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How to organize a beer tasting and beer dinner

Friday - 1/24/2014, 8:50am  ET

Organizing a beer tasting or beer dinner is a great way to bring together a great group of friends over a collection of craft beers and varying food combinations. (Courtesy Brian Stanton)
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Rob Fink
WTOP Beer Contributor

WASHINGTON - It's been said many times before, but the sentiment is well worth repeating: Craft beer is all about community.

On the commercial level, this sense of community is evident in collaborations with fellow breweries. And on a consumer level, it's often rooted in beer tastings and beer dinners.

Some of my most poignant beer experiences have been at a table surrounded by a group of like-minded folks, relishing the immense comfort of good food and good beer.

Across several years of coordinating beer tastings and beer dinners, I've certainly made my share of mistakes, but I've also made a few good choices. When something clicks, it becomes immediately apparent.

Below are a few basic guidelines to help maximize your beer tasting and beer dinner adventures:

Beer Tastings

Beer tastings can be as simple as gathering friends for a few beers, or as complex as a staggered tasting with snacks and water acting as palate cleansers between beers.

It can take the shape of a tasting where a few beers from a particular brewery are featured, or a tasting can be premised upon a specific style, such as a collection of American IPAs.

The colloquial phrase in the craft beer community for these types of events is "bottle share."

Beer Dinners

Beer dinners are ideal to highlight flavor details of craft beer and beer's inextricable agricultural link to food.

Both beer and food possess the capability to enhance one another in ways that cannot be replicated elsewhere. However you choose to orchestrate your beer dinner, below are some general guidelines that can help you achieve true beer enlightenment.

Basic conceptual frameworks for pairing:

  • Harmony: Harmony-based pairings are typically the most intuitive of all pairings. Think about cooking methods, ingredients and their consequences.

    The char from a grilled beef kabob echos the toasty caramel malt profile of traditional Mrzen, much like the intense roasted coffee character of an imperial stout seamlessly intertwines with flourless chocolate cake.

    Toffee-like residual sweetness from traditional English barleywine elevates crme brle to new heights. In the end, go with your instinct and you will rarely go wrong.

  • Contrast: Bitterness, roasted malt and carbonation all balance against sweetness and fat.

    For example, extremely hop-forward beers, such as imperial IPAs, pair well with the contrasting sweetness of carrot cake. Subtle notes of bittersweet chocolate, inherent in a robust porter, are sufficient to handle most spicy preparations, provided they're not too intense.

    The heavy flavors of chocolate cake will be brought into balance by the bright acidity of Belgian kriek. Keep in mind that contrast pairings are not necessarily about off-setting particular flavors as much as highlighting their individuality in conjunction with one another, thereby opening the door to new flavor possibilities.

  • Synergy: Synergy-based pairings are not always discussed in relation to either harmony or contrast pairings, but they can be equally compelling.

    Synergy pairings are primarily based on familiarity. These types of pairings could recall a pleasing childhood memory or deep-seated cultural practice. For example, brown ale or Dunkel paired with a Colby or mild cheddar cheese can be starkly reminiscent of grilled cheese.

    When umami-rich cheeses, such as aged Gouda or Gruyere, are paired with a toasty or roasty beer, such as doppelbock or stout, the pairing can create a profound impression of grilled meat.

Match strength with strength:

Imperial stouts aren't meant to accompany poached salmon in the same way that English barleywines are not meant to accompany the intricate subtlety of steamed mussels; each beer would easily drown out the dishes.

Poaching or steaming preparations often call for beer styles that rely on bridled nuance, such as Belgian witbier, German weizen or kolsch. But the possible inclusion of sauces and the level of seasoning also play a factor.

Frying, roasting, grilling or smoking preparations require beers of increasing intensity. For example, American pale ales are tremendous with fried fish, as their bitterness easily balances the fat.

If you plan on having chocolate -- the darker the better -- in your dessert, or by itself for dessert, imperial stouts usually have you covered.

In this instance, beer goes where wine aimlessly shrivels by not only matching sweetness, but also the underlying roasted flavor of chocolate, itself.

These are just a few examples, but if you pay careful attention to the intensity of the dish, you're well on your way to finding a beer to complete the pairing.

Order courses in terms of increasing intensity:

If you've already taken into consideration individual dishes and how they interact with their respective beer pairings, you're well on your way to establishing an order to it all.

But remember this: Order courses in terms of increasing intensity. Alcohol by volume is generally a good indicator of flavor intensity, but beer styles, such as lambic or Flanders red, can be intensely sour, yet with modest strength (less than or equal to 6 percent).

Sour styles are great as aperitifs or as a means to break things up along the way as palate cleansers.

The peppery crunch of fresh baby arugula with a bit of goat cheese, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, performs wonders to warm the palate when it's forced to deal with a Belgian witbier or a Belgian saison.

Doppelbock or a Belgian dubbel can handle a variety of main course preparations, such as char-grilled ribeye or the classic duck cassoulet with aplomb.

Desserts containing any iteration of chocolate can pair with Belgian kriek all the way to barrel-aged imperial stout. However, be mindful of the relative intensity of the chocolate and how it may interact with the intensity of your beer.

While it can sometimes be easy to overcomplicate the order of your beer dinner, common sense can prove most fruitful. Dishes traditionally in the appetizer, main course or dessert category should stay as such and have beer pairings built around that paradigm.

A sample beer dinner menu:

Below is a three-course meal I've done in the past with pleasing results:

First Course: Baby arugula with roasted red peppers, goat cheese and citrus vinaigrette, paired with Saison Dupont

Second Course: Beer braised lamb shank with winter vegetables, paired with Trappist Rochefort 8

Third Course: Stout-infused chocolate pudding with Brooklyn Black Ops

Other considerations:

Make sure the space for your beer dinner isn't smoky or have other intense odorants. This way, you ensure the best chance for beer dinner success. Generally speaking, smoking will greatly impair your ability to enjoy the full spectrum of flavor established by the parameters of your beer dinner.

Ensuring proper serving temperature for your beers is paramount for maximum enjoyment. Pilsners are often fine right out the fridge (38 degrees Fahrenheit), but IPAs or imperial stouts should be around 48 and 54 degrees, respectively, in order for their flavor profiles to be fully realized.

Small snifters are great for tasting a variety of beers and also help to universalize pouring for multiple guests. I've used these to great effect.

However you ultimately construct your beer tasting, beer pairing or beer dinner, just remember to have fun.

Editor's Note: Rob Fink lives in Arlington, Va., and is an avid homebrewer. Follow him on Twitter @RobDFink. Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter.

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