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How to Host the Best Beer Tasting Party

How to Host the Best Beer Tasting Party

There is arguably no better way for both new and veteran beer geeks to learn about beer than to host a beer tasting party. Not only does it provide some structure while incentivizing experimentation and exploration, but it also gives you the perfect opportunity to break out rare and interesting beers that you might never drink by yourself. The following is your step-by-step instructional guide to successfully host the best beer tasting party, from the first popped cap to the final toast.

Step One: Establish a Theme

Congratulations on your decision to host a beer tasting party! The first thing you’ll need to do is decide on a theme. There’s a lot of beer out there, and without something to guide the selection process, the choices can be pretty overwhelming.

One option is to choose a specific style. Fine bottles shops and liquor stores will have plenty of examples of several styles, especially ubiquitous and popular ones like IPA or Stout. You can also broaden your options by drawing from a wider style “family” – amber lagers, sour beers or brown ales and porters, for example. Or you might consider thinking geographically and sourcing German lagers, Belgian strong ales or American West Coast hoppy beers. Beer styles are very much an expression of the myriad ways to make similar ingredients do distinct things, and so a style-based theme can be a great way to learn more about the nuances of beers that share a common name or heritage but bear their own unique identity!

Themes can also get more creative. You could feature beers with strange ingredients: exotic spices, strange fruits, smoked goat brains (I wish I was making that last one up, but I’m not). Consider a selection of beers from the BA’s Top 50 breweries or GABF medal winners. Heck, you can even just tell each of your guests to bring his/her favorite beer to share (but collect the names in advance to be sure you won’t have any repeats), with everyone voting for their favorite at the end! My homebrew club once put together a mixed case for tasting with an “Axis and Allies” theme, with “warring” beers from the U.S., Germany, Japan, Britain and more. The options are almost endless.

One thing you’ll want to do early on, which might be informed by your theme, is to determine how each attendee will evaluate, score, record or review each beer. Attendees should leave with a rough accounting of what they tasted and what they thought of the beers offered; after all, the goal is to help everyone cultivate their beer knowledge ‒ and know what to order the next time they’re out!

chocolate and beer tasting party

Step Two: Plan, Plan, Plan

It’s an article of faith for me that with the right plan you can do almost anything. A beer tasting party benefits enormously from some thoughtful pre-planning.

1. Determine a manageable number of guests. This may not be the time to host 40-50 of your closest friends! This will also make your beer purchasing plan simpler: samples are usually about 3-4 ounces, which matches up nicely to the 72 ounces in a six-pack or 64 ounces in a half-gallon growler.

2. Think about how many beers you’d like to offer. At 3-4 ounces per pour, six beers is a good number – eight, max. You want folks to be tasting, discussing and evaluating, which they’ll struggle to do if they have too many beers clouding their judgment!

3. Think of your glassware needs. Each person will need one small, easily rinsed, preferably wide-mouthed glass, or you can pick up 6-ounce clear plastic tasting cups. Multiply the number of beers by the number of guests, and then double it to be safe (somehow tasting cups disappear faster than the arithmetic would lead you to expect!).

4. Decide who will provide the beer and/or snacks. If you’re managing everything yourself, no worries! But if your guests will be pitching in, ask them to keep their beer cold, and if they plan on bringing food, suggest starchier snacks like crackers and pretzels to help keep everyone’s palate clear. Garlic and hot wings will make almost any beer taste like seltzer.

5. Take an inventory of your refrigerator/cooler space: tasting warm beer isn’t nearly as much fun! If you can’t store all that beer in your existing fridge space, load up coolers with an ice bath and load the beer in at least eight hours before the party. You’ll be pulling the beer just before service to let them warm up just a bit, so don’t worry about serving from the coolers.

6. Think about beer-themed games and diversions for your guests. Even ardent beer geeks will love the secondary activities as a break after the first few tastings. Have a “mystery beer” and encourage guests to submit written guesses as to the style or label. Set up brackets and advance the favorite tasted beers to a final showdown. Work up some beer trivia with a prize for those who scored best (and worst – we give wine). Don’t have it be all about the tasting.

