Pick a Side: Are Craft Beer Flights Helping Or Hurting?

Pick a Side: Are Craft Beer Flights Helping Or Hurting?

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Most craft beer drinkers become more sophisticated over time and the craft beer drinking population as a whole understands much more now as compared to even just a couple of years ago. Many appreciate why different glasses are used for different styles of beer, few people complain about why they are only getting ten ounces of a Belgian quadrupel that’s been aged in brandy barrels for a year, and even fewer people are asking for whatever tastes most like Coors Light.

Unfortunately, another feature of craft beer has not progressed as far – flights. The issues surrounding flights run the gamut, some drinkers love them for the wrong reasons, some beertenders dislike them for the right reasons. This is disappointing because flights can be amazing aids for learning, whether you are a novice fan or an experience craft drinker. And many beer slingers enjoy flights because they make for better overall experiences for the patrons and can spark good beer conversations.

So which is it? Are flights the bane of the craft beer world, causing problems for servers, costing breweries money, and engraining bad habits in drinkers? Or are flights the best way to get to know beer, get to know a brewery and involve more people in craft beer? After talking to many beertenders and asking them questions about flights – I think the answer is yes to both questions. Flights can be good or bad, depending on how you use them. What’s more, utilizing flights properly can only occur when pourer, brewery, and patron work together, functioning as one unit with a common goal.

One of the most important pieces of your beer flight experience is your beer slinger. Let him/her help you have the best flight possible. Photo credit: Getty

Many people still enter a craft beer bar or a taproom, look down the bar, and say, “Oh, what’s that? Can you try different beers?” I take this as a good sign that the craft brewing community is still bringing people, the yen for good beer is still growing. The answer to the question, of course, is, “That’s a flight of beers.” You get to choose several (usually between four and six) small samples (usually between three and five ounces) from the list at the bar, and then try them all, comparing colors, flavors, aromas and mouthfeels. Different breweries have different philosophies on how to build a flight. Some allow you unlimited flight sizes to maximize your experimentation, while other have published flights of specific beers and no substitutions are allowed.

The word is a bit strange, “flight” when talking about beer, but I don’t think many people stop to think about where the term comes from. The first time the word flight was used in relation to beer was in the New York Times in 1970s, but they didn’t really define the term. It might not have anything to do with leaving the ground; there really isn’t enough beer in a single flight to get you too high. On the other hand, if you really want to relate it to flying through the air, one obscure definition of flight describes a group of similar beings or animals flying through the air in a set pattern. More likely, the term was coined to reflect something more like a flight of stairs; it gets you from one place to another, in this case, through a series of beers.

Flights have become more and more common, although not every single brewery or bar will offer them. Nowadays, not offering a flight is probably more related to state law than to brewery philosophy. Acacia Coast at the Brewers Association told me that several states limit the quantity of beer a person can get at a brewery (MT, GA, MS, UT) which limits the practicality of flights, and Utah itself had not permitted flights until just recently when a piece legislation allowed for “educational” samples in the context of a tour or such.

However, flights are now part of the experience in larger part of the country. Most flights in a brewery will be primarily their own beer. A few breweries will allow you to add a guest tap to a flight, and some uses for a flight are helped by allowing guest taps to be included, but we’ll get to that below. As far as the brewery goes, the flight serves to introduce a drinker to their beer and help each person find a beer that they might like a full pint of. Yes, it is a marketing tool, but one that works well for both sides of the bar.

Here’s Molly from Books and Brews. Stop in and talk beer with her; maybe she’ll sing for you. Photo credit: Books and Brews

While most of the beertenders I talked to said that flights make up about 5-10% of their business, there was disagreement as to their affect. Some servers say they do promote pint sales and others say they don’t. Molly Grimes, general manager of Books and Brews, says they absolutely lead to picking out a pint to have, while Molly at Mashcraft says that people usually order flights alone. There is no agreement amongst the Mollys.

Also, don’t think breweries are getting rich off of flights. Most of the people with whom I talked for this piece stated that flights are a basically a wash in terms of profit as compared to pints, and they can be a money loser if people consistently pick the most expensive beers to add to their samples.

Take, for example, beers that are $5 a pint. If they are included in an $8 dollar flight where you get 4 x 5 oz., then the brewery will make a bit more profit on the flight as compared to a pint. Since flights take much longer to pour, require investments in glassware and paddles (those things that hold the beers) and use much more beertender time, any profit gets eaten away.

Now consider if the patron picks two or three beers for their flight that are $7 or $8 per pint. The price of the pint stays the same (usually) and the brewery is investing much more resource and product – the profit goes way down and is probably a loser. Because of this, some breweries and bars have instituted up charges for more expensive beers when they are added to flights. In the end, different breweries price their flights differently. Even so, Adam and Jerrod at TwoDEEP told me that flights are definite money losers – they’re an investment in the patron, hoping to get it back later in pint sales.

