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Humboldt on Tap

In the dark for a blind beer tasting

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I learned early on I don't like drinking games. Competitive quaffing of the quantitative kind is rightfully the territory of stereotypes named Bluto. There are no winners.

Drinking while playing games — be it poker, Settlers of Catan or softball — is noble but precarious if there's money on the line.

Perhaps the only good and true drinking game is the blind beer tasting. An intoxicating test of strategy, wits, taste buds and endurance, it's also a totally mellow, pleasant, social way to spend an evening.

I was recently lucky enough to attend a well-planned blind tasting. The following dispatches from the taster's gauntlet include instructions on constructing a beer tasting of your own.

Choose a style

Love red ales? Curious about these East Coast IPAs everyone's talking about? A blind tasting works best if you pick one style of beer, limiting the samples to a relatively narrow genre. You get an opportunity to experience the range of a style and hone in on your favorites. Plus it makes the guessing that much more difficult.

The tasting I attended focused on sour beer — which is actually a relatively broad style, including kellerweisses, Flemish ales, lambics and more. The only other blind tasting I've attended featured stouts — which was an enjoyable but stomach-swelling slog.

Invite friends

Pick a date and tell your family/friends/neighbors to bring a beer from the style you've chosen. Keep your list relatively short. Any more than 12 beers becomes unwieldy and time-consuming. Remind your guests that everyone will need an ounce or two to taste — they should probably bring more than one if they're choosing something in a 12-ounce bottle.

You need someone to run the show

The tasting I attended was a birthday party, of sorts. My friend's wife — a preternaturally energetic kindergarten teacher — acted as Dungeon Master, pasting scorecards onto hand cut construction paper tablets. She also printed the full names of the beers everyone brought — in random order — on a poster for everyone to study. Behind the veil of the kitchen door, she poured one into taster size glasses with our names printed on them and delivered them.

She patiently repeated this process through 11 beers, collecting errant glasses and maintaining the crucial secrecy of the selections (while partaking of plenty samples herself).

Strategy and mind games

When a sample is brought out, the strategy begins. There was a whole lot of misdirection, murmuring and baiting in our conversations. One person wore sunglasses while sipping — no tells.

Snack carefully; jalapeño poppers are delicious but that heat's going to linger through at least two samples. The beer list provides some clues. If there's something called Tart of Darkness, it's a safe bet that was the one pitch black in color. If something is smoked, keep a taste bud out for that flavor. Try to detect other flavors that might be hinted at in the name of the beer.

Beer geeks have an advantage here, especially if they've tasted a lot of the brews available. But blind tasting is tough — I was surrounded by Humboldt's geekiest and the winners (it was a tie) only picked six of 11 correct. I got three.

Enjoy yourself

One of the great things about these tastings is the opportunity to try a wide variety of tasty (and sometimes expensive) beers for only the cost of your bottle entry. You'll rate each beer as you taste it, so whoever brought the favorite earns a prize. But your notes are also a great way to learn styles, breweries and specific beers you liked. There are no marketing campaigns or presupposed notions in the way when you're blind tasting.

Tally the results

Once all of the beers have been poured, participants should fill out their cards, writing in their guess for each beer and the score they assigned it.

The Dungeon Master tallies the scores, noting the group's favorite. Then the scorecards are handed back and the beer names revealed in order. This provides another opportunity for boasting and groans of frustration. Whoever chose the most right wins. (Pro tip: The honor system is more fun than handing back a corrected scorecard.) Offer whatever you like as a prize, or suggest people bring something for whoever picks the most beer and the guest who brought the party's favorite. Our host sewed pageant-style sashes for the winners (that energy!) but, in the end, the tasting is its own reward.

Have fun

Write and tell us ideas for your own blind tastings — styles, rule tweaks, etc. Do a quick tasting or spread it out over an evening. It's totally adaptable to taste and time and place. Cheers!

On Tap

John Barleycorn is back. Mad River Brewing Co. informs us that the 2016 aged barleywine is available just in time for cooling weather and longer nights, so I dutifully pulled up a stool at the Blue Lake taproom on a recent gray afternoon. Right now, the '15 John Barleycorn is on tap, as well as the newly released '16 edition, so in the interest of analytical journalism, I ordered one of each.

The '16 release, according to MRBC, is the 26th annual edition of its barleywine, a rich, strong celebration ale. Each year the recipe is tweaked and the brew has won two gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival in the aged beer and barleywine categories.

The release promises aromas of nectarine, light caramel and mild citrus. The nectarine was lost on me, but it is caramel-ly and warm with a creamy feel and small, smooth bubbles. It's a lovely golden amber, slightly lighter in hue and more crisp looking than the '15. Both have a nice foamy head. The '16 tastes a bit more of vanilla but overall the two years are very similar — I wouldn't be able to ID them in a blind test.

These beers age well in the bottle and would be worthy additions to your cellar. They're served a bit cold at the taproom but if you give it a few minutes to warm up you'll get even richer flavors. You don't want to drink these too fast anyway; at 9.8 percent, they'll sneak up on you.

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