What makes for a great winter beer tasting? It sounds pretty simple to host a great winter seasonal tasting - throw a party, ask everyone you know to bring a 6-pack (or its equivalent) of a winter beer, and end up with a fabulous party that elicits comments like <a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/forums/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=2829>this one.
But if itís so easy, why was Dan so surprised at what he found? Here are my keys to hosting a great winter seasonal tasting party:
Tradition: This yearís tasting was the seventh one Iíve hosted, and Kathyís been co-host for the last five. I think much of our success comes from the fact that itís a tradition. We host our party each year on the first Friday in December, and friends know whatís involved. Good reputation begets good party.
Preparation: Iíve found that you need to do several things to ensure youíve got a wide selection of beers available. The most important thing is to make a list. Iíve compiled a list of all the winter beers that I know come in bottles. Some are no longer produced, and Iíve never seen at least half of them, but all told, the list extends to over 200 at this point. I include this list with my online invitation, so friends who might not know otherwise have concrete suggestions of beers to bring. A number of my friends print the list out and take it with them into the store. I also ask my friends to let me know what beers they get when they make their selections. Not everyone complies, but even still, this helps me keep my list up to date, identifying the beers that are already spoken for so that the more interested among my friends can try to find beers no one else is bringing.
I also hold onto some of the best beers from (at least) the preceding year. Some beers age well, and just as importantly, some winter beers arenít made the following year. In addition, throughout the preceding year, I grab winter beers whenever I can. For example, when in Sweden this summer, I saw a few winter beers in a store and grabbed them. Especially when you see beers youíve never had (or have never seen in your area), itís really useful to get stuff when you can - you may not get another chance. Fourth, scout out your local beer stores to learn what they have. Unless you know what they have, you canít help your friends when they want to find beers. And many of them, even the non-beer-geeks, would love to keep with the theme, particularly if itís not too difficult.
Know Your Friends: The first year Kathy and I threw the party together was a difficult one for me, but a critical one as well. We got into an argument because during preparation, she was busy putting up a bunch of holiday decorations when all I wanted to do was make sure there was good food to go with the good beer. I asked why all the fuss, and she said, "Because itís a Holiday Beer Party." I replied, "No it isnít, itís a Holiday Beer Party." The point eventually got through to me that the party is different things to different people. Some friends share my vision of the party being a great time drinking great beer. But the definite majority are more interested in having a good time that includes sampling some holiday beers, a few of which they might have another time, but most as one-time deals. Heck, a few of them donít even like beer, but come because itís a cool party.
Iíve found this isnít a bad thing. Most everyone still wants to participate in finding winter beers. Itís not exactly a contest, but people like being creative.
One downside to having a party rather than an actual tasting is that as host, I was entertaining and organizing rather than having the opportunity to rate many beers. I made notes on three beers that had limited supply and Iíd never rated, but thatís it. Still, there were only three beers Iíd never rated before that I lost my opportunity to rate that night.
To compensate for the host vs. geek issue, this year, for the first time, we had a much smaller gathering on Saturday, consisting of homebrewers and other friends with whom Iíve been going to tastings for years. This event was in fact a tasting that included some from my collection of limited beers, including those Swedish beers Iíd picked up this summer. Donít get me wrong - the people who went on the first night had no reason to go away feeling deprived. There were several single beers available only that first night. But at the second night party, we had time to rate and discuss a number of rare beers (as well as a few more common ones) at length and at leisure. A small regret was that Saturdayís beer program didnít include my order of winter beers from belgianshop.com, which I evidently placed too late to get here in time.
Beers consumed on the Second Night Geeksí Tasting (l-r): Homebrew, DeDolle Stille Nacht, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, Pripps JulŲl, Victory Old Horizontal, Lagunitas Lagunator, Pripps JulŲl, Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws, Unibroue Quelque Chose, Gamlestadens JulŲl, Homebrew, Brooklyn Monster, Deschutes Jubelale, Anchor Our Special Ale, and Allagash Grand Cru.
Food: Not much to explain here, but if you want a good party, donít skimp on the food. Tradition associated with the food can be as important to guests as tradition beerwise. For our party, we make chili - Kathy makes a veggie chili, and I make a turkey chili. Every year we make more and still we always run out (though I think weíre reaching the point where we can make no more). We have friends that arrive early to be sure they get the chili before itís gone. Living on Capitol Hill for the past 5 years, weíve also had a tradition of providing a large store-bought U.S. Capitol made of Belgian chocolate. We also have an array of decent cheeses and basics like veggies and dip, and chips and salsa in an effort to provide food accompaniment for every palate.
Have great friends: This last one is something Iíve been really lucky with, and itís not necessarily something you can control. Iím good friends with the manager of a liquor store, and heís been able to provide me with a number of good beers through the years, including the occasional limited supply store samples that show up for beers they never even carry. But there are others. One of Kathyís co-workers is from Utah, and had her father Fed Ex Wasatch Christmas for the party. A college roommate of mine, now living in Montana, attended his first tasting this year. A month before the tasting he told me heíd picked up a West Coast 6-pack, which I told him was great because Iíd ever seen this beer on the East Coast. A week later he called back and said heíd found another West Coast 6-pack, also one Iíd never seen. Fantastic! Then, a week before the party he e-mailed and said heíd be bringing out two more West Coast 6-packs that Iíd never been at my party. Unbelievable!! This friend likes beer, but heís not huge into beer or anything. And weíve already got new beers lined up for next year - another friend, whose beer appreciation Iíd also rate as fan not fanatic, was out in Seattle on business and had to miss the party. He called the day after the main party, outside a liquor store there, asking about which beers he should bring back for me.
A final reward: Much of what Iíve described may sound like a little too much work, but just in case you needed further incentive, I have one - all the leftovers. I have to give away at least 2 cases each year, just to get my refrigerator closed. This year, even after the giveaway, we still have over 2 cases that have yet to make it into the refrigerator.
The List: Finally, just in case you were wondering, hereís a list of the commercial winter seasonals that were imbibed at our weekendís event:
Aass - JuleÝl Abita - Christmas Ale Affligem - Noel Ale Alaskan - Winter Ale Allagash - Grand Cru Anchor - Our Special Ale Anderson Valley - Winter Solstice Avery - Old Jubilation Ale BridgePort - Ebenezer Ale Brooklyn - Black Chocolate Stout Brooklyn - Monster Ale Clipper City - Reserve Winter Ale Crooked River - Yuletide Ale De Dolle - Stille Nacht Deschutes - Jubelale Dogfish Head - WorldWide Stout Flying Dog - K-9 Full Sail - Wassail Gamlestadens - JulŲl Hair of the Dog - Doggie Claws Harpoon - Winter Warmer Het Anker - Gouden Carolus NoŽl Huyghe - Delirium NoŽl Lagunitas - Solstice Lagunator Ale North Coast - Wintertime Ale Otter Creek - A Winterís Ale Pripps - JulŲl Pyramid - Snow Cap Ale Rogue - Santaís Private Reserve Rogue - Yellow Snow Ale Sam Adams - Winter Lager Samuel Smithís - Winter Welcome Scaldis - NoŽl Shipyard - Longfellow Winter Ale Sierra Nevada - Celebration Ale Stoudtís - Winter Ale Summit - Winter Ale TroŽgs - Oatmeal Stout Unibroue - Quelque Chose Victory - Old Horizontal Barleywine Victory - Storm King Imperial Stout Wasatch - Christmas Ale Widmer - Winternacht Youngís - Winter Warmer