Seven Tips to Better Enjoy Your Next Craft Beer Flight

Seven Tips to Better Enjoy Your Next Craft Beer Flight

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Our recent discussion concerned the different uses of a beer flight, from education about a brewery or a style of beer to just finding what beer matches your mood that day or that hour. The beer flight can be a powerful tool for both brewery and drinker, as long as they are used wisely.

Today’s topic, then, is how does a craft beer fan construct and then deconstruct a flight that does what he/she wants it to do. I never thought much about it – you choose beer, you get beer, and you drink beer – simple. But after spending some time talking to those wonderful people who pour your flights, I have learned that there are certain practices that will greatly enhance your flight experience; nothing difficult or tedious, just practical and logical.

The first thing to consider is that not every time is a good time for a flight (Tip #1). According to several of the beertenders I spoke to, the times when people order flights usually comes down to patron knowledge. Experts tend to order flights in the afternoon, because that is more likely when they are visiting. People on dates (a good source of flight orders) naturally tend to ask for flights during the busy nighttime hours. Alex at Triton says that Saturdays are huge flight days, the slingers there call it Sampler Saturday. Tuesday is a big day at Tow Yard but perhaps that is because house flights are just $5 on Tuesdays. The more people there ordering flights, the worse time it is to ask for one.

Multiple flights, or the big honker flight at Russian River, require a drinking partner or partners. Flights are better as social activities, and sometimes help is a necessity. Photo credit: California through my lens

It’s not that drinking a flight is an anti-social activity, quite the opposite. Flights are better when shared or matched between members of a party. Discussion is a key to enjoying craft beer, and there is no difference in this regard between a pint and a bunch of samples. That communication link is extended beyond just your table or your place at the rail, it also includes your server. For sure, no beer slinger worth their salt is going to dissuade you from getting a flight, you just have to know that the busier they are, the less time they are going to have in helping you build and then work through a flight. They want to talk to you – it helps your experience, helps frame the breweries beer in the best light, and helps your education.

Busy times make flights harder, but none of the servers with whom I spoke resent flights, there are just some times that are easier than others. To a person, the beertenders know that flights help sell the brewery, so in the end it’s all good. Luckily, Indiana craft beer drinkers tend to understand that flights at a busy time will take more time and will have less guidance, so they work within the parameters they have. So select a time to order a flight based on what you want to get out of it. If you want guidance and information, order a flight when the rail isn’t busy.

Tip #2 for flighting well is to order a flight that makes sense for your purpose. We talked about the strategies for flights, whether you want to compare and contrast beers within a style, or find a new style that appeals to you, or investigate what a brewery does across the board. Beyond this, logic dictates what you might want to order. Six high alcohol beers on a flight point to a short evening, and perhaps more sharing of information and feelings than might be appreciated by your tablemates.

On the other hand, there is one drink that should be ordered with every flight – water – and this is flight Tip #3. Most servers will bring you a glass of water first thing, but some people say they don’t need it. If you are drinking more than one beer, or more than two pints of the same beer, then you’re going to need water. Beyond just the fact that beer is dehydrating and so you will feel better tomorrow if you drink water tonight (hydration is happiness), it is important that you taste only the beer you are currently drinking. Walter is much better at this than I am, she “cleanses her palate” regularly during a brewery visit – hmmm, maybe that’s why she is happier in the morning than I am.

This is kinda funny, but in truth you need both water and beer. For its part, water keeps you alive, rehydrates will alcohol hydrates, and helps cleanse the palate. For beer’s part – it makes life worth living. Photo credit: A Simpler Time

Palate cleansing sounds like everything I dislike about wine snobs and foodies; unfortunately, it is a valid point. With the growth of craft beer styles and flavorings, especially the bold flavors like peppers and coffee – I find that beers are sticking with me longer. If the point of a flight is to taste several beers, then you really should want to taste each individual beers, not a mixture of your last two beers. Water is the best way to do this, even better than food. True, there are very few bacon cheeseburger flavored beers, but food is still going to skew your taste buds one way or another. Beer judges sit alone, without wearing cologne or perfume, without any food other than white bread or saltine crackers, but with plenty of water. I’m not suggesting that you isolate yourself in order to taste a beer (quite the opposite) but the water is a really good idea.

This next hint is perhaps one of the most important, and is the reason that water is sufficient for getting you ready for the next sample. A flight needs a logical arrangement (Tip #4). Your beertender knows way more about his/her brewery’s beers than you do, so listen when they suggest an order for moving through the beers.

