A Question of Size
Questions of size. There are a lot of them in the craft beer world.
Do I want a big (high ABV beer)? Do I want a beer with big, malty notes, or a big, juicy hop-bomb? When I hit a bar, do I want a full pour, a half-pour, or samples? For many in the industry, one of the questions becomes whether or not they should offer samples.
All of the questions find themselves answered differently based on the person and the situation.
A scan of social media feeds, such as the Maryland Beer Drinkers Club on Facebook, can often portray these questions as borderline political stances (i.e., “I’m tired of IPAs, why can’t I find more porters, stouts and lagers?”). Sometimes the discussions reveal some deep misunderstandings about how the brewing industry works (but that’s a column for a different day).
For most of those questions, the right answer is generally about personal preference.
As for samples, the answers there have recently been up for debate. There are some in the industry that maintain that the 2- or 4-ounce pour fails to provide an adequate sample for the drinker to benefit from the entire beer experience.
While I can’t definitively refute this claim, I can say that if I can’t make a quick determination from what I smell and taste with my initial couple of sips, more often than not, the beer is innocuous and hasn’t provided me with any experience I want to continue having through a 10-, 12- or 16-ounce pour. And more likely than not, I’m usually able to determine whether or not it’s a beer I will either enjoy or hate with that brief sample.
I understand the brewer looking at a full pour of the beer as the complete experience. Filmmakers don’t want you to watch only the first 30 minutes of a two-hour film, and musicians don’t want you to listen to one minute of a four-minute song. Creators always want the consumers to experience their creation in its totality.
Sure, glassware can make a difference in the perceived flavor of a beer. The tulip glass can indeed enhance the flavor of an IPA, due to the fact that it’s designed to open up the aromas of the hops, whereas the mini pint glasses, short Pilsner glasses and shot glasses often used for samples tend to be designed with either one beer style in mind (Pilsner), or not designed for beer at all.
Realistically, this is pretty much the difference between watching a well formatted DVD versus a Blu-Ray. You’re going to get a good picture from both, but the Blu-Ray is going to be better.
But does that mean places should do away with samples and flights? There are certainly brewers that think so. Some would argue the above — that you’re not truly experiencing the beer without experiencing it fully.
I have also seen it argued that by ordering flights or samples, the customer is also avoiding a key aspect of craft beer: interaction with the brewer or bartender.
A couple of thoughts here. First, I believe that anytime you pop that tab, crack that bottle, or get samples at a brewery or bar, at the very least, you’re indirectly interacting with the brewer. If you’re lucky enough to be talking directly to the brewer, that can certainly add a level of enjoyment as you learn what, exactly, the brewer was trying to accomplish — what flavors he or she was trying to impart, where the beer succeeded and failed in that respect. The brewer can be an amazing font of information.
Bartenders, on the other hand, can be very hit or miss when it comes to this sort of thing.
Most times, bartenders can speak to the beers they’re serving. Unfortunately, I’ve run into many who can’t — they don’t have any real understanding of the beers they’re serving; they bring preconceived notions to their serving; women don’t like beer, so the beer must be for the guy; your taste in beer sucks, so take my recommendation; mis-identification of beers; and so on. It can easily ruin your experience at what might otherwise be a good brewpub.
In fairness, a good bartender can make the experience one that you want to come back for again and again. He or she can speak to the beers, understands your tastes, and doesn’t make those bad assumptions that can kill his or her tip. I have plenty of those whom take good care of me, and their other customers.
I guess the bottom line, for me is this: Keep samples (think of them like the beer version of singles bars: you get to mix and mingle, then go home with the one you clicked with), and find yourself a good bartender to take care of you, or a brewery where you can hang out. Drink well and stay happy.