By Marissa Payne
After several years of living in DC, where every other person is a Master of Whatever or a Doctor of Some Stuff, I'm used to not being the smartest person in the room. On the flip side, though, I'm also not usually the dumbest. However, that could be because I usually hang out with this cute, but pretty stupid guy... But I digress. As I sat down last Thursday at one of the shiny wooden community tables that adorns the front of Smith Commons' first floor, I felt squarely out of my element. Not because I don't love Smith Commons (God no, I want to hold a boombox up to this H Street spot and play it 1980s love songs), but because I was attending a beer event, and well, up until that night I never considered myself a "beer person." To give you an idea: I'm the a@#hole who goes to an Irish pub and orders wine.
But luckily (and tastily), I didn't stay rolling in the derp for long. Thanks to the knowledgeable men and women around me, I learned not only is there no such thing as "not a beer person," (as Smith Commons' Managing Partner/Beer Director Miles Gray declared, "There's a beer for everyone."), but beer-tasting is pretty fun. It's a little like wine-tasting, but more awesome because it's essential to swallow the beer you're tasting, whereas in wine-tasting you're encouraged to swish and spit. But it's also more awesome because there's a lot more room for creativity when it comes to both your interpretation of what you're drinking and also in what you're drinking. "You can make beer out of pretty much everything," said J.P, the lone homebrewer at the table. He recalled a time when he made beer out of bacon. "It tasted like breakfast," he said. In your face, wine!
Yet just because the whole experience is a laid-back affair doesn't mean there aren't any rules. "Actually, there aren't any rules," said Tommy Hunter, a marketing manager for Flying Dog Brewery. Okay, so there may not be "rules," per se, but there are some helpful guidelines that'll make anyone a beer person, or at least help you be more mindful while you sip.
STEP 1: PEEP IT
The first step is easy enough: "Just like in wine-tasting you want to look at it. Look at the color, the clarity, the head, things like that," said Jaie Neubauer, the craft brand manager for Premium Distributors. Peeping your brew will give you a good read on the roasted malt level (the darker the beer, the more it was roasted), as well as a hint at the other types of ingredients that might be in your beer. For instance wheat beers tend to have more head retention than others.
STEP 2: SMELL IT
The next basic step is to sniff, but make it quick. "Make it a drive-by," said Jaie, who brought one of the strongest beers of the night, Dogfish Head's Palo Santo, to the party. "It's just like in chemistry class—you don't dunk your nose in something when you don't know what it is, so initial quick sniffs to pick up the aromas is better and once your nose gets used to it, then you can do a little more."
As for the specifics, first you might notice more general things, like whether the beer has a "hot nose" or not. The hotter the nose, the more alcohol is probably in it. (Literally, it will make your nose feel warmer.) As for everything else, it's a say anything kind of process. Citrus, pine, bacon—it may be there or maybe not. The only major faux pas here is if you say something like bleach. "No one ever wants to hear someone say their beer smells like strange chemicals," said Flying Dog's Tommy Hunter.
STEP 3: DRINK IT
Although it can be tempting, don't just chug. There is a process to the initial taste: "When you taste it you want to coat your entire mouth," said Jaie. "This is called mouth-feel," added Philip Peters, the assistant GM at Smith Commons. And it's a term you'll hear a lot because what's happening in your mouth when you taste beer is about more than the taste. Notice how the beer feels on your tongue. How carbonated is it? Does it slide down your throat or grab on a bit? "There's really no right or wrong," said Steven Cardello, a beer market manager who brought a few Ommegang brews to the table.
STEP 4: EAT SOMETHING
"You can't have a beer tasting without food," said J.P. The importance of food pairings is two-fold. Firstly, beer can enhance the flavors of what you're eating. "You don't want the beer to go well with the food, you want it to change the flavors," said Flying Dog's Tommy. The second "fold" comes in the next step.
STEP 5: DRINK IT AGAIN!
What you're pairing the beer with might also enhance your brew's flavor. For example, Smith Commons paired Flying Dog's Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout with its Smith Oyster Po' Boy Slider. Pre-food, the sip was pleasant, offering a nice stout flavor with a smooth finish. Post-food, the beer seemed to get a little sweeter, both literally and metaphorically.
Overall though, the best advice this table of experts gave about beer tastings is to simply have fun with it. A good place to start or continue your beer romance is during American Craft Beer Week going on right now at Smith Commons through Saturday. Each night will feature a different craft brewer (Bell's, Dogfish Head, Ommegang, DC Brau and Flying Dog, Monday through Friday, respectively), and come back on Saturday because a group of homebrewers will throw their own party on the patio. Smith Commons will also be rolling out a few special pairings, including that glorious Po' Boy Slider I mentioned above. Plus, DJs, designers and more. Even Scoutmob has a special night planned. Drop by Wednesday, May 16 for all the 'staches you can handle[bar]. For more details, check out the Smith Commons website, and see you there, beer (not wine!) in hand.