I asked several servers how they were taught to arrange a flight. There are many strategies that bars and breweries use, but only three things are important; 1) have a well marked flight board or sheet so that the patron knows what each beer is, 2) have an arrangement that has an internal logic to the beers on the flight, and 3) make sure the patron knows that the arrangement is well thought out and should be followed.

Many breweries order their own beers (especially house beers) from mild to bold, or from light to dark, or from sweet to bitter. They then order their flights the same as their written or posted list so you know what is where to properly evaluate your choices. Increasing SRM (light to dark), increasing IBUs (mild to hoppy), or even increasing ABVs (low to high alcohol) are all fine ways to order a flight, IF the beers fit neatly into that sort of hierarchy. Mitch at Mashcraft on Delaware said that they arrange flights by SRM, but they aren’t wedded to it. No one system will work for every flight.

With seasonals and hugely bitter light beers, and mild but dark bocks and dubbels, it is sometimes very difficult to order a flight based one parameter or according to a printed list. This is where your beertender is so important. They’ve thought about this – a lot. A brewery may have 24 beers on tap, and with you ordering a random six, the ordering becomes a matter that requires much knowledge and a bit of subjectivity.

At La Cumbre Brewing in Albuquerque, the flights come out on a paper with all their beers. Your individual flight is identified by where each glass is placed. Photo credit: Walter

If you choose six beers and one of them is a hugely unbalanced IPA or a sour beyond belief, then drinking that first will destroy your ability to taste anything for a decent period of time, no matter how much water you drink. Your server knows this, but you may not. Listen to your beertender and drink the beers in the best order. Beyond just the order, your partner in this venture can give you hints as to what to expect and look for with each beer. You may not agree, or you may think you know more, but there is absolutely no reason not to listen and consider what they say until you have a reason to believe something else. Since this can’t occur until you have enjoyed the flight – pay attention to them up front. It doesn’t matter if you are a first timer or Ron Smith, take the input and then decide for yourself if you agree.

Flight tips five and six are somewhat related. Take your time (Tip #5) with your flight and drink at least half of one beer before you move on to the next (Tip #6). By smelling and then drinking most of one beer, you get a chance to develop a good opinion of what you think is going on. Discussion is also fostered by spending more time with each beer. If you and your partner are constantly switching amongst the beers, then what is impressing you will wither on the vine while the other person is trying to tell you about a beer you haven’t tried yet. Just like you want to reread a line in a good book you are working through, a second and then third taste of a beer in a row will reinforce your thoughts and opinions.

The relationship to time is also seen in my personal strategy to leave some of each beer behind during my first time through. Time allows for warming of the beer and the cleansing of your palate. I am impressed by how much a rise in temperature will change the aroma and flavor of beer. Higher temperature volatilizes more chemicals, and this affects one’s experience with the beer. By leaving a third or so of each beer in the glass, my second pass down the flight is often like tasting six different beers, related to the first pass, yet different in important ways.

Let your beer sit for a while after you begin. The warmer temperature will make a difference in what you smell and taste. I have rarely had a beer get worse after warming up a bit. Photo credit: Beverage Industry News

All along each pass, take some mental notes on your beers (because apparently writing things down makes you a jerk – thank you very much Anthony Bourdain). Discuss your beers with your server – time helps here too; they aren’t going to be able to spend all their time with you alone. Spread your questions out over time and you will have something to talk about every time they come back to see how you’re doing. Plus, the time you spend contemplating the final beer on your flight will allow time for your tongue to recover and to start you second pass with a fresh palate.

The newer you are to craft beer, the more questions you should have, or maybe the questions are just different. I ask a lot of questions, sometimes to Walter’s consternation. Josh at Redemption Alewerks says that he can pick up on how much interaction a patron wants and how much guidance a drinker might need, and he balances those to make his customer feel most comfortable. But everyone I talked to said that there is no bad question or comment, each is just a jumping off spot to start a discussion. The brewers and servers want to know what you didn’t like or understand, but they also want to hear what you loved.

The last tip for drinking flights – don’t take them too seriously (Tip #7); pursue what you find interesting. A typical flight is likely to add up to a pint or just a bit more – this allows you to go ahead and get a pint of something that struck your fancy or to keep investigating with some short pours or even another flight. A 2015 web article took the position that flights are dumb and whoever likes them is a dumb beer drinker. Written comments showed the author the error of his ways and he has since backtracked on that opinion. Don’t let other people tell you how to experience beer, just use the tips above as guidelines for your experience. Flights are just one of many ways to learn about and enjoy craft beer – so always keep in mind, there are many paths to the top of the mountain.

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