Hosting an "Impromptu" beer tasting

Hosting an "Impromptu" beer tasting

As a certifiable beer geek, I do have, yes, a room in the basement that serves as my "cellar," holding a couple hundred beer bottles and my currently idle homebrew pots. So many of these beers are high-alcohol behemoths (including yes, Three Floyds Behemoth) in 22 oz. or 750 ml bottles, which I really would not prefer to drink all by myself. "I'm saving them for company," I tell myself. But the right occasion doesn't always present itself, since much of our company is relatives and their kids.

But an opportunity presented itself last month when Roger, a local member of the site, posted a dilemma to its forums. He had some bottles of Dogfish Head Bitches' Brew, an Imperial Stout commemorating the 40th anniversary of the so-named album by Miles Davis. He had discovered deposits of dried malt forming around the bottle caps, and was concerned it might signal the bottle wasn't properly sealed, letting oxidation come in. Other forum posts assured him this was what sometimes happened with a bottle-conditioned beer: leaving a little yeast inside so the beer can continue fermenting can absorb all the gas in the headspace, and beer may try to ooze out, which is better than the bottle exploding. That happened with one of my homebrewed Imperial Stouts; I thought I had discovered the secret of cold fusion.

Rather than let the beer either pop open or get skunked by oxygen, Roger decided it was time to share the beers right now. He put up notice for an "Impromptu beer tasting" at his place is Oswego that evening, but got no takers. Rescheduled it for the following Thursday evening at his place, or for any other hosts closer to the city. I offered my place in the western burbs, within easy stumbling distance of the Metra line. We put out the word to our Chicago RateBeer group, and to nearby friends and neighbors. And I set out to throw a little party together in three hours.

My first consideration was what kind of food to serve. Roger kindly offered to bring in some Chik-Fil-A sandwiches, so I reciprocated with some brats. It being a warm September evening, we just set up a tale on the patio and cooked on the grill. My non-drinking wife volunteered that I should get potato salad, and she'd eat whatever was left behind. Hmm, I'm the non-potato-salad husband, but a mix of carbs, starch and fats might help slow alcohol absorption. I had a coupon for a three-pound container, more than anyone could have made a dent in, so that sat in our fridge for another week. For finger foods, the straight chips and salsa route. Had I put just a bit more thought into it, I'd have gotten some cheese as well. I tried to keep some low-salt options so guests would not get thirsty and drink more.

And, of course, a full pitcher of ice water.

Since any beer-oriented gathering involves tasting higher alcohol brews, you'll want to set out smaller glasses for tasting. Attending the Festival of Wood & Barrel Aged Beers and Great Taste of the Midwest had left me with some ideal 2-4 oz. tasters. Otherwise, a stack of bathroom Dixie Cups will do.

Another thing you'll want to do is invite nearby friends and neighbors. This is just the kind of informal occasions to demonstrate your beer geek mojo before the neighbors, and find someone ripe for recruiting into the brotherhood.

I had everything set up just as Roger arrived. I pulled some choice beers out of my root cellar, plus some lighter Two Brothers session bottles to ease into the evening. After settling with that, and the sandwiches and chips, we started in on the Bitches' Brew. We caught the threads of honey the label had mentioned, along with Gesho root, an Ethiopian plant used for bittering brews over there as we use hops. Some big stouts come across acidic and bitter, but this had more of a strong porter character, with soda pop sweetness and fizz that made it much more interesting drinking.

I followed up with a 750 ml bottle of Gratitude, a barley wine from East End Brewing of Pittsburgh. This was the 2007 edition of their anniversary barley wine, which I received in a trade with a beer fan from that area. It was still very cloudy with stirred up yeast, but still hoppy for an aged beer. Roger said he found traces of mustard seed, which I could not deny. He was also intrigued with its big bottle, wrapped tightly in brown kraft paper with a wax seal on top.

Roger popped a Port Brewing Older Viscosity out of California, a strong ale aged in Bourbon barrels. Less overbearing than an imperial stout or barley wine, but still a mouthful.

I countered with a Sapient Trip Ale from Dark Horse Brewing of Marshall, MI. This abbey style beer, with notes of dark fruit and raisins, proved to be a bit of a break after the heavy beers before, even if it was on the high end of the scale with 8.5% alcohol by volume (abv).

We're about an hour into this session when our neighbors came round the back after dropping off their kid to play with our kid. They had with them a Berghoff Prairie Lager and Sam Adams Oktoberfest, and they immediately apologized when they saw the big guns on display next to their lighter beers. No worries, we told them. We can always have something light around for variety, and besides, there was more than enough beer to go around. Heck, we were having trouble eating all the Chik-Fil-A's.

Though they weren't certified beer geeks, the neighbors quickly found a lot to like in our selections, and the phrase, "Honey, have you tried this yet?" was said more than once. They found even more descriptions for the Older Viscosity: red wine, Jägermeister, even prunes. They even managed to enjoy the intensely bitter Bitches Brew.

To cap the evening, I produced a bottle made by members of my old homebrew club in 2006. Members of the Brewers of South Suburbia had collaborated on a recipe in making several batches, which they then put in a club-owned barrel for aging. This was then bottled and given to all members as the annual membership premium. At first it was very sour, either from one contributor's infected batch, or something hiding in the barrel. But over the years, the sourness smoothed out, and by the time I opened this bottle, we had a nice, medium strength ale with big fruity notes and only a hint of sourness, an improvised Lambic, if you will.

We only had to open five bottles before we'd decided we had enjoys as much beer as we could. It turns out that you don't need to bring lots of beer to a gathering if somebody is expecting to drive home. Our neighbors' kids had already gone back home, so they just needed to go across the street. I checked with Roger afterward to make sure he had made it home alright, and to see what he thought of the tasting. He replied:

Here's my recollection of the night:

"Storm Troopers came crashing through the roof of the house and demanded we hand over to them the bottle of Dark Horse Sapient. Mark then started to pick his habaneros and throw them at the evil soldiers. It was then that Batman appeared out of the trees and snatched up the bottle of Sapient and quickly sped away on his tricycle. The Storm Troopers, not knowing what to do, just stared at each other, shrugged, and sat down for a pouring of the Bitch's Brew."

That's what happened, right?

As long as everyone got home okay, sure.

This represents a personal experience, and should not be counted on as a sure-fire manual for throwing a successful tasting party. While I'm still in the dark about the best snacks, I can best recommended the small portion tasting cups. Be sure to involve neighbors, if possible, and remember: when you're hosting, your guests are likely to leave beer behind for you.

Follow me on Twitter, Google+ or Facebook. For future events in first draft, check my Google calendar.

Filed under: Beer Serving, Beer Tasting

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    Mark McDermott

    Writer, trivia maven, fan of many things. I thought to learn all there is to know about beer as a way to stay interested in learning. It is my pleasure to bring Chicago's craft beer scene to you.

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