Beer Event Brainstorm
Twenty craft beer lovers, all wearing the same T-shirts, walk into a bar. No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke―it describes an organized pub-crawl for charity. Across America, people are realizing that craft beer can form the impetus for switching off the TV, getting off the couch, heading out of the house and bringing people together with informative, entertaining, beer-centered activities.
It’s fun to get together at the local pub for a couple of pints and appetizers, but with a little energy and imagination, the exploration of notable beer styles can lead to exciting new places and levels of understanding and appreciation of gourmet beer. Read on for creative suggestions in making craft beer a focus in many social events outside the home.
The group pub-crawl idea mentioned above forms a wonderful way to connect with a variety of pubs in a town, and groups have the option of making the activity a benefit for a local charity. Pick a day for the crawl, choose a list of walkable pubs with great beer, speak with the pub managers in advance, come up with a schedule for the pub visits, invite participants and print up an inexpensive T-shirt for everyone. Work with pub managers to decide on one distinctive beer for the group to enjoy at each stop, figure out the total cost (including gratuity) of beer for the group and collect funds from the pub-crawlers in advance. If the jaunt benefits a charity, some pubs may even provide snacks or a price break on the beer. It’s helpful to have a ticket or token for each beer on the excursion.
Get on the Bus
Beer tourism is a hot trend these days, so why not arrange a beer-themed vacation for a group of friends? With the Internet making it extraordinarily simple to e-mail breweries for tours, make lunch and dinner group reservations, and book inexpensive hotel rooms, anyone can put together a memorable beer trip in a snap.
After choosing a beer-rich destination and getting RSVPs from your fellow beer sojourners, decide on a mode of transportation. Will participants fly or drive to the site and then walk and utilize public transportation from place to place? Should a van be rented and a designated driver decided upon from day to day? Could the group hire a local tour provider to furnish a bus and driver for the trip? Choose the option that best suits the size, budget and specific needs of the gathering.
Contact breweries, brewpubs and gourmet beer bars to set up group visits based on a leisurely schedule, taking into account extra time for traffic and delays caused by die-hard beer aficionados not wanting to leave favorite places on time. If interested, remember to include a sampling of non-beer activities for the group―museums, walking tours and outdoor markets make for welcome breaks from long days of beer consumption.
Choose brewery tours and beer tasting locales for group trips based on top ratings and recommendations from any number of websites―including Ratebeer.com, Beermapping.com, Classiccitybrew.com, the “BeerFly” section of Beeradvocate.com and the “Find Your Beer” pages of Allaboutbeer.com. For affordable hotels, Biddingfortravel.com offers tips on the best current deals on Priceline.com and Hotwire.com, and sites like Mobissimo.com and Kayak.com provide effortless, comprehensive searches for the cheapest airline tickets.
No better beer guides exist for western European beer destinations than the books and resources available from the U.K.’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Check Amazon.com or click on the “books” tab of camra.org.uk to preview available titles. To aid in navigation for the best pints of real ale in the U.K., CAMRA also offers inexpensive GPS and mobile phone app downloads of thousands of the best breweries and pubs featured in their annual Good Beer Guide.
Many individuals just starting down the road of craft beer appreciation have yet to visit a beer festival. Subscribe to e-mail lists of the best fests in the local area, grab a block of tickets and take along a group of friends. Festivals offer fun and convenient atmospheres in which to sample a huge variety of different beer styles, speak to brewers and interact with other beer lovers. After the event, friends can meet at a pub or restaurant to compare notes of favorite beers.
Mini beer fests for friends at an apartment clubhouse, mountain cabin or beach condo make for a delicious and enjoyable afternoon or evening―simply head to the best retail beer store to stock up on several six-packs from a variety of craft breweries. Invest in few plastic storage bins to use as ice trays and set up the cold brews in several areas of the facility alongside potluck appetizers. Each guest gets a tasting glass and sips different beers while mingling.
There’s no better way for a loving couple to share their joy of beer than by incorporating a craft beer tasting into their wedding reception. Order small, commemorative goblets printed with a unique message from the bride and groom, and put together a descriptive menu of favorite brews grouped in creative themes. Just for fun, organize the beer menu into interesting categories such as “warming,” “pensive,” “invigorating,” “playful” or simply “the bride’s favorite ales.” Add an extra sparkle of interest with a bite of cheese paired with each craft beer. Online sources offer a tremendous range of beer and cheese pairing recommendations; provided with good suggestions of beers and cheeses, most caterers comply happily with special niche requests such as this.
