Pick a ThemeYou need to be able to explain the concept of the party easily, such as, “we’re comparing porters and stouts” or, “we just started getting beer from Stone—we’re going to sample their lineup.” You can choose to sample a wide range of beers, or something narrowly focused. See the “Party Themes” sidebar for some suggestions.
Build a Guest ListYou can get more accomplished if the guests are at a similar skill and interest level, and if they know each other. You want people to be able to discuss the beers without one person dominating. Keep in mind that the number of guests also sets the mood; smaller tastings can be more serious and intimate, while larger groups are more party-like and less educational. I think between four and 10 guests is a good number for most at-home events.
Know Your AudienceDo you want it to be educational or purely fun? How technical do you want to get in your discussions? What existing knowledge do people have? Understand what your audience wants, and then tailor your event around their expectations.
Source the BeerOnce you know how many people are coming, you know how much beer you need (estimate that each person will get a 4 oz. sample of each beer, but understand that some beers are bottle-conditioned and won’t yield their full volume). It’s a good idea to buy extra in case people want more to sample, either during the tasting or afterwards. You may have some of the beers in your cellar, you might outsource the purchasing by having guests bring specific beers pot luck-style or you can go buy them yourself. If you do it yourself, you will have more control and can be sure you are getting what you want. Decide if you want to charge for the event. You might ask for donations, have people bring the beer or food, help with setup and cleanup, or agree to host their own event so you can be the guest. It’s risky asking others to bring the beer if you’re looking for specific examples. Remember that you want fresh, well-kept beers, not whatever you’re trying to clean out of your fridge.
Prepare for the EventSuccessful events require preparation and advanced planning. Take a look at the “Tasting Supplies” sidebar for a checklist of items to have on hand. Remember that you want to spend more time with your guests, not fiddling around with your cups and papers. Have the beers at appropriate serving temperatures (45 to 50 degrees F for most lagers, 50 to 55 degrees F for most ales, 55 to 60 degrees F for stronger or darker beers). Pick a sampling order based on increasing palate intensity. Remember that dark beers aren’t always stronger in taste or in alcohol. Consider the alcohol and bitterness levels, and any strong flavors when ranking the beers.
Set ExpectationsBefore you start, explain the sampling process. You should taste the beers one at a time, but people should probably save some of their samples for comparison. Consider the dynamics of your group. Do you want people to talk right away, or think about what they are tasting first? Do you want to encourage note-taking? Are you going to lead the group as an instructor, or have open discussion as a group? Are you going to compare thoughts, or encourage individual exploration? All these methods will work, but you should think about how you want to proceed. Don’t try to force people, and be open to change. My preference is for the host to be a facilitator, not an instructor—encourage people to taste and think, then share their ideas.
Tasting is Different than DrinkingPour 3 to 4 oz. samples, but encourage people to only taste 1 to 2 oz. initially. They might want to compare samples later. Set out the glasses like brewpubs do with their sampler boards, but serve one beer at a time. I like to have tasting mats prepared for the guests, which have a space for each sample and provide some information about the beer. You can pour for your guests or pass the bottle, but you will want to decant into pitchers if using bottle-conditioned beers. If your glasses aren’t marked for size, you can give them a reference like “pour three fingers.”
Keep their InterestThe tasting needs to be interactive, and guests need to participate. Encourage discussion. Don’t bore them; keep the discussion at the right level for the group. Ask for descriptors—“What are you tasting?” Ask for impressions—“What do you think of this? Would you buy this? Do you think it fits the style?” Ask them to compare the beers they’ve tried, and look for similarities and differences. The party theme can influence your questions as well. Ask if the beers are good examples of the theme. Try to keep people engaged and participating, not just pounding through the samples. If you find the conversation lacking, ask questions to prompt discussion or give some background information on the beer style or brewery. You might also ask if any of the guests have stories to relate about the beer being sampled. When finished tasting, you might have contests, prizes or votes. Ask for feedback: “What beer did you like best?” “Which is the best example of its style?” You might prepare some trivia questions and give out any unopened bottles as prizes.
Be a Good HostKeep an eye on alcohol consumption and your pacing. Always provide food and water. If you have a large number of samples, take some breaks during the presentation. Plan for socializing after the event. Get designated drivers if needed. Beer tasting events can be quite a bit of fun while also being educational. What each person gets out of it will often depend on their goals, and those of the group. Certainly the opportunity for education exists, but those who want to just enjoy the hedonistic aspects of the event will also likely be satisfied. Done properly, beer tastings let people learn about the differences in beer, learn about beer styles, and practice structured tasting and evaluation skills. Increasing palate training and sensory awareness can make you a better consumer, and also let you share your knowledge with others. Remember that the more you get the people you know to enjoy good beer, the more they’re likely to share it with you.
Gordon Strong is an award-winning homebrewer and Grand Master beer judge. He is the president of the Beer Judge Certification Program, and principal author of the BJCP Style Guidelines. His first book on advanced homebrewing is due out next year.