And Now, For My Next Beer…
The Fine Art of Beer Sequencing
Back in the 1990s, I was hanging out with my brothers-in-law in Richmond. Richmond is a great place for a history buff like me, and it’s got a neat aspect for the beer-lover, too: Richmond is a common test market for new beer ideas.
Which is how we came to be passing around a bottle of Miller Clear, a colorless 5% ABV beer that was on trial there that summer. We decided we had to try it.
“Wow, it actually has some hop to it,” I said, surprised.
Carl looked at me funny. “I don’t taste any hops,” he replied, “but it does taste a little burnt.”
“I don’t get any of that,” Chris said, baffled. “It just tastes sweet to me.”
Quizzical grunts ensued, then Carl looked at the ground by our lawnchairs. Big grin on his face, he picked up our empties from the previous round: my Sierra Nevada Pale, his Guinness Extra Stout, and Chris’s Celebrator. Miller Clear tasted like whatever you had before.
Show Me The Way to Go Home
Not every beer—happily!—is that easy to put in sequence. Picking the wrong beer to follow your first can crush the savor of the flavor, or be as jolting as grapefruit juice after toothpaste. A small and subtle beer can get lost in the lingering roar of a double IPA or doppelbock, and that same double IPA can seem downright nasty after a round of lambics. You have to consider the consequences of your actions; you have to think before you drink.
The first thing to think about is your aim for the evening, or the afternoon (or hell, the morning; I’m not judging you). If you’re just going to grab a couple and head home to watch Jeopardy, it doesn’t matter as much what you choose, and you’ll probably just have two of the same thing anyway. Slacker.
But when you’re in a new brewpub or a new town, the urge is to run the taps. So if you’re faced with the most powerful beers in the world, ones that could blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself a question: do I feel lucky tonight? Grabbing for the big boys right off, the 8% and 9% headknockers, is looking for a quick end to the evening. Three or four of those and you’ll be walking like an Egyptian and speaking an obscure dialect of Raccoon.
Better to start low on the ladder and work up slowly so you can still taste your third beer—and find your wallet to pay for it—without the tongue-numbing that comes from alcohol. A beer-writing colleague tells me “I always stop when I can’t taste the beer any more,” a practice that has always kept him clear-headed when I was…less so.
What’s the Vector, Victor?
Alcohol strength, like bitterness, sweetness, flavorings like spice, fruit and smoke, and the sour/funk character of wild beers are all vectors that add up to the direction and intensity of your beer-drinking experience. You’re best off starting on the low-intensity end of a vector and moving up if you’re going to be doing a real beer exploration.
What’s that mean? Simple: don’t overload. You’d think this was obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people dissing perfectly wonderful pale ales, porters and hellesbier as “flavorless, nothing beer,” and found out that they’d had them after drinking some 85 IBU goon-juice. If you’re doing a tap-dance, don’t go ugly early. Pick out the more delicate stuff that requires a tongue that has not been slammed on a panini-press. Consider starting with the kölsch or cream ale, not the Lupulinitis ICU-PA (I just made that one up; if you want to use it for your new DIPA, contact me care of All About Beer for payment terms. I do not work for low-fills).
Some of the vectors are tougher than others. Spice can get overpowering real quickly, for instance. When I have a spiced beer, I’m pretty much done; maple’s the same way. Some flavors just cling, or blow you out right away: cinnamon, clove, vanilla, bourbon barrel, peat, garlic, lactic infection…
Still, sometimes you find a miracle. I ran the taps at the world-famous (in Pennsylvania) Selin’s Grove brewpub once, starting with their smooth and easy Captain Selin’s Cream Ale, up through IPA, oatmeal stout, kriek, and barleywine. When I came back to the cream ale…I could still taste it, and appreciate it. That impressed me more than anything else I tasted that day.
Don’t Cross the Streams
But let’s assume you’re not a typical beer geek, and you’d actually like to drink something other than hoppy, hoppier, hoppiest, and don’t-you-have-anything-hoppier-than-that?! tonight. You’re going to want to cross vectors, jump from one experience to another. It can be done, and we have the example of Ghostbusters to lead us.
Egon Spengler: We’ll cross the streams.
Peter Venkman: Excuse me, Egon, you said crossing the streams was bad.
Spengler: Not necessarily. There’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.
Venkman: I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it. Let’s do it.
The first time I crossed the streams and hit that “very slim chance” was at a barleywine festival in Philly in 1996. I had a glass of fresh Rogue Old Crustacean—and everything I drank after that tasted like Old Crusty. My mouth is coated in hop resin! Save me so I can taste again! Then a friend handed me a glass of Yards Brewing’s Old Bart barleywine. It was The Hop Antidote: my mouth felt like it had been bathed in warm apricot nectar and then handed a delicious malt cocktail. And when it had done its work, it stepped back and let the next beer do its worst.
Maximizing your chances for a successful stream-crossing is the trick, and the vector image, I’m convinced, is the key. Think of what vector you’re on: say the malty-sweetness one, and you’re pretty far out there, in eisbock territory. You want to jump to a vector that will complement your current one, and you need to stay pretty far out. Cross the streams: there aren’t a lot of big malty sour beers, or really huge smoky beers, but there are hopped-up barleywines that are thick and sweet as mother love. Step across to one of them, and from there you can slip down to a crisp jug of hopjuice for your next one, which sets you up for a smothering blanket of smoke after that…I love this plan!
Wrap It Up
When you’re getting done with the evening, you’ve got to think about your last beer. Are you going to go big for the finale? Are you going to go sour to clear your palate (and your head a little)? This is more personal preference, but you might want to play it smart and go low on the alcohol: this one’s going to hit you on your way home.
That’s why a friend of ours always has his evening planned out by bar offerings. He starts at the Red Anchor, drinking lagers, moves on to Fitzgerald’s Harp or Rorie’s for some stout and maybe a nip of Jameson’s, and then to the Raindrop for craft beers. But he always makes his last stop at the Half Moon Café.
Why the Half Moon? “Because it’s a straight walk downhill to my apartment from there,” he said. Smart man: working the vector.
Lew Bryson has been writing full-time about beer and spirits since 1995. His fourth brewery guidebook, New Jersey Breweries, is due out in August, 2008.