It should come as no surprise to you that Aleheads often tend not to spend entire evenings imbibing numerous pints of the same beer. Given the opportunity, most of us will end up sampling half a dozen offerings in order to compare, contrast, and generally (arrogantly) pass judgment on whatever beers happen to be available. With a variety of palatable offerings, this often brings with it a challenge: in what order should you consume your beverages? Do brown ales come before pilsners, or after? Do you drink a double IPA before a Russian Imperial Stout, or vice versa? And where does that kickass barleywine or quad go? Or what if you’ve got a whole pile of complete hop bombs to play with? What do you drink in between to reset (soothe?) your scorched palate?
I need help. This is just too complex for me. Unfortunately, since I don’t have any actual experts available to offer me useful advice, I have to bring it to the Aleheads. So boys, what words of wisdom do you have for us regarding how you like to attack an exciting variety of beers?
Fortunately I’ve developed a strict rubric for prioritizing my beers. I reject any set order based on style. Instead, through years of painful trial and error, I have arrived at the following five rules to live by:
Rule #1: drink the best beer first. I’m not saying that if you have a fridge full of the best year-round offerings from stellar breweries like Oskar Blues, Founders and Southern Tier, you should drink your favorite first. But if I am going to drink a beer that is clearly superior to those beers — like if I had a fridge full of OB, Founders and Southern Tier plus a Founders KBS — I would always start with the best beer. This is Rule #1 because it trumps all the other rules.
Rule #2: citrusy before piney, except after malty. I generally subscribe to the rule that you start big and go smaller (see Rule #5). In other words, I would ordinarily drink an Imperial IPA before the plain IPA, lest I ruin the bolder IIPA with its watery cousin. But my palate won’t recognize shit after I’ve doused it with a pine forest. So if the IPA is a citrus bomb and the IIPA is heavier on the pine flavors — let’s take a Bell’s Two Hearted and a Green Flash Imperial IPA — I drink the more citrusy offering first. The exception is that if one of the beers manages to be both piney and malty — such as the Oskar Blues Old Chub — I would let Rule #5 control.
Rule #3: don’t drink similar-tasting beers back-to-back when you can help it. There are days when I might actually carpet-bomb a village for a Dale’s Pale Ale or a Founders Centennial IPA. They’re both outstanding, relatively dry, super-citrusy ales. But drinking them consecutively, in either order, is a bad call. If the Dale’s comes second it tastes too bitter. If the Founders comes second it tastes too dry. All in all, it’s just not worth it.
Rule #4: don’t drink a Belgian single ale or a Scottish/Scotch ale at the end of the night. The flavor profiles already tend to be subtle enough without drawing a bad comparison by preceding them with something bolder.
* I fully support Doc’s amendment to this rule, relating to consumption of Lambics (see below). It’s just that that would never happen to me because I have some fucking sense.
Rule #5, a/k/a the default rule: start big and go smaller. This rule is going to draw some fire because I suspect most people start with the milder beer and go toward the richer. But I actually think that takes away from the richer beers more than my Rule #5 diminishes the milder ones–which are already milder, for god’s sake. So, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout before Guinness Draught Stout. (Actually, just about everything I voluntarily drink comes before Guinness Draught Stout.) Founders Devil Dancer before Chimay Blue. Brooklyn Cuvee Noire before Sweetwater 420. If you don’t believe me, try it, and share your experiences in the comments.
** There is an exception to every rule, including this one. Lord Copperpot and I will always refer to the exception to Rule #5 as “Brother Barley’s Hoppy, Malty, Hoppy, Malty, Drunk” Rule. The gist of the rule is self-evident from its title.
Is this bullshit, you may ask? Probably. Did I make up the part about the years of trial and error and “developing” these “rules”? Absolutely. But now that I came up with them, I’m sticking to them, you bastards. Don’t make me come after you.
The Commander’s response is intriguing, but as is often the case in life, I
humbly arrogantly disagree.
I believe the best approach when selecting from a variety of beers is to carefully peel the label off of each bottle, stick them to a dartboard, put a Star Wars-esque blast helmet on a monkey, have the monkey fling poop at the dartboard, and then drink the beer represented by the feces-smeared label. It’s the only sane way to choose which beer to consume next.
But what if you don’t have a dartboard? What’s the second best approach to determining the order in which to drink a selection of beers?
The old-school rule of thumb was to drink “light to dark”. But in today’s craft beer world, that method is useless. What if you were drinking a flight of Victory brews and started with the “light” Prima Pils (an uber-hopped pilsner) and finished with the “dark” Donnybrook (a thoroughly bland dry stout)? The latter would taste like water after pounding the Prima. Another option would be to drink in order of IBUs so that the tongue-punishing and mouth-puckering of the ever-increasing hop profiles would be less jarring. The issue with this method is that most bars don’t let you know what the IBU of each beer they serve is…PLUS, IBUs really aren’t the best method of determining bitterness (some high IBU beers have big enough malt backbones that they’re actually more sweet than bitter).
