How to host an awesome craft beer tasting party
You don’t have to be an expert to host a craft beer tasting party. You can make it as simple or as elaborate as you like. Here are our best hints for a successful evening.
1. Pick a theme
2. Choosing the beers
3. Organising glassware and other equipment
4. Planning the food
5. Why blind tasting?
6. How to do the actual tasting bit
7. Recording impressions
The first thing to decide is a theme for your craft beer tasting party. Why have a theme? Well, there are so many craft beers out there, just heading down to your local liquor store or supermarket and hoping for some inspiration is likely to end up in frustration or overwhelm. Do some homework before you shop. Here are our best ideas for themes to get you started:
Themes based around styles and ingredients
All the same style –something familiar such as lagers or stouts
A style you haven’t tried before – sours are one example, or what about hazy IPAs
A family of beers – I’m thinking Belgians, ambers
Beers featuring a particular kind of ingredient – coffee infused, or fruity perhaps
Beers with exotic ingredients – let yourself go wild with this one
“anything but an IPA” – why not try something like American Brown Ales or Vienna Lagers
Spot the difference #1– try comparing similar styles e.g. what’s the difference between a porter and a stout
Spot the difference #2 – try comparing beers with overlapping style guidelines e.g. IPAs and APAs
a place-based style e.g. West Coast IPAs
Keeping it local – all beers from breweries within a certain distance of your house
Keeping it even more local – beers from only one brewery, preferably one close to you
Breaking away – only beers from outside *Wellington*, or insert name of the craft beer capital in your corner of the world
Regional ‘development’ – all beers from breweries in one region or one country
Summer beers – focus on lighter offerings or fruity flavours
Pumpkin beers in the autumn (yep there really is such a thing)
Beers to drink at BBQs or beside the campfire
You could even try a selection of award winning beers – do you agree with the experts? Or the most popular from a recent beer festival – did the punters know what they are talking about? Make it a celebration of beers made by female brewers. The options are virtually unlimited – let your imagination run wild.
How do I select the beers?
Basically there are two approaches here – you choose and purchase the beers, or you ask your guests to bring along their picks.
The advantages of inviting your guests to make the selections is that you can end up with an eclectic and adventurous mix. You can also share the cost this way.
We reckon its more fun though if you are in charge. Here is your chance to select a beer from that brewery you’ve been meaning to try. Make it easy, make it hard, throw in a wildcard (the new brewery in town, one of the ‘big boys’).
Give yourself plenty of time to select the beers – you might need to go to two or more stores in order to get all the brews you want. Ring ahead – liquor store owners are a valuable source of knowledge and are usually more than happy to help out with advice and recommendations.
How much beer will I need?
We recommend tasting a maximum of six beers. This gives you plenty of scope for comparisons without being too overwhelming. Allow 50-100ml per sample per guest. So a couple of 500ml bottles of each beer, or three to four smaller bottles, will be plenty for the tastings.
Remember always be a responsible host – provide food (see below), non-alcoholic choices, and encourage your guests to think about transport options before they arrive. We want everyone to have fun AND get home safely.
What about glassware?
It may seem obvious but we’re going to say it anyway – you’re going to need glasses – quite a few of them. There are a few options:Use whatever existing beer glasses you already have. Depending on how many you own you might need to rinse them well in between beers.
Hire some glasses. Saves on clean up and makes sure you have a clean new glass for each beer.
If you are feeling extravagant, or think hosting beer tastings will become a regular thing, you could consider investing in specially-designed tasting glasses. These are smaller in size than regular glasses. Check out these super cute mini versions of a pilsner glass. We use these slightly smaller taster glasses at the cellar door.
You’ll also need regular glasses for water.
What other equipment will I need?
· A bucket or two so your guests can dispose of any unwanted beer, or for in-between rinsings.
· A table to set out glasses and food, and tasting sheets if you are using them. Don’t forget pens for everyone.
· A place for people to sit and something to lean on if they are recording notes- could be a table, or why not even give everyone their own clipboard.
