Remembering How to Enjoy Beer

Unfiltered by | Feb 2017 | Issue #121
Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

American craft brewers have done great things for the world’s beer drinkers. They’ve broken us out of old, homogeneous flavor ruts, resurrected numerous moribund styles, and inspired new generations of brewers to do the same. Small brewers have injected enthusiasm into an otherwise tired and dying beer world. Pushing flavor envelopes to the extreme and back again, we celebrate their daring inventiveness in the vast array of beers available on store shelves and taps across the planet.

With all of their impressive achievements noted, the lasting influence of these American brewers is not uniformly great. Among the downsides, perhaps the industry’s saddest export is the sampler tray. These sad, little beer blights, thoughtlessly filled with stadium pours, have quickly become the go-to serving unit in brewery taprooms around the country. Glittering in defiance of centuries of proud pub experiences, these tiny, uninspired specimens promote a self-involved and ultimately insular drinking experience.

The basic appeal of beer samplers, both for consumers and breweries, is understandable. Samplers help eager beer drinkers fill a perceived need—insatiable drive, perhaps—to try every possible beer. But with more than 5,000 breweries in the US and thousands more in planning, and with each one making dozens if not hundreds of beers every year, one cannot even realistically hope to try every ale and lager brewed in a small-sized city.

For brewers, the annoyance of filling tiny glasses with hapless and incomplete versions of their well-intended offerings is offset by the significant upcharge they can generate. And if consumers seem happy, why upset the mutually beneficial ecosystem?

Unfortunately, samplers provide consumers with an inherently incomplete drinking experience. With their limited pour size and almost uniform inability to allow for proper head formation, carbonation, or aromatic development, they’re unable to offer even a reliable snapshot of a beer’s spirit. The flavor, aroma, and character of a beer develop over time, as it warms and opens up to further exploration. This shortchanged experience is finished in a flash of three or four ounces.

Tiny, messy sampler trays also encourage a type of heads-down drinking, focused on shifting between a handful of overflowing glasses filled with a contrasting and often conflicting cacophony of flavors and aromas. It’s hard to hold a conversation while drinking a sampler. In fact, it’s hard to focus on much other than mixing and matching glasses, trying to keep track of the order of overpoured thimbles of beer.

Recognizing the disruption caused by these trays of Lilliputian wonder, some brewers are now banning samplers outright in their taprooms. These kind souls seek to save us, and the beauty of the communal drinking experience, from ourselves. Akin to feeding a dog a scoop at a time, we’ve proven incapable of stopping our mass consumption of samplers, always searching for the next and the new, plagued by FOMO.

In 2017, I’m hoping to put aside my geek-driven need to try every beer I see on a brewery’s draft list. Instead, I’m going to try and enjoy beer as the brewer intended, one glass, pint, half-liter, or more at a time. Then I’m going to follow it up with another round of the same beer. I’ll inevitably stray from time to time, but this year I’m going to endeavor to be a better beer drinker.