How to Conduct A Beer Flight
One of the most fascinating and enjoyable ways to taste is through a beer flight: a conducted tour of beers that may reflect a specific theme, a brewery’s lineup or even the uncorking of ancient treasures. No matter the theme, lining up a number of beers with an informed purpose is a great way to dig deeper, reveal unseen similarities and generally improve your understanding and enjoyment of the beer world.
You probably have experienced the standard self-guided brewery sampler flight: typically six little glasses of beer on a board or holder of some type, supplied with names and styles and presented in the typical order of pale to dark, weak to strong, with hoppy somewhere in the middle. While this is a great tool for seeing what a brewery is up to and picking your next pint, it’s only as educational as you make it.
On the other hand, a conducted flight has someone running the show and providing a narrative, adding richness and educational value. With a few basics of setup and technique, plus a little research, there’s no reason why you can’t be the one running the show. Here are some of the basics to get you started.
The first thing to consider is purpose. It may be as simple as widening people’s beer horizons by presenting unfamiliar beers. There are unlimited educational opportunities, from focusing on a style, region or brewing culture to learning how ingredients and the brewing process affect the flavor of different beers. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with just having fun. Why not add a flight structure to that bottle-share or conduct (pun intended) a beer and music tasting. The beer world is so huge these days, it’s a very good idea to narrow things down to a specific focus.
In order to provide a great experience, some preparation is needed. Beyond filling their roles in the overall theme, try to make sure that the beers are as fresh as possible—unless you are tasting aged, strong beers. Check the expiration dates or shop a small specialty retailer that pays attention and rotates its stock. Freshness makes a huge difference, as staleness has its own set of flavors that can overwhelm the positive flavors in most beers.
Try to serve them as close to the ideal temperature as possible. This isn’t always easy, but by pulling beers out of the fridge up to an hour before serving, you can get close to the ideals: 38–40 degrees F (°C) for lagers; 42–55 degrees F (°C) for lighter to heavier ales, and just barely cool for those behemoth barley wines and imperial stouts. If you have access to a point-and-shoot infrared thermometer, this is a mess-free way of taking their temperatures.
There are lots of options when it comes to glassware, but it’s best if you can follow the two most basic rules: 1) Use a glass that curves in at the top, as they’re best at capturing aroma; and 2) Never fill the glass more than halfway (see rule 1). When tasting in a restaurant, I often ask that two wine glasses be set at each place, and this usually sparks a comment like “Oooohh, beer in a wine glass.” Yes, folks, we take this beverage seriously. With two glasses, the second beer can be poured while the first is being tasted. And then when the third comes around, participants can either drink or dump, then give the glass a quick rinse with water—since you have thoughtfully placed those things on the table—before moving on. If you’re working with restaurant staff, no matter how eager they are to be helpful, do not let them pour the beers more than a couple of minutes in advance, as we want the brightest, most aroma-laden experience possible.
It’s very important for the leader to manage expectations for the tasters up front. A clear theme helps with this, and I find that a cheat sheet for the tasters with, at a bare minimum, the names of the beers along with a few vital facts is essential. It’s also good to have some space for people to write notes, as this actually enhances the experience for those who choose to record their impressions.
Another important consideration is how much alcohol you are serving. A dozen generous pours of high-test brews will be an ecstatic experience until halfway through, at which point civilized order breaks down, and there’s no point in continuing to talk. And of course, there’s an obligation to be reasonable and not overly intoxicate your tasters. A good rule of thumb is that somewhere between two and three regular servings of regular beer is about right, depending on the audience and the duration. Do the math on strong beers versus weak and don’t overserve. Six to eight samples is about the right number, so calculate serving size(s) accordingly. Plan on spending about five to seven minutes on each. More than that and people can lose focus. The noise level will definitely increase toward the end, so be prepared for that.
As a practical matter, not everyone will arrive at the same time if you’re conducting a tasting for a large group, and my experience is that when people arrive at a tasting, they want beer—now. So, a semi-generous serving of something bright and sessionable is a good way to buffer until you have a majority seated to start the flight.
As with the brewpub sampler, the flight generally progresses from lighter to more intense. Be especially aware of flavors like smoke and extreme hopping that can be palate-wreckers, and save them for the end or follow them with something that can help cleanse the palate and reset for the next run uphill. Generally, it’s beneficial to have a point in the middle where you insert some bright, refreshing beer of some sort so the experience is not one long slog upward in intensity. Acidic beers often work great for this reset if they fit the theme.
It is nice when the tasting includes a complimentary glass, and this is fairly common with brewery or other conducted group tastings. Also, if the final beer is extremely strong, it may best be served in a smaller snifter-type glass rather than the larger ones used for the rest of the tasting.
It’s helpful to give the audience a quick tasting lesson. Sniff first, think about impressions, then sip; let the beer warm a little before swallowing and note the way the different tastes build and fade. As they swallow, close the lips and breathe out the nose gently for the retronasal. This will capture a different impression of aroma, melded into a more comprehensive flavor experience and revealing flavors that have been released by enzymes in your mouth—it’s more important than you might think. Finally, have them focus on the aftertaste. Is it smooth and clean, or harsh, astringent or oxidized? This may take a minute or so.
A couple of flight formats deserve special attention. First is the vertical tasting, when the same beer is presented, saved from previous years. These invariably are strong beers that can age gracefully if kept in stable cellar conditions. Small snifters are best. Generally, the newest beer is presented first, going back in time as the tasting progresses. Events like this require years of preparation, but for a small group it’s not too much trouble to stash a few bottles every year for a future event. A large group like our Chicago Beer Society can muster up a pretty good lineup of a beer like Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale when we put out the call. It never hurts to ask, as people squirrel stuff away waiting for a perfect occasion to share, and a group tasting with like-minded tasters is a great opportunity to share a stash.
And finally, one can bring in the element of food. This adds complexity and rightly deserves its own article. For a place to start, though, I highly recommend cheese. It’s stellar with beer, and amazingly easy to stage. Serving weights range from 1/8 ounce to 1/2 ounce for each cheese, depending on how big the flight is and how much food your folks are expecting. As for recommendations, you’ll have to do a little research, but my insider tip is to head for a cheese counter with actual humans behind it. In my experience they almost always love beer and often come up with interesting pairings you may never have dreamed of.
So gather up a few beers, a comfortable setting, good glassware and a few of your friends, then have at it. You never know how far a great flight will transport you.
Randy Mosher is the author of Tasting Beer and is a senior instructor at the Siebel Institute.