7. Think about the physical space. You’ll want to set up “stations” for each beer, preferably spread around to avoid crowds gathering. Room enough for 3-4 tasters at each station will encourage discussion but not overcrowding. Your space available may dictate the total number of guests that you can accommodate. Have plenty of dump buckets and water pitchers around, along with spare pencils, score/note sheets and napkins or towels for the inevitable spills.

Set yourself up for success, and you’ll be able to enjoy the party along with your guests!

Step Three: Invite Your Attendees

Give folks lots of warning – 6-8 weeks – so they can clear their schedules.

Who should be on the list? Honestly, anyone. Events like this are a great way to win over craft beer skeptics, leverage the experience of more knowledgeable beer drinkers, connect different groups from your family and social circles, and more. Enthusiasm counts for more than experience.

collection of beers for a beer tasting party
Photo Courtesy Flickr / Epicbeer

Step Four: Execution

Before guests arrive, set up your chilled beer, water and snacks, reserving one bottle or can from each offered beer for use later (we’ll get back to them, I promise).

As guests arrive, get them up to speed on how the event will work.

Provide them with their note/score taking materials, including writing utensils. Take a moment to discuss how to score, based on the applicable standard or guidelines, with an example. This doesn’t need to be complicated: a one-to-five star system for overall enjoyment or for specific traits like aroma and flavor can work well.

Talk through the importance of glassware (even the plastic kind); if using reusable glasses, point out the water pitchers and encourage guests to not only rinse between samples but to drink their rinse water! It helps clear the palate as well as keep folks hydrated.

Show them a “live-poured” sample to demonstrate proper technique: gentle pours with minimal head and, if using bottle-conditioned beer, as little “roused yeast” as possible. Also be sure to show them the proper volume of each pour to guarantee everyone gets a sample.

Point out snacks for palate cleansing and to slow alcohol absorption: 6-8 samples at 3-4 ounces each may not sound like much, but smaller pours are often consumed faster, not slower, and the beer doesn't know that it’s going down in smaller increments when it hits your bloodstream.

Finally, declare (and post, with numbers at each station) the tasting order. You generally want people to taste from less to more intense, so as ABV, hop bitterness, roast or sourness in a beer increases, so too should their depth in the tasting order.

Step Five: Complete Tasting/Roundup

Once everyone has had time to taste every beer – and you should allow about 15 minutes per beer, or slightly longer as the number of attendees increases – gather together for a feedback and discussion segment. Asking for descriptions and impressions beer by beer is one method, or you can ask for shows of hands to rank each beer by preference. If you’ve collected scores or evaluations from guests, you can tally the results privately and then unveil the “winners.” If you’ve been running games or activities, now is the time to bring them to their conclusions and announce awards. Make this roundup a highlight of your event!

Post-roundup, I like to provide one final “capstone” beer, as a reward for everyone’s efforts. This is also a great time to serve heavy hors d’oeuvres or a sit-down meal, to let everyone process the alcohol they’ve been consuming and soak up some of that ABV. Now that protecting palates isn’t a concern, you can order out for those wings ‒ or show off your culinary skills, especially if you can serve dishes that were made using some of the beers everyone just tasted.

Be prepared to accept the universal praise and admiration of all in attendance, declaring that you’ve put on the best beer tasting party they’ve ever experienced.

dimly lit collection of beer glasses on table

Photo Courtesy Flickr / Craig Moore

Wrapping Up

On a very serious but necessary note, it is imperative that you approach this kind of event with a responsible attitude. From planning, to invitations, to the execution itself, remind yourself that this is a beer tasting event, not a beer drinking event. Water and food will help keep things under control, but you should also be actively monitoring pour sizes and consumption rates. Back-loading activities to give everyone time to work off their buzz is a good idea, but also be prepared to provide guests with car service numbers, arrange a ride-share pickup or (if it’s evening) provide a bed for the night. Make sure that everyone knows they’re welcome to stay, and don’t allow anyone to leave if they appear even mildly intoxicated.

Beer tasting parties are a fantastic way to make learning about beer fun and engaging, and once your last guest has departed or bedded down, there’s one more thing you need to do. Remember that spare can/bottle you held back, one from each beer offered? Now is the time to pop open your favorite beer from the day and enjoy the satisfaction of a party well planned!

Header Photo Courtesy Flickr / DFDS Seaways Intl.

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