Host a beer-tasting party

There’s nothing like a “cold one” on a hot summer’s night, but these days our taste for beer is getting more sophisticated. With the wide variety of flavours, vintages and microbreweries on the market beer tasting is becoming as popular as wine tasting — and it’s the perfect excuse to get together with friends.

The prep work

The party can be as casual or as upscale as you like, and a patio or outdoor room makes an ideal setting. Here are the basics to get started:

– Draw up a guest list. The party shouldn’t be large — six to 10 people is a manageable number.

– Make room in your fridge or have coolers on hand to chill the beverages. Allow extra time to let the beer come to it’s ideal temperature.

– Decide on the glassware. True beer enthusiasts (and environmentalists) frown on plastic cups, but they can come in handy if you don’t have enough glasses to pour multiple samples for each guest. If you go for glassware, be sure to stick with the same size and shape each time. It’s also a good idea to have a bucket of soapy water, a place to rinse, and some dish towels on hand for a quick clean-up if needed.

– Deal with the waste. A recycling bin and garbage can are must-haves, but to prevent messy leaks (or beer being dumped in your flower pots) keep a “swill” bucket handy where people can dump out what they don’t drink.

– If you’re hosting the party outdoors, set up a special table as your “bar” where all the drinks are poured — and have a little fun decorating it too. (You may want to elect a bartender too). Arrange the seating so that samples can be easily passed around, and snacks are within easy reach.

– Print up a sheet to keep track of the samples and let your guests rate each one and make notes. If you want to make a game of it, before you start have your tasters write down their predictions for the favourite and least favourite beers, then tally the votes at the end and award prizes to the winners.

– Allow plenty of time. Aim for a full evening event to give your guests time to fully savour each selection and compare notes. Make sure to space out the tasting and take breaks so the taste buds don’t get overloaded.

– Arrange transportation ahead of time. Unlike wine, beer should be swallowed to get the full enjoyment of the flavours on the tongue. As a responsible host you’ll want to make sure everyone has a ride home for the evening, or a couch in your home they can sleep on.

The main attraction

With so many different choices out there, how do you know which to choose and how much you’ll need? Experts recommend a couple of rules of thumb:

– Choose six to 12 different kinds of beer (depending on the number of guests).

– Plan on serving three ounces of each beer per person — that’s four samples per 12 ounce bottle. A six pack of each beer is ideal so there will be some left over to enjoy later in the evening, or to divvy up among guests as a take-home treat. (Taster packs or party packs are also available too).

– Select a broad range of beers if it’s your first tasting — like a light lager, dark lager, Canadian beer, imported brand, fruit-flavoured beer, etc. If you’re up for a surprise (and a little cost-sharing), make it a “potluck”. Have every person bring a beer they’ve never had before but want to try.

– Alternatively, you can narrow the focus with a theme — like choosing beers from one brand or vintage, or opting for local breweries or microbreweries instead. Whichever option you choose, experts recommend spending a little time thinking about what order to serve the beers in. You can group by flavourings, region or colour (light to dark), for example.

– For the actual tasting follow the same steps as you would with wine: admire the colour, smell it and sip it slowly.

– Keep plenty of water on hand, and drink it often. Not only will it help to counteract the effects of the alcohol, it will also help cleanse the palate.

– It’s not necessary, but you can also read up on your choices ahead of time and print out notes for your guests.

One thing you’ll want to avoid is competition: Perfumes, cooking smells, cigarette smoke and noise can detract from the tasting.

The accompaniment

Forget the pub fare and “game night” treats. While it’s important to have snacks on hand, be sure to select items that aren’t going to interfere with or distort the unique flavours of each beer. Some safe bests include:

– Breads, crackers and plain popcorn (which help cleanse the palate between tastings).

– Fruits and cheeses (which will compliment the flavours of the beer).

– Deli meats and pates (also a good compliment).

That doesn’t mean you need to skip on the gourmet appetizers or luscious desserts — just save them for after the tasting. Healthy choices like vegetables and dip can help off-set the richer foods and calories from the beer.

For those who don’t like beer…

Of course, not everyone enjoys beer and there might even be some non-drinkers at your party too. Here’s what you can do to include them:

– Offer, but don’t pressure. Have glasses available and let your guests know they are welcome to try anything they choose. Even people who don’t like beer might be curious about a local brewery or a fruit beer.

– Have tasty alternatives available. A favourite soft drink, blended drink or non-alcoholic drink is sure to be a hit.

– Get them involved by appointing a role like tallying the votes and awarding the prizes. (After all, they’re impartial).

Still need a little help? Check out these sources for some party-planning know-how:
The Beer Store: Hosting your own beer tasting
Sally’s Place: How to Host a Beer Tasting
Beer Beer Tasting Guide (pdf) Beer Tasting and Drinking

Photo © Hélène Vallée

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