So that leaves you with the simplest, and in my mind, “best” method of selecting beer order: Drink from lowest to highest ABV.*
*Not coincidentally, this is the exact opposite advice that the Commander just gave you. In other words, it’s CLEARLY the correct response.
First, almost every bar or beer bottle lists ABVs these days so it’s easy enough to figure out (and if it’s not obvious, just look the beer up on BeerAdvocate using your smartphone…the ABV will be right on top). Second, if you’re like me, you tend to drink your first beer much more quickly than the others. You’re thirsty, you’ve been thinking about a beer for hours, and you’re a little antsy because of all the other craft beer delights that await you. So you belly up to the bar, quickly order a round, and before you can blink, it’s gone. The beers after that tend to go a little slower with each round…you’re getting fuller, tipsier, and your craving for beer has been somewhat sated. It just makes sense to start with the lower ABV option first. If you crack into a barleywine or grand cru to start things off, the massive flavor and huge ABV will overwhelm your night out and make everything else taste like water. Instead, grab a pale ale, IPA, brown ale, or sour. Then build from there. When you’re ready for your last round, grab a big, boozy brew that you can sip as slowly as you want. You know you’ll be leaving after that one so take your time with it…let it mellow and warm up a little (big ABV beers taste even better when the warmth loosens up the nose and flavor). Think of it like a digestif or a nightcap…
Now, do I actually follow this rule? Of course not…like the Commander, I have absolutely no gameplan when drinking multiple types of beer. I generally just grab the first thing that catches my eye…then the second…then the third…then the eleventh. But if I HAD to pick a methodology for how to attack a smorgasbord of fermented delights, the low-to-high ABV rule makes the most sense to me.
Start with the front of the fridge, and work your way to the back?
In all seriousness, I argue sampling too many beers in one day is not a great idea. The Commander’s rule #1 is spot on: drink the whale first. Who cares if the Hopslam kills your pallet when you shift down to something else? You just had a Hopslam, be happy! Worried about your taste buds being in shape for BORIS the crusher? Save it for tomorrow!
After that, it depends. If the whale was a Double IPA, don’t shift to a single IPA, or you’ll feel a let down. However, Shifting to a dry stout after a RIS is ok. Why? because you don’t want over the top favors from a dry stout like an IPA, make sense? No?
I just don’t think there are hard and fast rules here.
As comprehensively knowledgeable as I may be about so many topics in the beer world, for this particular conundrum I confess I might not be the best person to ask… after all, many nights that began with so much good beer and potential have ended in disappointment (and sometimes urine or vomit). But come to think of it, many of these nights also featured Brother Barley in the dugout setting the order and lineup- so unless your liver was developed at Stark Industries, you may want to think twice before letting Barley pick your beers. After all, if you go his route of lowest to highest ABV, you could end up the evening with a dry hopped Barley Wine that ends up sprayed in the bushes by the parking lot.
If pressed, I would say it’s best to mix it up a bit. The ideal solution to enjoying a particularly good brew is to drink it by itself, alone, having thoroughly cleansed your palate and rid the environment of any distractions. A hyperbaric chamber would be ideal, and smooth jazz in the background can be nice. However, most of us get the chance to sample a variety of high end brews whilst out on the town at a bar or taproom. Start strong- I usually favor an Imperial IPA of some sort. Your senses will be fully heightened and you can take most advantage of your sensory anticipation. Then, settle in with a couple of session brews… perhaps a sweet Brown Ale and next an American Pale Ale… all the while building in your head for the next whale (Imperial Stout perhaps) blinking on your sonar.
In short- look at the menu, order what looks good, and try not to get arrested at the end of the night.
Goose’s wedding, which we’ve devoted way too much time to discussing, was preceded by Goose’s Bachelor Weekend. The first night, which was a Friday, we dined at the elegant and Mario Batali-affiliated Italian Wine Merchants in NYC’s Union Square (why this ridiculous, debaucherous, moronic weekend started out with an elegant dinner, when the main attraction was strippers and beer an Atlantic City casino, I’ll never know).
Anyway, as part of that dinner, our hosts lined up 10 different bottles of wine for us to try throughout the meal. The wines ranged from about $10 to about $150 apiece, and generally started lighter and proceeded to the more robust. Being the concrete sequential automaton that I am, I started at #1, and a few hours later I found myself at #10.
Toward the end of the evening, I asked a compatriot of mine, Nicky the Squid, which of the 10 he liked best. His reply? “I don’t know, I’ve just been drinking #8. It’s $150. At $150, I figured it had to be pretty fantastic. And I was right. It’s phenomenal.”
