5300-plus breweries in the United States and counting. Another 775 in Canada as of 2016 (and counting). A veritable explosion of new and innovative breweries in Europe’s strongholds of brewing tradition: Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and Belgium.
Judges at the 2016 edition of the Great American Beer Festival evaluated 96 general categories of beer covering 161 beer styles.
With all this variety, beer flights are more important now than ever before. I’m sure many would agree –– fortunately, flights are ubiquitous at North American craft-influenced establishments, and are on the rise in Europe. But occasionally I’m left scratching my head when hostility to flights bubbles to the surface.
Vinepair recently posted an article asking brewers to name a beer trend “that needs to die.” One response had to do with flights. Patrick Barnes of Islamorada Beer Company in Florida offered this response to the question of which beer trend he’d like to see go the way of the dodo bird:
“Beer flights. Beer is meant to be drunk by the pint, not by the shot. There are a lot of flavors and aromas that are lost in small tasting glasses, as well as switching back and forth between tasters wrecks your palate.”
Since the Vinepair article started making the rounds, more than a few friends, acquaintances, and members of Facebook beer groups have voiced support for doing away with beer flights. (Incidentally, this isn’t the first time that someone has expressed an antipathy toward flights. Back in early 2015, a barkeep in New York’s capitol region wrote an incredibly subtle think-piece entitled “Flights are dumb, and you’re dumb if you like them.”) Why this hostility to flights, perhaps one of the better ideas to come out of this phenomenon we call craft?
Before going any further, though I do have something against the typical shaker-type pint glass for reasons I’ve touched upon in my “Five Ways to Become a Better Drinker,” I have nothing against pint measures and have drunk my fair share. They have their time and place. Like in a beer garden, for example.
But to return to Barnes’s response: the assertion that beer is meant to be drunk by the pint is absurd. Why by the pint? Does every style of beer lend itself to being drunk by the pint? And why don’t we drink wine by the pint? After all, German late-harvest Rieslings have often have a lower alcohol percentage than many imperial stouts.
It’s similarly misguided to suggest that flavours and aromas are lost in small tasting glasses. A 4-ounce snifter that tapers toward the rim concentrates far more aromas than any 16-ounce pint glass of the shaker variety ever will. (I’ll go out on a limb here and assume that the vessel to which Barnes refers when he speaks of pints is the common shaker glass.)
Granted, switching back and forth between tasters can wreck your palate, especially if you have a high-IBU double IPA, an intensely hopped NEIPA, or a wild/sour in the flight. But let’s step back from the bar for a moment. Before the flight even gets off the ground, as it were, it’s the brewer’s or taproom manager’s responsibility to make sure his or her staff are familiar with the best ways to construct a flight so as to avoid palate fatigue. This could take the form of in-house training or subsidized Cicerone courses, or what have you. (Yes, I know that many breweries and taprooms already engage in this best of practices, but since some folks keep trashing flights … .)
Now, one could adduce more potent arguments against flights along the following lines: Assembling a flight ties up a member of the bar staff who has to pull a number of 3- or 4-oz pours instead of one nice, hefty 16-oz pint. The bar staff then has to make sure that the drinker knows what each beer is. Though I do empathize with harried taproom staff, flights eminently address that wonderful issue of variety I mentioned at the outset. After all, the way I see it, a significant part of being a “craft” brewery or taproom involves education about beer and its myriad styles. Flights are the way to go.
- Flights allow you to taste beers side by side. Depending on the flight that you or the bartender put together, you can taste a number of similar beers to see what makes a style tick, you can taste stouts next to porters to see what makes these styles subtly or not so subtly different, or you can run the gamut from a lager to a lambic. Say a brewery offers a range of IPAs –– something not entirely uncommon these days. Try them all next to each other in a flight. If you’re at a taproom, put together a flight of IPAs from different regions and taste them next to one another. Not only is this fun, it’s educational. Tasting beers side by side is much more of a revelation than drinking beers in succession.
- For people just getting into craft beer –– or even for seasoned veterans –– flights provide an easy and enjoyable way for brewers or taproom staff to introduce drinkers to new styles, innovations, or experiments without the visitor needing to go “all-in” on a pint. (That smoked meat and maple syrup porter aged on juniper branches and blueberries sounded interesting in theory … )
- Knocking back a few pints in a beer garden or in the pub on the way home from work is great if the beer clocks in at 4.8%-5% ABV. But when you’re talking American-style IPAs and numerous latter-day stouts, many of which clock in well north of 6.5% ABV, you’ll be feeling the hit sooner than later. Flights can make the next day that much more bearable.
- Sure, anyone living in the vicinity of a particular brewery can head over from time to time to taste his or her way through the brewery’s offerings, pint by pint. But if I’m traveling through town and have only one shot at experiencing what a brewery has to offer, a flight means that I don’t have to get hammered in the process. I might eventually settle on a pint; offering a flight of beers gives me a chance to find that beer or beers.
So there you have it. Flights are smart, and you’re smart if you like them.
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All images by F.D. Hofer.
© 2017 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.