Burb's Eye View: Hopping on the home brewers' wagon

The brewmaster said "mouthfeel" and I knew I was in over my head.

This was some years ago, surrounded by fellow beerophiles in the belly of the beast at the Sam Adams brewery in Boston. Sam's top hop-ologists did their experiments here, a lab of sorts to concoct the brewery's next Big Thing. You'll see it on their commercials, containing large copper kettles that house the sweet liquid gold for America's next mass-produced “craft” beer.

We learned how to sample beer the right way: color, nose (oenophiles will know this term already, but I came to know it as “smell”), taste, mouthfeel or body and finally, the finish.

Over the years I came to appreciate beer as a complement to nearly every meal. It graciously scrubs the palate between courses, or sets the stage for a new one. In the past 20 years the rise of the American microbrew has produced a new connoisseur: one who delights in the finer notes of a well-mixed hop-and-yeast waltz over the staccato salsa of a traditional paired wine.

I didn't know it at the time, but I quickly became a card-carrying member of the beer snob squad.

Since moving to Southern California, I've made several friends who brew their own. Their setups include beakers and burners that would make Dr. Frankenstein blush, and in the comfort of their kitchens they devise ales and lagers with the sophistication of a classical symphony. Each recipe builds on itself, and there is an order involved; as one might bring in the horns section too early, so too does the malt maestro calculate how and when his hops enter the song.

Home-brewers love to talk about their home brews. They love it so much that I can't often keep up in the conversation, getting lost somewhere between the positive and negative charge of yeast and the proper temperatures at which your copper-pipe contraption must cool the boil.

So I'm going to learn. This weekend I'm bringing several home brewers to my home to compare, contrast and collaborate on how the art of the brew is really done.

Did I mention I have no idea how to host a beer tasting?

For pointers I visited Tony's Darts Away on Magnolia. There's really no better collection of beer barons in Burbank than this craft-brew bar. My first lesson: Beer tasting is not as high-brow as one might expect if one compares it to wine tasting.

There's no spitting a sample when you're done with a beer, but otherwise you can run a beer tasting in similar ways to a wine event. Erin Killean, a bartender at Tony's, tells me you want to pay attention to a beer's look, its nose (smell), taste, then swallow it to see how the hops hit the back of your palate.

She suggests starting with the lighter, less-octane beers first. That way you can understand the subtler notes of hops and sweetness that might ensconce a lager or light ale.

Killean says one should separate each course with some water and lightly salted crackers or pretzels, to help cleanse the taste buds.

“And so your friends don't get completely obliterated,” she said. “Pizza's always a good remedy for that.”

At a nearby table playing Clue with friends, Raliegh Drennan suggested I provide a relaxed, calm atmosphere in which to enjoy the serving course.

And yes, start with light beer “because you don't want to get everyone knocked out halfway through.”

Bartender Tony Essa recommends a 4- to 5-ounce sample for each tasting (any smaller and you won't get the full experience), and Killean suggested even hosting the event “brown bag” style, in which everyone brings a sample but no one knows what they have until the end.

No matter what you sample, Essa says the important thing is how to enjoy each facet of the beer. Take in the look, then the nose, then sip it and swirl it. This releases more of the beer's flavor, Essa says, and will allow you to get past the dominant ingredients (hops and malt) to sample the more subtle notes of sweet and bitter, floral and spicy.

Serve the beer light to strong, provide plenty of palate-cleansers in between, and most of all enjoy yourself. Maybe this craft beer thing isn't so complicated after all. Now where'd I put my barleywine?


BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he isn't sampling saisons, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter: @818NewGuy.

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