A Cure for What Ales You
By Jennifer Koski
Recently, in a cut-throat silent auction bidding war at a children’s school carnival, I lost an “In-Home Beer Tasting for 12” from Andy’s Liquor. All the way home, I lamented the loss of my professional beertasting package and planned my revenge on Bidder #62. (Don’t think I don’t know who you are, #62.)
Here’s the kicker: I don’t even like beer. But I do like new and/or entertaining and/or adventurous excuses to get together with friends. A beer tasting fit the bill on all three counts.
The next day, my husband sent me a “How to Taste Beer” article he found online. It turns out that for a man who isn’t big on entertaining, he didn’t need to be asked twice—or even once—to throw a beer-tasting party.
The article Jay found provided guidelines for holding a do-ityourself beer tasting and step-by-step instructions for tasting beer (who knew?). We were in. Armed with this research, Jay created scorecards that included a multi-point grading system for each beer. We then invited a range of friends—from neighbors to co-workers to that cool librarian whose always writing about Whistle Binkies Mystery Beer Night on her Facebook page. We asked each of our nine guests to bring a six-pack of a “favorite, unique, unusual, or local” beer.
The night of the party, guests arrived with their beer hidden in bags or tucked into their coats in order to protect their brew’s secret identity. Then, to ensure blind tasting, Jay snuck off to wrap the bottles in brown paper.
Our plan was to taste a beer, take a few minutes to discuss and rate it, then unveil the bottle to reveal what we’d just judged. Here’s how it went down:
At this point, we’re all still establishing our beer know-how— of which I have none. Some of my fellow tasters, however, are clearly connoisseurs.
“I prefer stouts and porters,” says one.
“Porters are almost too much for me,” says another knowingly.
They turn to me—the girl who until this minute knew porters only as characters on The Love Boat—and I say, “I’ll drink to that!”
Jay pours the first beer and there’s a moment of silence as we ceremoniously sip our samples. Then conversation fills the room.
“I taste a little cardamon,” says our neighbor, Karmen.
“Belgium…?” says someone else.
“Hmm ... so-so,” says another taster.
“Yep. Tastes like beer,” I murmur.
Unveiled: Bavarian Hefeweizen
As Jay prepares the second beer, the group debates the nuances of Guinness. “I think it has more flavenoids and antioxidants,” says one taster. “There’s less alcohol and fewer calories.”
“So it’s like a health beer,” says someone else.
Jay pours and our focus turns to the beer at hand. The verdict is instantaneous: It’s a cider. And since it’s the closest I’ll get to an appletini all night, it will remain my favorite drink of the evening.
Unveiled: Newtons Folly Authentic Draft Cider
We’ve barely sipped our third samples when half the room erupts with, “Newcastle. Definitely Newcastle.”
Two stragglers say, “I’m not so sure ...”
One says, “No, it’s not.”
Unveiled: Newcastle Brown Ale
This sample is lighter and reminds me of the stuff I once drank from red plastic cups in college house basements.
“I think this one rhymes with Bamm’s. Or Blitz,” says one taster.
“It tastes ... funky,” says another.
“Not my favorite,” says our neighbor, Luke.
And then Jay tears the wrapping from the bottle and we discover that it is, actually, Luke’s favorite. Not only did he bring this beer, but for several years he made special trips to Wisconsin for the sole purpose of purchasing this particular brand.
“If I’d known, I would’ve liked it,” Luke says in defense. “It’s like wine. The label means a lot.”
Unveiled: Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Dortmunder Gold
“I taste cardamon again,” says Karmen. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how she does that.
And that’s about the most positive thing that’s said about this particular bottle.
Other comments range from, “Well, it doesn’t taste like a college beer” to “It’s trying to be robust, but it’s not quite pulling it off.”
Unveiled: Bell’s Winter White Ale
Someone (maybe me) suggests that we stage fake-drunken poses for the photographer. But then Jay pours Beer #6 and the distraction saves us.
“It’s hoppy ... lighter, but really herby,” says one taster.
“It reminds me of IPA,” says another.
“I don’t know ... it’s okay,” says my friend Missie. But when the beer is unveiled, she changes her story. “No way! I actually really like this beer,” she says. “Blind tasting changes things.” Unveiled: Leinenkugel’s Classic Amber
“I think some of these are kind of strong,” says one taster as we prepare for our seventh sample.
“I know,” says the librarian. “I can tell by the width of my smile.” By this point even I’m beginning to think that beer isn’t so bad. But then I sip this latest sample and change my mind.
“Subtly smoked,” says one taster. “I like a strong smoke or not at all.”
“Funny aftertaste,” says another. “Smokey.”
Unveiled: Lake Superior’s Mesabi Red (Duluth, Minn.)
This beer is a clear hit from the start—so instead of debating its nuances, tasters debate the source.
“Heineken. Definitely Heineken,” says one.
“I don’t know ... I’m thinking Canada. Molson?”
“I have to say LaBatts,” says another.
When the bag is removed, a collective gasp breaks out. “Ah, my first girl ...” says our neighbor, George.
Unveiled: St. Pauli Girl (Germany)
It’s our final beer, but we don’t necessarily go out with a bang. “This one’s a little skunky,” says one taster.
“Whoa, harsh and strong,” says another.
Unveiled: Elephant (Denmark and Canada)
When the final scores are tallied, we have three clear winners. In first place, it’s the nearly undisputed St. Pauli Girl. Second place goes to the first beer of the night, Bavarian Hefeweizer. And in third place, the beer most tasters recognized even before its secret identity was revealed, is Newcastle Brown Ale.
Even easier to tally are the losers. Tied for last place are Bell’s Winter White Ale and Great Lake Brewing Company’s Dortmunder Gold.
As the evening winds down, labels are studied, merits are defended, new bottles of old favorites are opened. Luke takes some ribbing about not recognizing his own favored beer—the one that ended up in the loser’s circle. But it’s all in good fun and even he deems the night a success. “Same time next week?” he jokes as the group filters out. “I think we’re due for a whisky tasting now.”
When it comes to beer tasting, experts agree on six primary criteria: pouring, appearance, aroma, fi rst sip, mouthfeel, and fi nish. But Mike Gibson, store manager for Andy’s Liquor, warns not to worry too much about the technicalities.
“Beer tasting is more about the experience than anything else,” Gibson says. “Regardless of color and appearance and smell, I encourage people to keep an open mind—to be open to different flavors and to come up with their own flavor descriptions. People shouldn’t worry about what they’re supposed to be tasting.”
Gibson points out the beer drinkers tend to judge beer based on a first impression—and often that first impression is appearance. “When they look at the color, their first sensory impression may be that it’s too dark. They think, ‘I’m not going to like it.’ But don’t let that first impression ruin the experience. People who like dark chocolate or coffee tend to like stouts, which is a darker beer. So, sure, take a look at the beer—but then go beyond that.”
Gibson recommends trying several different types of beers—lagers, ales, porters, stouts—to come up with your own flavor descriptions and preferences. Once you’re familiar with the variations, you’ll learn to determine a particular style’s three most prominent flavors even before tasting them.
“My approach to beer tasting is that the best experience is to actually taste,” Gibson says. “You should judge beer on whether you like it or not.”