Remember to include craft beer in holiday outings, cookouts, camping trips, bike rides and hikes. The promise of a unique beer tasting at the end of the day makes for effective motivation to walk that last mile or bike over one more hill. Bring bottle openers and clear plastic cups (it’s a travesty to drink aromatic craft beers straight from the bottle). Plan for a way to transport the brews without breakage or excess weight in anyone’s backpack. Be responsible as well―pack in the beer and pack out the empties. Many craft beers now packaged in plastic-lined cans make for highly convenient additions to river rafting trips and pool parties.
With a focus on craft beer styles, it’s possible to add an interesting flare to local pub visits with friends and tasting groups. Call the pub ahead of time to check on interesting beers on draft, choose six to eight, then click on the Beer Judge Certification Program’s website at bjcp.org to cut, paste and print style guidelines that match the beers. When your group arrives at the pub, give the bartender your “secret” list of draft beers to pour in order in 15-minute intervals or so. Split the pints into plastic taster cups for your group, provide sets of style guidelines, and have everyone discuss the nuances of each mystery beer and try to guess the style. The person getting the top score in this version of “beer bingo” maybe wins a plate of wings or a free beer from the group.
A similar idea would be to designate one person as note-taker, and have the group discuss observations of each beer, based on aroma, appearance and flavor. Run through three to four different brews and post the comments on Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. Better yet, have a tech-savvy member of the bunch start up a website to include photos and notes from each tasting. For the sake of saving trees and easy reference, the BJCP world beer style guidelines are now available as a super-cool mobile phone app.
Bracket championships don’t just work for basketball―try a few rounds with beer. When visiting a pub with an expansive selection, choose a broad style of beer such as “stout.” Divide a group of 10 friends into five teams of two and assign a different pair of stouts from the pub’s menu to each team. Each team tastes and evaluates their two stouts for appealing characteristics and outstanding craftsmanship (perhaps using BJCP style guidelines) and picks one to move on to the next round and go head-to-head with the winning stout from another team. Teams can be shuffled around and combined as the brackets progress―until all 10 friends are tasting and evaluating the final two beers. Pubs might even be persuaded to place a note or award next to the winning brew on the beer menu or chalkboard.
In many cities, beer dinners have become remarkably popular in recent years. It’s a breeze to organize your own beer dinner at a local pub or restaurant that offers top-notch beer and food. Pay a visit to the pub in advance to take a gander at the menus. Choose four to five courses for your group, pair each with a beer that’s currently on draft and share your plans with the manager, who can alert the kitchen and reserve space for your group. On the evening of your beer dinner, be sure the server knows to bring out each course and beer at the same time and separate each course with an appropriate amount of time to allow the group to savor and consider each pairing.
Pairing craft beer with food isn’t rocket science. Common sense wine guidelines also tend to be analogous for beer―red meat goes well with American amber ales, IPAs and English bitters; whereas delicate fish and chicken dishes pair better with the likes of Bohemian pilsners, golden ales and Belgian-style wit beers. But when pairing craft beer with food, strict rules simply do not exist―most of the fun comes with experimentation. Try malty Vienna-style lagers, bocks and brown ales with sweet, earthy Mexican dishes and pizza; sip a peppery Belgian-style saison or tripel alongside spicy Thai or Indian cuisine; and savor a clove-like hefeweizen next to a refreshing, acidic summer salad. Beer and cheese form an ideal harmony, so be sure to take advantage of cheese platters for your group meal.
Don’t skip dessert! Select a porter or stout to accompany custards, fruit-topped cheesecake, ice cream or chocolate. The best fruit beers go well with pastries, and nothing tastes better with rich chocolate cake than a Belgian strong dark ale or toffee-ish English-style barley wine.
Why let wine snobs have all the fun with their tastings, gatherings, evaluations and spitting? Craft beer can become a dynamic, gratifying and evolving part of one’s social scene. It can strengthen bonds between friends and groups and provide a rallying point to forge new relationships.
Owen Ogletree is a BJCP National Beer Judge and Georgia beer writer who runs the Athens' Classic City Brew Fest and the Atlanta Cask Ale tasting.