This is the long way of saying that the Commander is right. Drink the best beer first. And if you’re lucky enough to have a six pack on hand, drink the best beer second.
Try as I might, I can’t strongly buy into the “best beer first” hypothesis. This is probably for a couple of reasons:
1. When I go out to a beer bar on some average evening, I typically don’t drink “that much.” At the very least, I never really drink more than would prevent me from driving home. Thus, by the time I get to my last drink, it’s only a few drinks after #1, and my palate simply hasn’t been that deadened by booze.
2. In general, I go in this order: malty and low alcohol —> malty and high alcohol —-> hoppy and low alcohol —-> hoppy and high alcohol. I feel like this gives me the best transition and best ability to taste each brew without it being compromised by the previous drink.
3. In a typical night where I might have two or three beers at the bar (let’s say three), I very rarely drink multiple types of the same drink. Getting different styles of beer just keeps things fresh for me–I love IPAs, but I wouldn’t drink one, and then grab a different one. In my mind, it would get too muddled and mixed up with the other one. Typically, I want my next drink to be about as different as possible from the one preceding it.
All of this means that on that “typical night,” I might grab a dry stout first and then a Czech pils second and an imperial IPA to close things out. I do subscribe to the type of thinking that Barley mentioned with super high-alcohol beers–treat them as a nightcap, savor them, spend the longest amount of time nursing that beer. Sound reasonable to you?
Because I am not peasant I do not drink alone and am unconstrained to your sad choice makings. I will purchase most expensive beer first and then take taste. If I am not enjoying, I simply pour it onto floor or force Karl to finish. luckily for Karl his dort-mouth education has not limited him in regards to capacity of consumption or debasement so he is perfect beer spittoon. It also gives him the opportunity to chug many Belgian beers. Note I do not do this when tasting vodka because Karl gets very weepy. In this manner I am usually trying twelve or fifteen beers a night and usually I taste by geography. If I am traveling I will always taste a local new young lithe beer first and at the end of the night taste familiar, old beer. Is like coming home to wife after spending afternoon with mistress. if I am in home city I will taste most uncommon beer first. In this manner I am able to sample locally the few beers I do not already own. The idea that strong tasting beer ruins your next weak but delicious beer is a also a stupidity. Beer like women depends on mood and sometimes I like girl next door after I have spent time with Olympic gymnast.
I have nothing wrong with the “Best Beer First” philosophy as it’s generally my chosen route, but I’d like to add a twist to that and this only applies to nights that are spent away from my house (Rare these days, but every once in a while I do get out for an evening). At my stage in life, married with two kids, the amount I get to drink whilst away from the roost is usually limited to just a couple of beers. I’m either driving, have to get home early to put kids to bed (Or watch Matlock), or I’m simply too exhausted to make it past a few rounds. With this in mind, I don’t always go for what would technically be considered the “Best” beer first but I’ll choose my first and second beers based on rarity. If it’s a beer that’s in limited supply, limited distribution, one-time release, rare to see on draught, dry-hopped or cask conditioned, chances are it will meet my criteria. It doesn’t matter what the beer is. If I think this is the only chance I’ll have to taste it (Without trying too hard, since I hate trying), this will be the beer that I’m grabbing first. It’s a simple approach, but when I leave a fantastic beer-bar having only sampled two of a few dozen beers that I wanted to try, at least I can look back and remember that I made some wise choices.
Added bonus to this approach that applies to those few times when I’m able to stay out all night and have a responsible wife or friend available to take me home. I’ve been known to drink to excess and projectile vomit across hotel bathrooms (shocker). No matter what, I’ll always remember that first beer and usually the second or third. Yes, the night is “Ruined” if you want to be a dick about it, but at least I got to drink a couple of cool beers before the demons took over. While I’ll always remember the first few rounds, I’ll unfortunately always remember that oak-aged cherry Lambic that I forced myself to order at the end of the night since that’s the last thing that leaves my sorry throat in the morning. Note to everyone out there – No matter what you order first, never order Lambic last.*
*Editor’s Note: Ignore the rest of this column…the “No Lambic Last” rule is really the only take-away here.
This may well be the most considered set of responses we’ve ever received for a conundrum. The odd part is that, though the suggestions are all over the map, they’re all quite reasonable. I suppose the conclusion I’d draw from this is that the best order to drink your beers in is whatever sounds good to you. As for me, anytime there’s beer around and I’m in a position to drink it, life is already pretty good. I’m probably not going to go from a DIPA to a mild to a quad to a Coors Light, but then again, I might. It just goes to show that it doesn’t really matter what order you drink good beer in, just as long as you…