light to heavy. The order for beer is similar: “It’s light to dark in theory, but it’s more about intensity,” Bueltmann says. Color and intensity sometimes coincide, but ABV (alcohol by volume) and bitterness (hops) are better measures. So start with low alcohol and bitterness and raise the bar from there.

Bueltmann suggests keeping in mind the goals of any food pairing with fermented beverages, the 4 Cs: select foods that complement, contrast, create new flavors or cleanse the palate. For a new flavor experience, Bueltmann recommends Maytag blue cheese and New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk (bourbon barrel stout). “It set off fireworks in my mouth and started a dialogue between the two.”

Pick a theme and create your own flavor dialogues for a winter of extreme content. When you’re ready to drill down to recipes, check out:

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Our goal is to educate, in a reader-friendly fashion, and take the intimidation out of wine, beer and spirits in order to enhance its enjoyment.


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