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Hosting a Great Winter Beer Tasting

Argo0 and Kathy’s 2002 Gathering
Features December 12, 2002      
Written by argo0


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 it’s 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 year’s tasting was the seventh one I’ve hosted, and Kathy’s been co-host for the last five. I think much of our success comes from the fact that it’s a tradition. We host our party each year on the first Friday in December, and friends know what’s involved. Good reputation begets good party.

Preparation: I’ve found that you need to do several things to ensure you’ve got a wide selection of beers available. The most important thing is to make a list. I’ve compiled a list of all the winter beers that I know come in bottles. Some are no longer produced, and I’ve 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 aren’t 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 you’ve never had (or have never seen in your area), it’s 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 can’t 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 it’s 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 it’s a Holiday Beer Party." I replied, "No it isn’t, it’s 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 don’t even like beer, but come because it’s a cool party.

I’ve found this isn’t a bad thing. Most everyone still wants to participate in finding winter beers. It’s 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 I’d never rated, but that’s it. Still, there were only three beers I’d 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 I’ve 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 I’d picked up this summer. Don’t 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 Saturday’s beer program didn’t 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 Geeks’ Tasting (l-r): Homebrew, DeDolle Stille Nacht, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, Pripps Julöl, Victory Old Horizontal, Lagunitas Lagunator, Pripps Julöl, Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws, Unibroue Quelque Chose, Gamlestadens Julöl, Homebrew, Brooklyn Monster, Deschutes Jubelale, Anchor Our Special Ale, and Allagash Grand Cru.

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Food: Not much to explain here, but if you want a good party, don’t 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 we’re reaching the point where we can make no more). We have friends that arrive early to be sure they get the chili before it’s gone. Living on Capitol Hill for the past 5 years, we’ve 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 I’ve been really lucky with, and it’s not necessarily something you can control. I’m good friends with the manager of a liquor store, and he’s 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 Kathy’s 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 he’d picked up a West Coast 6-pack, which I told him was great because I’d ever seen this beer on the East Coast. A week later he called back and said he’d found another West Coast 6-pack, also one I’d never seen. Fantastic! Then, a week before the party he e-mailed and said he’d be bringing out two more West Coast 6-packs that I’d never been at my party. Unbelievable!! This friend likes beer, but he’s not huge into beer or anything. And we’ve already got new beers lined up for next year - another friend, whose beer appreciation I’d 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 I’ve 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, here’s a list of the commercial winter seasonals that were imbibed at our weekend’s event:

Aass - Juleøl
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 - Julöl
Hair of the Dog - Doggie Claws
Harpoon - Winter Warmer
Het Anker - Gouden Carolus Noël
Huyghe - Delirium Noël
Lagunitas - Solstice Lagunator Ale
North Coast - Wintertime Ale
Otter Creek - A Winter’s Ale
Pripps - Julöl
Pyramid - Snow Cap Ale
Rogue - Santa’s Private Reserve
Rogue - Yellow Snow Ale
Sam Adams - Winter Lager
Samuel Smith’s - Winter Welcome
Scaldis - Noël
Shipyard - Longfellow Winter Ale
Sierra Nevada - Celebration Ale
Stoudt’s - Winter Ale
Summit - Winter Ale
Troëgs - Oatmeal Stout
Unibroue - Quelque Chose
Victory - Old Horizontal Barleywine
Victory - Storm King Imperial Stout
Wasatch - Christmas Ale
Widmer - Winternacht
Young’s - Winter Warmer



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