Mikkeller Bourbon Barrel Vanilla Shake. Whoa.
Barrel Aged Mikkeller George, kicking off a night of drinking beers brought back from my buddy’s latest trip to Denmark.
Click HERE to subscribe to our soon-to-launch weekly e-mail blast with Hudson Valley craft beer & spirits news & events.
I stopped in at the recently opened Yonkers Brewery. It is a large place and the mash tuns and fermenters are easily available to view. They have about eight beers on tap and some good food to go with it! The owners are friendly and usually around to answer any questions you may have.
92 Main Street
FRIDAY JANUARY 23RD
A little over two hours ago, I saw a post from a beer friend of mine, Greg Back, a fellow craft beer writer (I hate the term ‘blogger’), and employee of two pretty reputable craft beer establishments. (I won’t name them, because he didn’t in his article, so we’ll leave it at that.) The title of Greg’s post for the Times-Union website that I saw on Facebook was ‘Flights are dumb, and you’re dumb if you like them’. Click-bait city for sure, but knowing Greg and his article being on a topic I have been wanting to write about for a long time, I had no choice but to read it and respond. I want to, and plan to write a more ‘professional’ article on why I think flights are great for craft beer and get different perspectives on them from people in the industry, but it’s late and I’m tired. Instead, I’ll get out my red teacher’s pen out and go through Greg’s article point by point. Hope you guys remember that thing called reading…
Let’s get it on…
As a bartender at both a corporate joint and a cozy little local brewery, I come across every type of beer drinker, from the novice to the unquestioned expert. It’s this anecdotal knowledge that will color a lot of the rant opinion piece that is to follow. That being said, this opinion is my own. And, in my opinion, flights are dumb.
First of all, to the beer flight drinker who probably clicked the link to this page in anger: no, you’re not dumb. Maybe misguided. But that’s okay. I have your attention. And I promise I can help make your beer drinking experience more pleasurable and more interesting.
Thanks for reassuring me of my intelligence, haha.
Don’t drink your beer like this.
It’s no secret that craft beer drinkers have precious little loyalty. We bounce from brand to brand, style to style, all in the name of “trying it all.” This behavior is normal in a time of plenty; why settle for one interpretation when there are so many more to varieties and styles to discover than there were just a few years ago? “Trying it all”, however, mandates two primary skills: discipline and education. Flights, though a seemingly simple and elegant solution, offer neither a panacea nor a fair shake. An enthusiast will get no closer to understanding a brewery or their styles by drinking a flight. In fact, these flight fans may actually be doing the brewery a disservice by not judging their beer against styles the individual drinker knows and understands, but rather, against every single beer the brewery makes. (Or has available.) For instance, a English Brown drinker who has sampled a wide variety of English Brown ales may order a flight that includes an India Pale Ale, knowing they dislike the taste of pronounced hops, and decide they don’t like the brewery based on this fact. Even worse, the IPA, due to its more overwhelming flavor, may completely throw off their perception for the brown ale, which will also invariably spoil the experience. Conversely, the hype surrounding a certain beer or style of beer will encourage those who won’t like it to try it anyway. Guess what? Even with the hype, they still won’t like it. Beer boosterism, however, is a problem to address on a different day.
