BEER CLINIC :: BEER TASTING—WITH A PURPOSE

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on August 31, 2011

Ed. The following delightful piece from our Beer Doctor, Carol Westbrook, in which Carol thinks and drinks her way to a decision as to what to serve at a beach birthday party, was written and submitted on August 4th. Because of a wealth of pieces waiting to go up on the site, we are just now posting this as submitted. The good thing about this is that at the end of this piece, Carol inserts a quick note, post party, about how things ended up.

We are going to have a huge party in mid-August, to celebrate a Very Important Birthday for my husband, Rick. We expect to entertain about 65 people on our deck, overlooking Lake Michigan. Many of our guests will be spending the afternoon at the beach, coming up to the deck to refresh their beers, and/or for dinner. Needless to say, I’m in charge of bringing the beer. And as The Beer Doctor, I better get it right. My reputation is on the line.

So what beer, and how much?

First, the guest list: among the 65 guests, 25 are either children or wine-drinkers (same thing). At 3.5 beers per person x 40 people, we’ll need about 160 servings. Bottles are not allowed on the beach. Cans would do, but our selection in Indiana is limited to tasteless, mass-market beers. Mini-kegs (5L) are a possibility, but the selection is limited, and they are hard to keep cold outside. How about a full keg?

A standard keg, also called a half-barrel, contains 15.5 gallons of beer. There are 128 oz. in a gallon, so one keg contains 1,984 oz, or 165 12-oz. servings. Okay. One keg will do it.

Next, what beer? Well, it has to be a good beer, something that goes well with burgers, and that I would drink myself. A beer that my guests would enjoy. Although I prefer hoppy IPAs, many people don’t care for hops. Furthermore, the alcohol content of an IPA is too high for a hot, summer 3 plus beer day. Let’s keep it to 5% or below. I don’t care for wheat beers, and I am averse to “summer ales” which are often wheat beers, flavored with fruit, citrus, or spices. A lighter ale or a lager would be best. The average Midwesterner is used to drinking a diluted lager (Bud, Miller Lite, Coors, etc.) but I don’t drink them. There are many fine imported lagers, especially of the German variety, but I’m not certain about the availability or expense of an imported keg. I’ve elected to limit my choice to American beers (including Canadian imports). I want a regional microbrew, either a lager or a pale ale, low alcohol (preferably 5% or less), available in a keg.

So here it is, International IPA Day, and I’m tasting lagers and pale ales. To begin. I selected 8 bottled beers from my local beer stores, including lagers, pilsner, pale ales. I knew my taste buds would tire after 8, so Rick and I shared the beers and rated them, accompanied by a meal of grilled burgers, first-of-season local corn, salad with local tomatoes, and watermelon.

The Lagers

Harp Irish Lager (from Guinness, 4.7%), Bell’s Lager of the Lakes (Michigan, 5.0%) and Victory Prima Pils (PA, 5.3%).

I had great expectations for Victory Prima Pils, a highly-regarded Pilsner-style beer, which has received many awards. It’s made with whole hop flowers, using primarily German hops. It was “interesting.” Not at all a typical pilsner. The fresh hop flavor kills the malty pils taste, and I don’t think my guests would appreciate it. Nor do I.

Harp and Bell’s Lager of the Lakes were remarkably well-matched and well-balanced. Harp is a classic. Bell’s is more so; pin-point carbonation, clear yellow, great flavor. My pick of this lot.

The Pale Ales

Schlafly Pale Ale (St. Louis, 4.4%), Upland’s Helios Pale Ale (Indiana, 4.8%.), Bell’s Pale Ale (Michigan, 5.2%), and Back Road Ale (Indiana, 5%).

The Schlafly was insipid and weak; Upland was flavorful with mild hops. Bell’s Pale Ale did not do well; it was cloudy and bitter. The surprising find was the Back Road Ale. Not a pale ale, but close to an English bitter. It’s a mild, copper-colored ale, flavored with Fuggles and Styrian Goldings, the same hops used in English bitters. Easy to drink, great flavor but not overwhelming. It was our pick of the ales.

The Wild Card

Lastly, we tasted the Bell’s Amber Ale (Michigan, 5.8%) to put it all in perspective. It was sweet, copper-colored, malty but full of American hops. Very good, classic American Brown Ale. Pairs well with food. But too heavy, too hoppy, and too much alcohol for our beach party.

Our winning beer was Back Road Ale, our runner-up, Bell’s Lager of the Lakes. As of this writing I’m not sure I can get the Back Road Ale in a keg, since the brewery favors 1/6 barrel kegs (5.17 gal pub kegs). I’ll know in a week. In the meantime, I’ll have to get the burgers and buns, and a BIG cake. I’m afraid I’ll also have to feature a case of PBR and MGD 64 to satisfy the young hipsters and the old codgers, respectively.

Happy Birthday Rick!     

Epilogue: I’m pleased to report that Back Road was able to provide us with a keg of Ale. It was a hit. Our 70 guests finished almost all of it, along with 40 lbs. of burgers, 5 lbs of veggie burgers, and a huge cake. Not one PBR or MGD was drunk at this party.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard September 1, 2011 at 5:47 am

WOW ! Carol, how much ice did you need to keep the beer cold with the intense heat Rick was generating with that bonfire ?!? Happy Birthday Rick ! Sto Lat !

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Susan Garstki McManus September 2, 2011 at 10:18 am

Great beer (even though I’m partial to Harp), great food, especially great company. It was worth the 110-mile trip!

I would have been disappointed with my kids if they’d opted for the MGD. By the way, we’re still working on the leftover beer.

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