Source the Beer
Once 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 Event
Successful 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.
Before 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.