Gross understatement that craft beer drinkers are not loyal. Spend 12 hours in a beer store several times a week, where the same beers are always available and you’ll see the loyalty of customers to their favorite beers like Lagunitas IPA, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Samuel Smith Chocolate Stout and countless others. Obviously the points we both make do not apply to everyone, myself included, a person who does like to try it all. Why would trying it all mandate discipline and education though? The beauty and fun of trying it all requires nothing more than an open mind and curiosity of the diverse styles of beer that are available today. Does one need to know how to pronounce Brettanomyces as a prerequisite to taste it in a beer for the first time? Why can’t a person taste several beers at a brewery and have an opinion on what they just tasted? Is it bad or wrong to say, “I thought their beers were all pretty solid, but the stout and double IPA were the standouts for me,” or, “I wasn’t really impressed with anything I tried that day?” Any opinion is going to be based on prior experience in drinking a similar style at some other point in time, and sampling most or all of a brewery’s offerings on any particular day should give an overall vibe of what the brewery does, if not, the brewery needs to adjust their tap lineup accordingly, because that is what they are presenting to any new person who walks in the door. And why would your hypothetical drinker order an IPA ‘knowing they dislike the taste of pronounced hops?’ (Full disclosure- I had to look up ‘panacea’)
So, to the flight fan, I have this to say: Instead of immediately opting for a flight, why not trust your kindly barkeep to answer a few questions? Let them know the types of beer you like, and they will surely have something that stacks up to even your most demanding expectations. I know most places in the Capital Region will gladly offer a sample free of charge. Better yet, why not do a little bit of research before you stop at a particular bar or brewery to see what they have available that day? I understand that flights, in a way, help maximize your visit and allow you a chance to try more than maybe one or two of a brewery’s offerings. This comes at the expense of an experience you really want to have, though: drinking beers that fit your palate and preference. And if you’re stopping into a bar or brewery on a whim or as a last minute idea, you’re free to take your time and ask questions. It’s all a part of learning and experiencing beer. Take responsibility for your half of that experience, though. You’re putting in the effort to go; why not put in the effort to learn, too?
Greg, you may need to spend more time on the other side of the bar to understand this one. I LIKE ALL KINDS OF BEER. A lot of people do. I prefer stouts and porters over IPAs and sours, but I still like to drink them all, especially when there are some available I have never had, or have heard good things about. And yes, I will ask bartenders questions. “What style of beer is that, is that a sour, what’s the ABV of this?” All questions I’ve asked within the last two weeks when I can’t get the info I’d like off a menu or sign. But it doesn’t change the fact that when I’m in a place that has a lot of options, I want to maximize my visit by trying as many as can. Yes, I’ll ask for samples if flights aren’t available, but as a customer, I hate doing it, because it feels like I’m being a pain in the ass, and often that is the vibe you’ll get from bartenders after asking for a couple of tastes, especially if what you end up ordering isn’t one of them. A flight being available will save us both time and effort and make the establishment more money as well. You can’t tell me the experience I ‘really want to have’ because you’re not me, the experience I want to have is 4-5 small pours of different beers. Because my palate enjoys it. Maybe yours doesn’t.
Flights remove the individual drinker from that which is most beneficial to the experience: dialogue with the bartender or brewer to see the beer from their perspective. This leaves our intrepid flight enthusiast to experience the beers alone, one by one, without any real point of reference.
This is only true of crappy bars and crappier bartenders. Good ones will walk you through your flight, or have detailed descriptions and tasting notes on a placemat or card that will come with your beer. I’ve been to places that have even over-explained everything to the point where I prayed they’d shut up so I can get down to the tasting.
The problem with flights goes deeper. I can’t even tell you, dear reader, how many customers come, sit down at the bar, and without even looking to the menu will ask, almost as if on cue, if the establishment offers a flight. “We do,” I inevitably respond, “but would you like me to make some recommendations based on your taste?” I’m not going to call myself a beer expert. I’m not. But I have a good understanding of the beer on draft or in bottles on any particular day in my establishment, and if we play a bit of twenty questions, I can fill your glass up with something you’ll like. The flight is a cop out of the first order. When you order one, you’re putting the burden on somebody else to decide what you like. You’re outsourcing the pleasure of knowing what it is you appreciate.
