Another Effort to Kill The Beer Flight and Free Tastes

Another Effort to Kill The Beer Flight and Free Tastes

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Craftbeer.com recently published an article about Haines Brewing Company in Alaska. Owner Jeanne Kitayama feels that he best educates his patrons in how to appreciate and drink a beer by offering no tastes or flights. The smallest portion of beer they will pour for a patron is 5 oz., which is the minimum amount they feel is necessary to take in all the characteristics of a beer.

On the surface, a person could go either of two directions with this. Craft beer drinkers tend to be individualistic and independent, so being told how to enjoy a beer may not sit well. On the other side, a brewer does have the right to have her/his beer presented in the way that he/she feels is proper. Of course, the brewer has to trust that patrons will agree.

For myself, the taster and flight are great if handled properly, and horrible if abused. The taster is appropriate if a person is coming to choose a crowler or growler of a beer they haven’t had before. Even before the occasional pint, a taster isn’t a bad idea – but let’s remember that this is a beer, not a life choice. A single pint of a beer you aren’t the happiest with isn’t going to destroy you, and you could learn something.

image credit: Haines Brewing

Likewise, a flight is a great way to get to know a new brewery. A brewer’s philosophy of beer and range can be discerned by moving through several beers of their making, much more so than by a single pint or two. However, neither Walter nor I would think about ordering a flight when people are two deep at a bar, or when a server is slammed by working behind the bar and out in the taproom. Flights work out best when beer slingers have time to talk the beer up a bit, not when they are worried about ignoring other customers.

Haines Brewing feels that flights and tastes are bad in all situations. The article quotes Kitayama as saying, “as we know that it takes more than a sip to truly taste a beer,” and this is the rationale for not offering tastes. On the flight argument, Haines Brewing’s owners say, “Consumers want to compare beers and switch back and forth between brews in a flight, yet 1) flavors linger and mix on their palates, 2) carbonation and character change at different rates, and 3) flavors change with temperture.”

These opinions and arguments are made and held by more than just these particular owners, but this is hardly a universal feeling. There are refutations to each argument, but perhaps the feeling that most pervades this practice is that they know better than you. No matter who walks into their taproom, they know beer better (and not just their own beer) than that patron does.

There are many ways to act badly around craft beer. One is to ask for more than three samples without buying a pint. image credit: Funnyjunk

There are proper ways to drink a flight – we’ve talked about them here before. You can taste with water and time in between sips. You can taste first when cold, and then hold some back for when it is warmer. You can drink them in a well thought out order that preserves your palate the best for each beer. Why do these owners assume that NO ONE could possibly know this and treat a flight as it should be treated?

Their argument on tasters also has a problem. Saying that no one can appreciate a beer in a sip or two is refuted by judging protocols. Haines requires you to buy at least five ounces, but the BJCP judging study guide asks judges to take just two sips from a 1-3 oz pour. Likewise, GABF judging is done with about 1.5 ounces of beer (judge’s article here). I concede that not everyone has the palette to evaluate a beer based on this volume, but then again, most of us don’t have a judge’s palette and knowledge no matter what volume we consume. But my point is that beer can be appreciated in a small volume, and this is more likely with more experienced drinkers.

At this stage in craft beer’s development, there are many astute fans out there who aren’t necessarily of judges’ quality or have judges’ credentials. But that doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate a beer based on a well poured (probably requires a variable faucet) sample. What’s more, if a sample leads to a pint purchase rather than a 5 oz. short pour, then the brewery has come out ahead.

Evidence suggests that this is true. Brewers Association itself published an article from Tim Brady, owner of Whetstone Station Brewery in Vermont summarizing data from his experiment of offering fractional pours (short pours, samples, and flights), over a period of time. Whetstone found that they increased profit/keg by 15% by offering fractional pours – even if they lost money on some of the individual pours. They sold more pints because they had fractional pours.

Haines brewing is along way from craft beer competition.

There are breweries that have decided to forgo flights as away to ease pressure on their servers and to save money on flight boards and such. Many have gone to unlimited 3-4 oz. pours for a $1-2 each, and some have replaced tasters with $0.50-$1 2 oz. pours, so that they can be purchased individually and don’t require more time pouring and talking about them. But these practice are more about economics; neither supports the ideas that people can’t drink multiple samples efficiently or that small samples are inadequate for tasting a beer.

In conclusion, we have two sides of this issue, and people of good intentions can fall on either side. In cases like this, I fall back on the tried and true – it’s their business, they should be able to run it as they see fit. They pay the bills, they make the beer, the ultimate responsibility is theirs and theirs alone. BUT, they also have to live with the consequences of their choices. People may choose to support these policies and patronize Haines and places that have similar restrictions….or perhaps they will look elsewhere.

One thing Haines’ has going in their favor – the two closest breweries to Haines are in Skagway, an hour’s ferry boat trip away, or perhaps in Juneau, a five hour ferry trip away. It may be that Haines feels they can implement these policies because they are basically the only game in town and they have a captive audience. But I prefer to believe they feel strongly about how their beer is presented – I just don’t happen to agree with them.

banner image credit: West Virginia Tourism


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