Ever since my first introduction into the wonderful world of beer flights I’ve been hooked. In my opinion there is no better and easier way to cover a lot of tasting ground then through a beer flight or two.
At its core a beer flight is simply a sampling of several beers. This form of “taste presentation” is better known in winemaking, but is also used in the culinary industry, and is becoming prominent in craft brewing as well.
Reimagining an Origin
The history of beer flighting is obscured in the past and understandably vague. Wanting to sample a brewer’s fare probably became prominent along with the increased availability of different beer styles.
It’s easy to picture a discerning customer stepping into a brewpub, looking over what was available, and saying something like: “My good man I have yet to taste of any of this finery you have listed. Be a good fellow and pour me a short draught of each that I might know which may be to my liking.”
The proprietor, slightly dismayed, but savvy enough to see a new potential money maker, carefully pours four samples. “Today, my friend these are on the house. Tomorrow, it will cost… oh, as much as one ‘a me pints.”
He smiles broadly turns to the slate displaying prices and carefully chalks in a new service.
Though fictional, this account shows how easily beer flights could have come on scene, and likely did, again and again, in different places and different times. However, we can assume, safely I think, that the practice became commonplace sometime after the noun “flight” started to be used to describe it.
It’s all in a Word
It could have been called a bevy of beer, an army of ales, a leap of lagers, or a raft of brews (which would have been clever seeing as the tray a beer flight is commonly served on is called a paddle), but no, it became known as a beer “flight.” Why? A closer look at the word flight might give us some clues.
Flight, meaning a sampling of a certain food or drink, doesn’t seem to be in use before the late 1970’s. There are two distinct and separate “flight” nouns. The older of the two means “the act of flying through the air.” The newer noun which has a different origin than the first is defined as “the act of running away.” The likeliest source of the word’s use, in the context of “a sample of something,” stems from a definition of the first usage, stated in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “a group of similar beings or objects flying through the air together.”
It’s interesting to note that a connection could also be made, especially in the case of beer, to another definition of the same flight noun, that of, “a series, resembling a flight of stairs.” A beer flight is usually drank from lightest to darkest (we will explore this more in a moment). As you work your way “up” the color spectrum in a beer flight it isn’t hard to imagine each sample as a step, and the whole as a flight of stairs.
Beer Flight Basics
The glasses used in beer flights can range in size from 2 ounces to 6 ounces. Personally I prefer the lower end of this range because it allows me to try more samples without worrying about getting “three sheets to the wind,” just because I wanted to try a couple beers.
The glasses themselves can be several different shapes. In my own experience beer flights are often served in an economical, single shape, such a mini-sized pint or stange. But, as beer flighting has become a more common practice the variation of glass shape has also increased. I’ve seen mini mugs, snifters, and pilsners out there. And though I’ve never seen a brewpub do it, it would truly make my day to see a beer flight served with each beer style matched to a mini version of its appropriate glass. That would be pretty cool.
How the samples get from the taps to you is also wide open to creativity. I’ve seen flights simply delivered on a tray and lined up on the table. I’ve seen several variations of the classic wooden paddle. At one place I was served my flight on a two inch tall round cut from a stump, with shallow holes drilled to accommodate the glasses. I’ve also seen metal wire stands where the glasses are held in wire circles either in a horizontal display or a vertical display (in this case the steps become real).
The price of a beer flight is going range a bit. It will depend on the number of samples and the price of the beer you decide to sample. In most cases though, a four beer flight of 6 oz. pours and a six beer flight of 3 oz. pours will both cost around 5 dollars. Thus, the beauty of the beer flight, taste 4 to 6 beers for close to the price of a single pint.
One Rule to Rule Them All (Almost)
The one rule usually adhered to when enjoying a beer flight is sampling the beers lightest to darkest. Generally the lightest beers have a gentler character, lower ABV, and lower hop bitterness, then the darker beers. If a dark beer is sampled before a light “quieter” beer, it is likely that much of its character will be lost behind the forward charisma of the dark one.
The only place this rule doesn’t really apply is when tasting multiples of the same style. If they happen to have a wide enough variance in ABV arrange them from lowest to highest, if not… well, use your best judgment. If there is little difference between color, ABV, or IBU’s, don’t worry…just diving in is allowed.
Purpose: It’s all in the Flight Formation
Beer flights are a great way to widen your beer knowledge or help a friend broaden a narrowly focused viewpoint. I am often disappointed when I go into a place that has great beer selection but doesn’t offer flights. If the only option I have is regular pints I usually stop around two, maybe three on the outside. On the other hand, if flights are an option, I can try anywhere from 3 to 6 (depending on glass size) times the number of beers I could otherwise.
