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.
Picking the wrong beer to follow your first can crush the savor of the flavor, or be as jolting as grapefruit juice after toothpaste.
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.