I can tell you, dear writer, that I have come in to both of your places of employ, and asked the exact question. Although I absolutely looked at the menus first both times. The reason I love beer and patronizing places that have a lot of options and visiting out of the way breweries is to experience liquids I have not experienced before. A lot of the time it will be hard to narrow it down to the flight number when there are so many good options. I will always order a couple of styles that are my favorites and a couple that sound great or are unique or limited releases, but why do I want to limit myself to one or two full size beers when I can try more in smaller quantities? What if I tell the bartender I like stouts and the one he pours me a pint of sucks? Now I’m stuck with a pint of a stout I don’t like, have to force it down, then drive home with a permanent bad taste in my mouth for both the brewery and the bartender. Meanwhile, the most amazing IPA I’ve ever had could have been one tap over, but I didn’t get the chance to try it, because I didn’t want to ‘cop out’ and order a flight. And how is ordering a flight putting the burden on someone else, unless you’re at a place like the Yard House, which has 100+ taps and a fascist pre-selected flights-only policy that are always comprised of commonplace beers any beginner craft drinker has already tried many times over. 90% of the time, I’m choosing my own beers in the flight.
I’ll eventually give in to the flight request, and the rest of the order will probably go something like this:
“I’m pretty sure I want to order a flight. Give me, um, the Berliner Weiss, the triple IPA, the barrel aged stout, and the pale lager, please.”
Makes sense, right?
These beers have nothing at all in common. Taste, no matter what, is a relative thing. The palate understands flavor mainly in relation to other, similar flavors. Understanding the nuances of a particular beer is completely thrown off by how often your palate has to shift gears to accommodate your need for a diverse flight. I can try arranging these particular beers on the flight paddle in an order that will help distinguish them from one another (and avoid wrecking your palate) but you’re either going to take two sips and decide you don’t like the beer, or down it all at once like it’s a shot. What’s the point? I can understand a flight of IPAs, for instance, or a flight of Belgian-style ales. These beers offer a common thread that can be traced without exhausting your taste buds. It isn’t often, however, that I’m filling up flight paddles with beers that are remotely similar. Again, it’s that “trying it all” mentality.
I’ll agree with this for the most part. Yes, having 4 extremely different, big beers is a lot to handle at once, but if done right, and over some time and with a little palate cleansing food to go with it, it’s still not the worst. I’ll do this if these are the beers I really want to try though. And this is where a good bartender will help it along, by offering them in proper order and even offering up some food pairings as well. Two sips or shots are not the only ways to enjoy a flight though. Many people will order a flight and enjoy it over the course of a meal, maybe having that triple IPA with some nacho appetizers and saving that barrel aged stout for a digestif.
And lastly, I know many of you are on Team Beer Flights for vanity. You’re checking into all of them on Untappd to increase your overall number and possibly even to gloat to your Untappd friends about drinking either a certain popular style or an offering from a popular brewery. Stop in. Put your phone camera away and enjoy what’s in front of you. Talk about the beers you’re drinking. Share them. Immerse yourself in what they mean to you. It isn’t about badges or even r/beertrade.
I’m 100% with you on this. I despise Untappd. The one time I don’t want to be on my phone is when I’m drinking an amazing beer. I don’t care what you’re drinking, I only care what I’m drinking. Right now. We don’t need no stinking imaginary badges.
Sometimes, the pursuit of beer may seem like a race. I assure you, however, that is is not. There’s plenty of new and exciting beers out there to enjoy, and a great many of them will satisfy the exact delicate balance you’re seeking. Just take the time to learn your preference. Flights aren’t a short cut; they’re a cop out. As your palate matures, you will inevitably branch out into the more extreme, the more refined, and the more niche. Take your time getting there. Make it worth your time.
Yes, there are plenty of new and exciting beers out there for all to enjoy, but why should we waste a chance of finding our next new favorite one by not tasting more of them? It doesn’t make sense at all. We don’t need to limit ourselves or our palates. Like everything, they change over time. The first craft beer I fell in love with was Brooklyner Weisse, served in a proper glass with a lemon. Now I barely ever touch a wheat beer. Think of how much longer I could’ve been drinking bourbon barrel stouts if flights were more popular fifteen years ago when I started to get into craft beer. I think of all that wasted time and I cry. I cry into four, 3 oz. glasses on a little wooden paddle.
- Jay Wulff
(Jay runs a beer store and is a Cicerone Certified Beer Server, and has nothing but love for Greg and would like him to link my site on his Times Union blog page.)
Six Degrees of Separation Brewery in Ossining.