If the thought of a pub crawl leaves you cold, celebrate St. Patrick's Day with a new kind of gathering: a tasting party centred on premium beers. Of course, it needn't be March 17 to indulge in such a sampling: Simply invite a few friends over, set out five impressive brews one by one and pair them with a lineup of complementary cheeses. Provide each guest with a placemat-cum-coaster strip on which they can record their notes. (Grain notes? Bitter finish? Must be the pilsner.) Globe Style outlines how it's all done with the help of Mirella Amato, a certified beer sommelier and the first woman in Canada to hold the designation.
Make sure you're well stocked
You'll need enough beer to pour every guest a half-bottle of each variety, while a 341-millilitre bottle of high-alcohol beer like bock or stout can be split three or four ways. Plan to buy extra in any case so guests can enjoy a full bottle of their favourite brew (or two) once the sampling is done.
Stock up on glasses ...
The best vessels for a tasting are eightounce water glasses, which are big enough for six ounces (or a half-bottle) of beer plus foam. Wine glasses also work; their round bowl helps release aromas. If you add a high-alcohol brew to your lineup, serve it in a snifter so guests can get their noses quite close to the surface of the beer and its complex aroma.
... and lots of them
Each guest will need a fresh glass for each variety of beer you are serving. If you're serving five types of beer to 10 people, that's 50 glasses. Calling a partyrentals service that offers stemware delivery and pickup is a good option, as are compostable corn cups. (Avoid plastic; its faint smell can get in the way of tasting.)
Beware of nose
pollution Strong ambient smells can distract from the aromas of beer, so avoid cooking or even wearing anything strongly scented on the day of your tasting.
Leave a trace
Before guests arrive, trace the base of the tasting glass four or five times on a blank paper placemat or a strip of kraft paper, then write the name of one beer in each circle. Part coaster, part organizational device, this smart favour gives guests a surface to record their tasting notes on and will help keep their glasses straight. And don't forget pencils.
Keep it cool
To preserve its freshness, all beer should be stored cool, either in a cellar or in the fridge, from the moment you bring it home until it's consumed. Take all of the bottles out of the fridge 15 minutes before you start tasting.
Pour as you go
Unlike wine, beer should never be prepoured at a tasting. Instead, line up your beers in order from lightest to darkest and open one variety at a time.
How to achieve the perfect pour
"Pouring a beer properly is easy," Amato says: Simply hold the glass at a 45-degree angle and pour the beer gently along the side of the glass. When the glass is two-thirds full, straighten the glass and pour the remaining beer down the middle to form a head. "There should always be one inch of foam on top when you're done pouring," she notes. "It releases carbonation in the beer, bringing the complex aromas to the surface."
Give them time to warm up
Spend 10 minutes tasting and comparing notes on each variety to give each type of beer enough time to reach its optimal temperature: Pilsners should be served cold (that means 15 minutes out of the fridge); wheats, pale ales and dark ales should be served cool (20 to 30 minutes out of the fridge); and high-alcohol beers should be served at room temperature (45 minutes out of the fridge or more).
Ensure a clean taste
Guests should cleanse their palates with a few sips of water between each tasting. Set out a pitcher and fresh glasses (add these to your party-rentals order or use your own). Unsalted crackers are another good way of ridding the palate of lingering bitterness.
One more gouda idea
Beer and cheese make incredibly good partners, but hold off on snacking until the tasting is done. Otherwise, you'll disturb the palate. Encourage guests to mix and match.
For a well-rounded tasting, choose four or five varieties of beer, serving them from lightest to darkest. Amato suggests starting with a pilsner. Crisp and refreshing, pilsner is a style of beer that guests are likely familiar with, so choose one that they probably haven't tried before, such as the widely available Wernesgrüner Pilsner ($2.05/500 ml), B.C.'s Tree Brewing Kelowna Pilsner ($1.99/500 ml) or Ontario's King Brewery Pilsner ($12.95/6-pack). Best cheese pairing: Gruyère ($16 per pound at Alex Farms Products (416-368-2415)).
Field some wheat
Slightly darker than pilsners, wheat beers are a lively quaff with notes of fresh bread, fruit and spices. In Bavarian-style wheat beers, look for banana and clove notes; in Belgians, expect to taste orange and coriander flavours. Wheats have a higher-than-average carbonation level and make a fitting accompaniment to a light meal like brunch. Amato recommends nationally available Schneider Weisse ($2.80/500 ml), B.C.'s Driftwood White Bark Wheat Ale ($4.75/650 ml) or Quebec's Blanche de Chambly ($12.95/6-pack). Best cheese pairing: Havarti with caraway seeds ($8.78 per pound at Alex Farms Product).
Regale with pale
Don't let their misleading appellation fool you, Amato says: "Pale ales are a complex brew. They have sweet caramel tones, subtle herbal and fruit notes and a bitter finish." They also stand up well alongside hearty meals. In this category, try St. Ambroise Pale Ale ($9.95/4-pack), B.C.'s Red Racer Pale Ale ($13.50/6-pack) or Alberta's Alley Kat Full Moon Pale Ale ($13/6-pack) Best cheese pairing: Medium cheddar ($9.97 per pound at Alex Farms Products).
Don't be afraid of the dark
An excellent choice for colder weather, dark ales are almost universally smooth, with dark chocolate or coffee notes and a typically dry finish. For a good introduction, consider Fuller's London Porter ($2.70/500 ml), Ontario's Hockley Stout ($2.65/473 ml) or Quebec's La Corriveau ($4.50/500 ml). Best cheese pairing: Manchego ($29 per pound at Alex Farms Products).
You can host a lively tasting with four varieties of beer, Amato says. But if you're feeling adventurous, "toss in a fifth with higher alcohol, like a bock, imperial stout or barley wine. They are full-bodied and sweet, and they make a nice dessert beer." Alternatively, choose a bottle with an unusual seasonal ingredient, such as raspberry or spruce. "This sort of beer might not appeal to everyone," Amato notes, "but it's sure to spark conversation." Try Chimay Premiere ($6.05/750 ml), Ontario's Amsterdam Springbock ($3.95/500 ml) or Quebec's Dieu du Ciel Solstice d'hiver ($13/4-pack). Best cheese pairing: Limburger ($6.99 per brick at Olympic Food and Cheese Mart (905-944-8676)).