March 1, 2013 at 2:43 PM ET
A flight of beers is a wonderful thing – it’s a sampler platter, speed dating, a master’s class and a family reunion all wrapped into one.
The concept is simple. You go to a restaurant, bar or brewery that has many delicious beers on tap, and you choose a selection of sample-sized brews to try back-to-back.
In most cases, the beers are tasted from lightest to darkest to ensure you can appreciate the nuances of the more gentle fare before your palate is blown out by the more intense and flavorful dark beers.
A typical flight consists of four to six small glasses, each holding just a few ounces. You’ll wind up consuming about a pint’s worth of beer during a flight, making it a great way to try a variety of brews without having to drink (or pay for) enough beer to make you list to the left when you walk to the restrooms. A flight can follow many different themes and serve many different purposes. Let’s take a look at some options.
If you’re at a bar and don’t know what beer you’re truly in the mood for, a flight of beers is a great way for you to kiss a lot of frogs and quickly find your prince. Think of it as speed dating with beer.
Order up that IPA your friend’s been trying to set you up with, that buttoned up German pilsner you’ve heard so much about, that beguiling Irish red on the menu, a rugged porter, a serious stout or an easy going orange wheat. Play the field, and if you fall in love, great – commit to a pint and see where the night takes you. If not, make a call to one of your reliable favorites and leave falling in love for another time.
I often take the sampler platter approach when I find myself in a restaurant or bar that has several beers on tap that I haven’t tried before. You cover a lot of ground in a single session without getting so blitzed that you don’t remember anything about the new notches you’ve put on your beer belt.
There doesn’t need to be any rhyme or reason when figuring out the contents of a sampler platter; just pick what strikes your fancy and they’ll bring it to you, usually on a rustic wooden paddle. It’s like being a medieval king!
The family reunion
If you’re visiting a brewery or brewpub, they’ll most likely offer up a flight of their family of beers for you to try. Find out if their brewer shares your taste in beer, or if you’re better off finding another clan to call your favorite.
You’ll find some families of beer are like the Munsters, having one very attractive member and a bunch of oddballs that make you want to run for the hills. Others are more like the Cosbys, with each beer more charming than the next. Unfortunately, some are like the Kardashians – bereft of a single member you’d bring home to mother.
Whatever the case, drinking a flight of beers from a single source is a great way to discover if they are worth looking out for in the future, or if you’re barking up the wrong (family) tree.
The master’s class
A great way to accelerate your beer education is to have a beer flight consisting of several samples of the same style of brew.
Tasting multiple beers of the same style back-to-back opens your eyes to the nuances of each offering, as well as discovering new things about your own preferences. I learned that I prefer IPAs with sweet malt backbones to earthy ones, and a citrusy hop profile instead of piney bitterness, making it easier to find new beers I’ll probably like, just by reading their description.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have the chance to experience a vertical flight of beers, where you sample vintages from different years of a single beer. Vertical flights are typically reserved for dark, rich beers with high ABVs, not hoppy offerings, which usually don’t age well.
Imagine tasting Three Floyds Dark Lord 2008 through 2012 in a single session, or having a nip of every year of Stone Brewing Company’s Vertical Epic, from 01.01.01 through 12.12.12. A vertical tasting is an excellent way to see how a beer changes with age, and perhaps also how a brewery got better (or worse) at making it over the years. It’s a time machine for your tongue!
You don’t have to go to a tap house or a brewery to enjoy a flight of beer – you can do it in your own home. All you need are a set of beers, a few friends to share with, and a bunch of identical small cups so all the brews are on equal footing (I usually opt for clear 9-ounce plastic cups from the grocery store).
I’ve done this most recently with my wife and another couple. The four of us sampled a selection of beers that shared the same base malts, but each was brewed a unique variety of hops.
It was a lot of fun comparing notes on how each hop brought a different flavor to the brew, and we all learned a lot about beer that evening. We could also hear each other talk without the din of the bar, which is a huge bonus if you’re over 40 (you know, cranky and old).
A flight of beers gives you the power of flight – the ability to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time while charting whatever course you like. Tell us, what brews would you recommend for a flight?