DIY beer tastings are a great way to learn while drinking

PINTS by Jason Foster

I get asked to organize beer tastings a lot. Often it’s a group looking for a creative fundraiser or a client appreciation thing. Sometimes it’s a more intimate gathering of friends who want a unique bit of fun.

Beer tastings can take many shapes and forms but the point is always to explore beer flavours and gain a better understanding of beer styles, ingredients and history.

People ask me to host because as a certified beer geek I know beer stuff and so can guide them through an interesting, educational and enjoyable evening of trying different beers. But (at the risk of drying up my own business) anyone can create a beer tasting. All it takes is some focus, a bit of research and a willingness to let the beer do the talking.

Organizing a beer tasting is easy and there are many ways to do it depending on your needs. You can pick a theme or a region (like only beers from B.C. or Germany, for example), or you can select beers that have celebrity names or scantily clad women on the label (unfortunately still a common sight). Those approaches can totally work, but I want to suggest something a little more focused.

In the world of wine or spirits, experts organize horizontal and vertical tastings. In the beer world, a horizontal tasting is taking beer of the same style but from different breweries and evaluating how each one differs from the others, while a vertical tasting is taking the same beer from the same brewery, but made in different years.

A horizontal tasting is pretty easy to organize. Start by picking a style of beer you want to explore — dark lagers, India pale ales, bocks, fruit beer; pick your pleasure. Once you’ve decided on a style, you’ll want to look for a range of interpretations. Pick up beers from different regions, brewing traditions and approaches, and aim for six to eight examples.

The approach to horizontal tastings is to methodically go through each beer (you might want to give your guests some paper to write notes on), allowing everyone to really get a sense of each beer before moving on to the next one. Then lead a discussion: ask everyone to identify their favourite beer, and explain why they like it. It can be fun to record the responses, but remember, this isn’t a competition; everyone has a right to their preferences.

The goal in an event like this isn’t to determine the “best” example, but to learn more about the breadth and width of interpretations and build a grounded knowledge about a particular style. If you have six to eight examples of a style side-by-side, you start to see the nuances of what it can be about. If it’s an IPA, for example, you might find that some are more citrusy, others more balanced, and some might be drier and thinner.

It also teaches you about how varied people’s palates can be.

As fun as horizontal tastings can be, nothing beats the enjoyment of a well-constructed vertical tasting. Vertical tastings are harder to put together, as generally they require some advance planning — often years in advance. Vertical tastings are common in the wine world, where they try different vintages of the same wine, but they’re much less common with beer.

Most beers are meant to be consumed fresh (within six months or so) but there are certain styles that improve with age. Beers that take well to storage have two major qualities: alcohol strength and acidity. Alcohol is easy: big beers — like barley wines, strong Belgian ales, imperial stouts or basically anything over eight per cent alcohol — are a good candidate for aging, as they tend to get better with age. The other calculation is how sour the beer is. Certain styles, in particular lambics, intentionally add a sour edge to the flavour. And sour beer can age for many, many years without going bad.

A vertical tasting basically requires access to a cellar-able beer. As I say, that might take some commitment and time (or well-placed friends). But trust me, the result is worth it. There’s nothing like tasting multiple examples of the same beer made at different times.

Barley wines are a great candidate for a vertical tasting. They age very well — in fact you want to save them a couple years (at least) before trying them. It’s really fun to save different vintages of a specific barley wine and then, in one evening, open each of them to see how it changes over time.

In some rare cases, you might find two or three vintages on sale at the same time, but otherwise you need to think ahead. Find a cellar-able beer you enjoy, and set aside a few bottles. Keep buying later versions of the beer for a few years and you’ll be in great shape to host a vertical tasting.

There’s more than one way to enjoy sampling beers, and doing it in an organized way can be educational, adventurous and — most important — super fun. Give it a try.