The theme sets the tone for your event, so choose one that best matches your audience’s background and interest level.
Single style, different breweries.
One of the easiest to do, and fairly educational. Pick a beer style, and then try to get a wide range of interpretations of the style. Which ones fit the style best? What did you learn about the range of the style? You can pick an easy one, like American pale ale, or an obscure one, like Baltic porter.
Same brewery, different styles.
Another easy one. See if you can detect a “house character” from the brewery. How are the beers similar, even though they are of a different style? I was able to learn the Sam Adams yeast character this way.
Beers from a single country or region.
Very popular, allows guests to explore a region in-depth. Wine tastings are often structured this way. Belgium, Germany, England, and America are all good choices; you may even choose specific regions (like Pacific Northwest beers). If someone has travelled to a remote area and brought back samples, this makes this type of event even more special
Show the range of beer styles by picking examples nothing like each other. This is a good theme for beginners since it shows the range of beer, and allows people to learn which styles they like and which they don’t. Not recommended for advanced beer enthusiasts unless you are picking world-class examples. I was introduced to craft beer this way: my hosts chose Hoegaarden Wit, Pilsner Urquell, Bass Ale, Newcastle Brown Ale, Sierra Nevade Pale Ale and Guinness.
Beers showcasing a specific type of ingredient (hop, malt, yeast).
An advanced topic, but a good one to teach guests to hone their palates by identifying specific tastes within beer. The hard part is identifying the common ingredients in commercial beer; this may require some research or the involvement of local homebrewers who know ingredients well. A hop-focused flight might include Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (Centennial hops), Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (Cascade hops), Anchor Steam (Northern Brewer) and Pilsner Urquell (Saaz hops).
Beers with a classic fault or flavor characteristic.
This type of event is more for beer judges and brewers, but could be useful for people developing their palate. But it’s usually not as much fun since some of the beers will be perceived as “off.” Budweiser has a green apple character (acetaldehyde), Rolling Rock has a corn-like flavor (di-methyl sulfide), and Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Pale Ale or Redhook ESB have a buttery flavor (diacetyl). These are all intentional flavors in these beers, but might be faults in other styles. Leave a Pilsner Urquell or a Canadian lager out in the sun for a while, and it will be skunky—that’s always a fault.
Vertical tasting of big or special beers.
Higher alcohol or special releases might be vintage-dated. Collect several seasonal vintages and compare them (I recommend youngest to oldest). See if you can determine how age affects beer, what is the optimal storage length, and if some vintages are better than others. This is also interesting if the seasonal releases use different recipes—for example, Anchor Our Special Ale is made with a different recipe every year. Two of my favorites are Sierra Nevada Bigfoot and J. W. Lee’s Harvest Ale: both are barleywines, and the character is often different from year to year.
Blind tasting—guess the style!
This is another advanced topic that might be reserved for people who know beer styles fairly well. However, this makes a great contest theme, so you might use this approach if you have some prizes to give away. If it’s too hard, use multiple-choice rather than outright guessing the style. I once did this at Redbones in Somerville, MA. They have a big wheel of beer that they spin. You get to drink whatever beer it lands on. I turned my back and told them to spin it and give me the beer and then I’d tell them what it was. When I did it, they thought I’d cheated, but it was only because they gave me the only witbier on the wheel and I could tell the style by the spices and appearance. But they didn’t need to know that!
Many breweries have special releases, with the winter and fall being the most popular. It’s a way for breweries to be creative with limited releases, so they are quite interesting to compare. I’ve often done tastings with groups using Oktoberfest beers, or Christmas ales.
Beer and food pairing.
In general, food detracts from the tasting and makes it less beer-focused. However, this may appeal to a less formal audience or those with only a limited interest in beer. It takes some work to find good pairings. I’ve used pairings from Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table with success. J. W. Lee’s Harvest Ale with Stilton blue cheese is an amazing combination that just must be experienced, and Humboldt Fog paired with Saison Dupont is stellar.
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.