The brewery is hoping that you will find a beer that you really like, and will then order a pint and some snacks to go with it. This is makes your beertender feel good as well, because they know that they helped you find something you might have otherwise missed. They may have challenged you to go outside your comfort zone and gotten you to try something new, or you may find your new favorite IPA when you were sure that no one could ever touch the Green Bullet from Green Flash, your go-to palate wrecker.

Sometimes when you get a flight of every beer a brewery is making at the time, you end up with a transcontinental flight. Better to have a drinking partner. Photo credit: Falling Rock Brewery

Plus, buying that extra pint helps your beertender in the tip department too. I have found that it is common to tip a buck a pint and a buck a flight – but your server worked way harder for that flight then they did a single pint pour – and they probably spent more time with you as well. They’re giving you a discount when you tip the same for a flight and a pint.

Nevertheless, Lisa from Tow Yard said that she doesn’t mind pouring flights at all, but they can be trying when the bar is full of people. Flights take more time, and Mitch at Maschcraft on Delaware said that most people realize that getting them their flight is going to take extra time. Everyone knows though, it doesn’t look good for the establishment when people are at a table and there isn’t yet beer in front of them, so they work as quickly as they can.

Now that we know some of the issues involved with flights, why do people order them? I can tell you that I personally have different strategies for flights depending on where Walter and I are and what type of establishment we are visiting. If at a brewery we have not visited before, when might just get a flight of all the beers on tap made by that brewery to split. Sometimes this ends up being a huge number of beers (like the 24-beer flight we had at Country Boy in Lexington), but nothing says we have to drink all of every beer. In this case, we are looking to get a glimpse of the philosophy of this particular brewery.

A full flight will contain house beers, ie. beers they make all year long, as well as seasonals that just happen to be on that particular time. Trying all of these, along with a good amount of talk with the server or brewer (see next post) will give us a decent picture of that brewery. This is a good strategy for both the seasoned drinker and the newbie, but for different reasons. Walter is familiar with most every style of beer and the variants on each, so she looks to a broad “horizontal flight” such as this for clues about brewing style and range of the brewery.

If new to craft beer, one needs to find a beer and a style that they are going to like, maybe this will become their new favorite style of beer. A person might not know enough to make an educated guess for a good beer. They look at the list and the Ten Fidy from Oskar Blues or the Zombie Dust out of FFF are just two more names they aren’t familiar with. By choosing samples of 4-6 beers, the chances of the stumbling on a great beer go up, and the chances of them being stuck with a pint of beer they can’t stand are reduced to zero.

Each different color of wax on the Dark Lord stout from Three Floyds represents a different year. Drinking them all together constitutes a vertical flight. Photo credit: Two Dudes Beer

Then there are those evenings when both experienced and inexperienced drinkers might not be sure what kind of beer they are in the mood for. In this case, think of a flight as speed dating for a beer. You don’t have to commit to a whole pint (think dinner and movie), and instead just go for a sample of several beers (two minutes with each over a diet coke in the local community center while waiting for the speed-dating egg timer to ring). Find the beer you like and make a date for a longer time by ordering a pint.

I, on occasion, may investigate a different sort of horizontal flight – to compare and contrast beers within a couple of styles. Let’s say that a brewery has three IPAs on at one time and maybe two-three stouts – perhaps one is on both nitrogen and carbon dioxide. By tasting the three IPAs against each other, I can work on my palate to pick out specific hops, or specific brewing techniques. The same for the stouts, by trying one on nitro and one regular, I can compare and contrast to see if I can pick out nuances. This is where offering guest taps on a flight can most often help. Guests help you get a variety of beers in a single style in order to compare and contrast them.

The two mentions of horizontal flight above probably has you wondering, if there’s a horizontal, is there also a diagonal flight or a curvy flight? If there’s a vertical flight, won’t the beer spill out of the glasses? Yes, a vertical flight exists, but it is unlikely to be attempted at many breweries, except on special occasions. A vertical refers to a flight of the same beer, but from different years of production. This is the realm of the Dark Lord Day attendee and the bottle-share guru.

In conclusion, the key to making the most of your flight is 1) understanding what you are trying to get from it and then ordering appropriately, 2) recognizing that you and the brewery are partners in this venture, and 3) drinking your flight in a way to get the most knowledge and enjoyment from it. Number three on that list is a bit more detailed and will be our topic of discussion next time.


Walter’s words of wisdom – IPAs are great for flights; you can compare several examples of the same type of IPA or compare several different styles of IPA (IPA, IIPA, DIPA, WCIPA, NEIPA, XPA etc.)

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