How you make your beer selections, in this case, is completely your own. You may pick beers from the far flung ends of the spectrum. Here you are searching for styles you have not tried, be ready to for the strange and wonderful.
What Beer Am I?
This formation is all about a search for the siren singing your name. You walk into a bar not sure what beer you’re in the mood for. It’s time to hunt. Whatever strikes a chord in you- add it. This is palate music for your mood and there is no right or wrong.
Are you torn between the mellow smokey feeling of a good porter, the coffee and dark chocolate of a robust stout, the biting bitter of that IPA, or is it the crisp cleanness of a summer Lager that calls to you? Find out. Sip them all, listen to the whispers, and you’ll know which deserves the space of a full pint and more attention.
Shades of a Single Style
If you really want to educate yourself about the nuances of a beer style try this formation. First, pick your subject of study. Do you want to explore the differences between several breweries’ year-around IPA’s or are you looking for a real challenge… how about the oh-so-subtle variances between a group of light lagers. Whatever you choose it is guaranteed to be an astonishing education, one that will help you work through what you like and don’t like in a style.
Brewer’s Showcase: Horizontal Flight
Most breweries and brewpubs offer flights of the beers brewed on premise. This is a good way to learn what a local brewer offers, whether their brewing practices are up to your discerning standards, and which of their family of beers is worth a pint.
You can even explore a given Brewery on your own, either at home, or at a quality taproom. Pick a brewery you’d like to know better, select four to six of their beers and create a flight. This formation will give you inordinate insight into the different flavors the brewery offers, which beers you’d spring to buy a six pack of, and which are better left on the shelf.
A Rare Gem: Vertical Flight
This flight is unusual and hard to find outside of wine tasting. A vertical flight is sampling different vintages of the same beer. You need a special ship to go vertical, something dark, secretive; a beer with a higher “fuel” load and the needed complexity to age well. Porters and many Belgian beers come to mind here. It is a great way to experience how a beer ages and how it might change from on brewing year to the next.
Imagine being given the singular opportunity to try Alaska Brewing Company’s Smoked Porter (The most award-winning beer in Great American Beer Festival history) from its first brewing in 1988 up to the present. Now, that would be a flight worthy of a new name – hum, I wonder… maybe a Pride of Porters.
At any rate the very fact a brewery or brewpub is willing to do a vertical means it’s a beer of worthy note, and an experience you won’t soon forget.
Homeschooling your palate
Don’t think you need the hullabaloo of a bar or taphouse to fly a formation. A good way to entertain a few friends at home is by putting together an “in-house” flight plan. Here you can share notes and ideas about different beers, take as much time as you like enjoying the flavors, and actually talk without having to yell. Most of the above flights can easily be put together at home; horizontal flights, shades of a single style, or a set of completely random, but new beers.
The fantastic thing about doing this at home is the amount of control you have. You can do a little research, learn more about the beers you select, and broaden your selection criteria.
You could choose a set of beers with the same general base malt, but fermented with different yeasts, or a set of single hop IPA’s that each use a different hop variety. This flight is only limited by what you want to explore.
This one is much the same as “homeschooling you palate.” The difference? It’s your beer! That’s right, if you happen to brew your own beer, flighting offers a great way to present your beer and impress your friends.
It’s also the best way to learn from brewing experimentation. Being able to taste a brew over several recipe changes can help you understand how each addition or subtraction is affecting the flavor profile in the finished product.
The Business Side of Flighting
From a business prospective, beer flights are definitely an added draw for customers. I’ve been to more brewpubs, bars, and restaurants that don’t offer this service then do, and in most cases the ones that didn’t, did not get as much of my business as they might have. Most taphouses are more than willing to pour you free samples until you find a beer you want to pay for. This is great, but the establishment is missing out on an opportunity and the customer is missing out on an experience.
From the glassware used, to the “paddle,” to tasting notes, insider information about the beers, even suggested food pairings; a creative and well-presented beer flight can produce a very unique experience. No place can justly ask a customer to pay for one or two tap samples, but present them as something singular and it becomes a service the customer is happy to buy.
So, go out and log some beer flight miles. You’ll get the chance to broaden your palate, learn the nuances of a single style, and entertain friends. As for me, well I’ll keep searching for my ultimate beer flight experience, that grail where styles are matched to their appropriate mini-glass.
Maybe one day….