A formal beer tasting (if that's not an oxymoron) should be an experience that broadens and then focuses the tasters' perspectives. Exposure to a wide range of styles or interpretations expands beer drinkers' understanding of the diversity of the world of beer. At the end of a good tasting, however, guests should have a much clearer idea of which beers they liked—and didn't.
Most tastings involve presenting to the tasters a collection of different beers one after another, arranged from the most delicate to the most robust in flavor. At the end of the evening, the guests leave remembering, perhaps, that they particularly enjoyed the porter or the pilsner.
It occurred to me that a tasting could be arranged in a more diagnostic fashion, where, at the end, the guest takes away an understanding, not of specific brands, but of the characteristics of beer flavor he or she preferred.
At a recent tasting, I inadvertently presented two beers back to back that turned out to be great predictors of the tasters' preferences for the rest of the evening. If a guest preferred the first beer, they would also like beers three and six; if a guest liked the second beer, they would also enjoy beers four and five, even though the beers were of different styles.
So, here is a home tasting structured to help you know what features you like in beer, and what to ask for, even when you're in unfamiliar beer territory. In honor of American Craft Beer Week, May 11-17, all the selections are domestic craft brews. Find a retailer who will sell single bottles of beer, and pour yourself and your friends 4-ounce samples of each pair.
The most fundamental division in the beer world is between the lager and the ale families. Plenty of beer drinkers enjoy styles in both, but most people find they lean one way or another, even though there is as much variety within each family as there are differences between them.
Lagers are fermented at cool temperatures and are characteristically clean in flavor. Ales are fermented at warmer temperatures, which generate additional complex, fruity flavors.
In both beer families, there are styles that range from straw-colored to black, and from low to high alcohol content. But drinkers who prefer the clean, crisp character of Old Scratch may want to delve further in the lager family; whereas those who enjoy the fruiter quality of Red Seal Ale will want to explore the ale selections. (I'll presume to go one step further in recommendations: Old Scratch fans should plan an overseas vacation in Germany, land of lager; and Red Seal drinkers might entertain a trip to England to sample traditional ales in the pubs.)
Malt and hops are two of the four essential ingredients of beer; the other two are yeast and water. Malt refers to malted barley, the grain base of beer. Hops are the flower cones from a climbing vine, whose addition gives a beer bitterness and aroma. One ingredient or the other can be dominant in a beer's aroma and taste—although a brewer always tries to balance the flavors.
If you prefer the rounded, biscuity sweetness of the Gaelic Ale, you are appreciating a malt-accented beer. If, however, you love the floral, bitter, citrusy bite of Hop Ottin', you, dear drinker, are a hophead.
Beer color comes from malted barley, where heat is used to stop germination. A small amount of heat produces a pale malt; more heat produces darker and even burnt malts.
The color of a beer has nothing to do with its alcoholic strength, nor is a dark beer heavier or more bitter—at least in the herbal, hop-bitterness sense. However, darker malts do contribute a roasty flavor to beer, which can range from gentle caramel to hints of coffee and burnt toast.
These two lagers are differentiated chiefly by the depth of roasting of the malt. The Golden Lager has gentle bready notes; the Black Radish has much more noticeable coffee and bitter chocolate.
What does this exercise prove? After you have tasted the three beer pairs, you can walk into any good beer bar in a distant city and request the flavors you like: "What do you have in a lightly hopped, pale lager?" or "I'd like a dark, malty ale." Even when you're far from home and familiar brands, you can find a beer to love.
Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, which is based in Durham. Beer Hopping appears the first Wednesday of each month. Reach Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.