· Somewhere to keep your beers cold – if you don’t have enough fridge space try large plastic containers filled with ice, or at a pinch you can even fill a large sink (or your bath tub!) with ice.
What food should I serve?
At a beer tasting party the beer should be the star of the show. We recommend keeping the food simple and relatively plain. Serving your favourite garlic pizza, or spicy nachos will make it harder to discern all the elements of the beer, especially those with more subtle characteristics.
(If you do want to experiment with beer and food matching at another event check out our guide.)
For your tasting party the emphasis should be on snacks that cleanse the palate in between beers. Our favourite suggestions are:
Provide plenty of water (preferably sparkling) too – also good for palate cleansing and for being a responsible host.
What is blind tasting?
We recommend blind tasting for your beer tasting party. Of course there are other ways but blind tasting is the gold standard for freeing yourself from the power of suggestion (a honey cherry mango lime sour anyone?) and removing your preconceptions (a beer from xx brewery must be good).By blind tasting you are not influenced by who the brewer is. Or the name of the beer which might hint at what the beer is ‘supposed to’ taste like.
Studies have shown that marketing information such as labels, price, and imagery all influence what we think about most consumer products. Beer is no exception. How often have you chosen a bottle (of beer or wine) based on what it looks like, or if it has one of those gold award stickers on it? Checking out the price tag? We often expect products that are more expensive to be better.
The simplest way to make sure your beers remain incognito is to cover each bottle with a brown paper bag. Secure at the top with string or a rubber band, and then label with an identifying number. Make sure you keep a list somewhere of the corresponding beer.
Many breweries include branding on their bottle caps so you’ll want to make sure those are hidden as well. Small circular stickers are ideal for this.
Getting ready to taste
It could be tempting to pour all the beers out and lay them out school-camp/smorgasboard style – this certainly has advantages in terms of efficiency. But by the time you get to sample the last beer it is likely to be warm and flat – not really conducive to getting an accurate representation of the beer at its best.
We recommend pouring each beer as needed. This ensures that the beer is at the right temperature, and has the ‘correct’ amount of foam and carbonation.
Check out our step-by-step guide on how to pour a beer.
This is the time to give some thought to the order the beers are tasted in. We recommend going from lighter to darker, or from less hoppy to more hoppy.
So how do we do the actual tasting bit?
Basically there are five steps. We like to call them the five Ss – see, swirl, smell, sip, savour
1. See – your first impressions of a beer are always visual. what do you notice when you look at the beer? How would you describe the colour? Is it what you expected? Is there foam? How much, what colour, texture? Is the beer clear, hazy, opaque?
2. Swirl – don’t overlook this super important step. Swirling the beer gently in the glass helps to release all those lovely aromas.
3. Smell – right, now you can sniff. Try sniffing with your mouth closed and then again with your mouth open. Notice any differences? What aromas are obvious? Anything more subtle?
4. Sip - we know you’ll be super keen to get to this bit, but don’t be tempted to hurry. Let the beer sit in your mouth for a few seconds. Notice the body and texture (mouthfeel).
5. Savour – finally the taste. Notice the flavours. What is the initial taste? The finish? Does one flavour dominate, or does the beer feel well balanced. Hoppy or malty?
Do we have to write stuff down?
Well of course not. But we reckon that is a big part of the fun, as well as being educational. There are a few online examples of tasting sheets, but feel free to design your own. Here are a couple of examples we’ve put together – a simple one, and a more detailed one. You could even print them out double sided and allow your guests to choose which one suits them.
You can go really basic – think colour, aroma, taste
Or add things such as mouthfeel, head colour and retention.
Add fun aspects such as guess the brewery, or guess the style (depending on the theme you’ve chosen)
Give people the opportunity to give the beer an overall rating – we recommend a scale of 1-4:
1. Not for me thanks
2. Average – a definite maybe
3. Very good – I’d probably try it again
4. Amazingly perfect
You can add up all the scores at the end of the night to determine a grand winner. And then, with much fanfare, comes the big reveal. We recommend heightening the suspense with a countdown-to-the-best type approach. Normally there are some interesting and somewhat controversial outcomes – let the debates begin.