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Oakes Weekly - February 9, 2006

The Sampler Tray
Oakes Weekly February 9, 2006      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

I engage in an awful lot of beer travel. I feel at home on the road. I enjoy trying beers. Seems rather natural. Every time I say I’m going to cut back on beer travel, I just do more. Even when I’m not on a certified beer trip, I spend a lot of time researching and executing beer hunts.

I just got finished a long beer road trip and decided to undertake a little experiment. We all know that there are different types of beerhunters with different motivations. You have purists, who seek out the beauty of beer. You have collectors, who want to rack up as many new beers as humanly possible. I’m both, which puts me in a pretty good position to take a look at this issue.

Regardless of what you think of festivals and tasting parties and the quality of sampling one can undertake in those situations, brewpubs offer a specific situation that is not corollary to festivals and parties. I’m talking about the sample tray. It has its merits and it has its weaknesses. I took advantage of dozens of brewpub visits the past couple of weeks to examine these.

I’m going to try and do this from a neutral perspective in terms of the whole “sample size debate”. Brewpubs aren’t beer festivals. You aren’t there with 20 other Ratebeerians. If you’re at all good at beer hunting, you won’t arrive there when it is jam packed and smoky as hell. Nobody is forcing you to eat while sampling the beer nor do they put a gun to your head and march you to the table nearest the pizza oven. Indeed, I never once felt as though I had any outside distractions at any of the brewpubs I visited on my recent trip. So I’m going to stick with areas of debate specific to sampler trays as best as I can.

The first aspect of the sampler tray is the question of opportunity. Naturally, in one’s hometown brewpubs there is little excuse not to have a pint. You can come back as many times as you need to if you want to try the whole range. (There are exceptions, yes, like if the brewpub is terrible and you really are a beer collector/ticker.) But when you are on the road, you probably won’t have that opportunity. You may if the brewpub is within two or three hours of home and you’re the kind of person with time and money to make repeated visits. But once you get outside of that radius, you might have a one-shot opportunity to try a brewery’s beers. Samplers allow you to do that. At most breweries, pints do not. Half pints may suffice if you’re checked into your hotel and not continuing down the highway. But for most road situations, samplers are the only realistic way to sample a brewer’s entire range.

Why would you do that? Well, certainly there is another angle to the debate, that perhaps it’s only worth sampling the ones you’re most likely to enjoy. More of the good, less of the bad. Plus more of a beer to get a fuller evaluation. This is true to the extent that the brewery has mailed in a couple of beers…the Blonde, Amber and American Wheat for example. But not every brewery mails these in. In some cases, these are the ones you’ll actually prefer. You could check Ratebeer first but from what I’ve seen taking visitors around to my local brewpubs the average rating on Ratebeer is not a great indicator of whether an out-of-towner will like a given beer. There is a whole article in that one about the variances in the tastes between locals and visitors when it comes to brewpub beers. But the point is that you could be doing yourself a disservice sampling only one or two beers. You’d probably even do the brewery a disservice if you ordered the wrong ones and came away with an unfavourable impression of a brewer you wouldn’t have had if given all the range.

But we’re not really here to do the brewers a service. That’s what professional competitions are for, and brewers pay money to enter those. The day we’re doing brewers a service is when they pay us to rate their beers. We’re consumers, speaking for and to consumers and that’s it. We’re intertwined with the industry to the extent that consumers pay the industry’s bills and keep them employed. Rating the beers and buying the sixers and growlers that keep their beer flowing are two entirely separate issues. Our service is to each other as beer lovers.

So let’s talk about that service. Quality of ratings is often cited as a big reason not to do samplers. A good beerhunter organizes things so that atmosphere isn’t an issue, so let’s toss that one out. Sample size is a big source of debate and without going into that debate much I’ll just say that pros can rate on small sample sizes. It’s the industry standard for competitions with a whole lot more at stake than an online consumer opinion poll. So get over the sample size thing…for pros. A lot of consumers aren’t pros. A working knowledge (not expertise because a lot of professional brewers sure as hell don’t have that either) of ingredients, styles, and brewing techniques plus experience working with small sample sizes is imperative. If you’re going to do as the pros do you should be able to hold your own at their table. Otherwise, just order a pint and work your way up to it. There’s no shame in that. It’s called being a beer drinker. Besides, drinking simply to try the most beers is futile.

The other biggie, though, is the glassware. The glassware for most brewpubs samplers, simply put, blows goats. You get those little squat glasses that are filled to the rim with no head. Or some tall, skinny glass with beer only a third of the way up. Or some other olfactory disaster. You can’t smell a thing, head formation is unreliable, and even a small sip seems to drain 2/3 of the glass. And it’s not a “mini” version of the experience a pint-drinker would have. You’re shortchanging yourself and everyone to whom you are relaying your experience by using such mickey mouse glassware. Not that I don’t do it – I do – but I am aware that this is not an optimal rating situation.

The flip side is that although bigger glasses are almost always better, they are still often shakers or some other crap glass. The pint wins when talking about offering the proper sensory experience as the brewer intended, though, despite the shortcomings of the everpopular shaker.

On my trip I noticed another factor that doesn’t come up much in the sample size debate so I’ll bring it up here. Alcohol. Yes, folks, trying pints of two different beers may very well yield superior ratings for those two beers, but will also yield more alcohol in your bloodstream than in the entire sample tray.

Thus, the pint route offers more rapid inebriation. Not good if you’re driving out of there, doubly so if your next destination is also a brewpub. Overindulgence is a risk any beer traveller runs and if a brewery has, as is the case with Russian River, 12 solid beers on tap, temptation is going to be pretty great.

Moreover, you have those two great ratings but your ability to continue writing ratings is going to deteriorate that much more quickly. The sampler tray hits you with an initial reduction in quality but offers more overall consistency. Brewpub #4 at two pints of the finest beers at each will not yield 8 great ratings, especially for those with a preference for the stronger styles.

So on the alcohol score, you’ve got to admit that sampler trays have the advantage, most especially for breweries that make enough great beers that you’d regret missing out on one. Regret when beer travelling is not for the moment you walk out the door, it’s for the morning after.

I’ve found a mix of the two to work pretty well, but that’s for me. And probably because I’m both a beer purist and a beer hunter. So switching between the two keeps both sides satisfied. I hate to miss out on quality brews. But I also find hitting five brewpubs and pounding down five sampler trays to be an experience somehow lacking. The diehard tickers don’t have this issue, and neither do diehard purists. But I suspect there’s a lot of people like me out there who are never quite sure which is best for them. Hopefully I’ve helped get the issues on the table. Let me know what you think.



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start quote I hate to miss out on quality brews. But I also find hitting five brewpubs and pounding down five sampler trays to be an experience somehow lacking. end quote