There are a lot of beer snobs out there. But most people, including most of the people here in the Creative Loafing offices, aren't that picky. They'll down cans of PBR while watching the game or try a sampler at Tampa Bay Brewing Company with equal interest. For these normal folk (with the exception, perhaps, of Bar Tab's Wade Tatangelo), beer is a beverage, not an obsession.
We wanted to find out what happens when you take a dozen of these everyday drinkers accustomed to drinking everyday beer and sit them down with 180 of the world's finest brews. The results — sloppy staffers and a conference room that still smells like the floor of the Orpheum after a show — were, perhaps, predictable. But these average folk rose to the occasion and settled on a short list of the best the beer world has to offer.
The tables were covered in bottles, snacks were at hand (Krispy Kreme donuts, pretzels, miniature pickles), and the staffers were ready to bust a cap, literally. But before we started, these brew-tasting noobs got a crash course on how to properly judge a beer from Bethany Sherwin, manager of World of Beer in Westchase. Maybe you should brush up, too.
Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: Beer is just as complex and subtle as wine. Once you put down your beer bong or plastic cup and start seriously tasting beer, you'll find the process is basically the same as what the wine geeks do, except a little foamier. Go pour yourself a cold one, and let's run through the process.
Look before you drink. The color can tell you something about the style, the head tells you about the carbonation, and the way the beer clings to the side of the glass indicates the body. Swirl it a little and watch where the beer drips down the side of the glass. Slow, clingy drips indicate higher alcohol and a richer body.
Time to sniff the beer; Smells good, doesn't it? Swirl it again and stick your nose deep into the glass (but not into the beer, please). It should smell even better now. Oxygen helps release the odors in the liquid. Your nose is vastly more sensitive than your tongue, so a good sniff is the best way to pick out the good and bad characteristics of the beer.
Just like wine, you might smell things that remind you of fruit, herbs, grasses or spices; don't be shy — go ahead and trot out whatever adjectives come to mind. Unlike wine, some of those herbs, fruits and spices might actually be in the wine — infusions are fairly common.
Now, finally, it's time to take a drink. No, wait, don't swallow! Consider the taste and start swirling it around. If you're feeling adventurous, suck in a tiny bit of air to release more of those tasty odors inside your mouth. Finally, gulp it down and start thinking: How sweet, salty bitter or acidic was it? Were the flavors well-balanced, or did one aspect overwhelm the others? Did it have a long finish?
Time to put it all together: How good is it?
Although some held their duty sacred and treated the tasting like the serious endeavor it was, most tossed the how-to speech out the window after the first few gulps, er, sips. The jotted descriptions started with "excellent, rich, strong and complex" or "perfect combination of bitterness and malt" but quickly devolved into "love the handsome guy on the label" and "pretty goddamned delicious."
The sheer overwhelming mass of beer from Germany, Belgium, England and the U.S. quickly got the best of even the stoutest drinkers, and the tasting came to a stuttering end before we even cracked the 60 or so bottles from the rest of the world. Too bad South Africa and Czech Republic!
After most of the people wandered — or staggered — back to their desks, it was time to collect the sopping wet judges' sheets and dump the dregs out of opened bottles. Wade cried.
What did we learn? I don't want to stereotype, but the ladies still seem to like the light and fruity beers, although our publisher Sharry Smith proved an exception by awarding high points to the darkest, heaviest brews. Belgium may make the best beers in the world, but they all start tasting the same after the first 20 or so. And, finally, you can taste a few dozen beers and still feel like going out for a pint after work.
Once the scores were tallied and the comments checked, our tired tasters managed to pick eight of the world's very best. Join us at Creative Loafing's 3rd Annual International Beerfest, Saturday, Oct. 20, for the final tasting by a team of expert judges to determine which beer will be number one in the world, according to CL's everyday drinkers.
Tucher Helles Hefe Weizen, Germany
Tasters loved the crisp, balanced fruit of this wheat beer that reminded one taster of "orange blossoms," while others called it "sweet!" and "great for happy hour with cheeses."
Kostritzer Schwarzbier, Germany
This dark lager won people over with its balance of malt and hops. "Flavorful lager with lots of body," described one adherent, "one of the best so far."
Lagunitas Censored Rich Copper Ale, California
All the Lagunitas beers were popular in the tasting, but this one was "kick-ass!" and "balanced," with a "great taste and finish."
Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter, Colorado
Journalists are certain to feel some love for a beer made to honor Hunter S. Thompson, but it helps that this porter is "thick, dark, and unique," "chocolatey and rich." It's "bold, but not over the top," which certainly couldn't be said for Thompson. A dollar from every four-pack goes to fund a memorial for the creator of gonzo journalism — and like all the Flying Dog beers, the labels feature original artwork by gonzo illustrator Ralph Steadman.
St. Feuillien Triple, Belgium
St. Feuillien stood out from a veritable flood of Belgian beers, although tasters resorted to vague descriptions like "tasty" and "quite delicious" to explain why.
Delirium Nocturnum, Belgium
Delirium is one of the more common of the hard-to-find Belgian drafts around these parts, perhaps because of its "perfect combination of bitterness and malt." Our tasters thought it beat another frequently found Belgian, calling it "like the Chimay, but better."
Samuel Smith Pure Brewed Lager, England
All the brews from Sam Smith received high scores, but this classic, straightforward lager won top marks for being "crisp, bubbly," "light, smooth, and excellent."
Fuller's ESB, England
ESB stands for Extra Special Bitter, and our tasters loved this pale ale, calling it "nice and bitter," "bold yet smooth" and "strong and complex." To sum up — "yes, yes, yes!"