Certainly you can drink any beer you like in any order that you want, however, if you are trying to taste the subtle differences between the beers you are drinking; you might want to consider two factors – color and hops. Whenever you order the sampler in a brewpub, notice that they typically present them to you in order of color and finish with the specialty or seasonal beer. Think about it – when they printed out those guides, they knew that one beer would always be changing, so to save on printing costs, they stuck it at the end, but that might not be where it would taste the best in your trip through their sampler menu. Start by arranging the beer by color when trying more than one beer in any given night.
Then, think about hops and wheats. Hopheads usually know who they are, but if you don’t know what you like yet, a simple way to tell by tasting a beer is that hops have a bitter characteristic with an aftertaste (like Sam Adams) and malts have a cleaner or crisper finish (like Miller or Bud). You always know that an IPA is going to be hoppy, and if you are trying American craft brews, then chances are that the Pale Ale is also hoppy, so put those second to last on your list to try. Everything you try prior to that will work your palette up to the hoppy brews. It’s like at a wine tasting – the whites go first, then the reds, followed by the sweets. With beer, you drink the lights and ambers, followed by the wheats, then the browns and hops, and finish with the stouts and porters.
When trying a few beers in a row, you should avoid going back and forth between hops and malts, but the beauty of a sampler is that you can test this theory with your own palette. Take a sip of the IPA first, then go back and sip the light, the wheat, and then try the IPA again. It will taste much different to you after the wheat than it did on a fresh palette. I’m not saying that people who love hops don’t start and stick with IPA’s, but I am saying that someone who is new to beer may not like a hoppy beer right away (or ever).
Time to practice with names you know. A sampler of the following beers would be served in this order – Miller Lite, Budweiser Select, Michelob’s Amber Boch, Blue Moon, Sam Adams, and Guinness. Even though the Blue Moon is lighter than the Amber Boch in color, it is a heavier (it’s called mouth feel) beer and the wheat will prepare your palate for the hops in the Sam Adams.
When tasting new beers, I typically suggest starting with drafts because you can see the color in the glass and even a bartender that doesn’t know anything about beer knows what color it is because they’ve poured it before. Always ask for a taste of it first – this is standard practice in pubs, just don’t take advantage of it by trying 30 beers before ordering a pint. Keep in mind that if you get an unexpectedly hoppy beer like Liberty Ale which is light in color but hoppy and you like it, then you should follow that up with another hoppy beer (may I suggest something by Dogfish?). If you don’t like the hops then send it back and pick up where you left off on the color wheel with an amber beer. Not all dark beers are hoppy. For example, Guinness (a Stout) is not hoppy. So, it’s important when you’re first beginning that you learn whether or not you like hops but don’t associate the bitter taste with the color of the beer – it’s two different things.
Light beers taste better cold – really cold. Darker beers can sit for a little longer. So, if you’re in it for the long haul one night and drinking with friends while talking or playing pool or darts, you might find a darker beer will suit you better for the night because it allows you to drink it slower. However, out on the boat or playing golf, the light and crisp pilsner is always the way to go and has a very short lifespan before the heat makes it impalpable.
It’s why the last swig of beer in the bottom of the glass always tastes so horrible. It’s warm. Too warm. Have you ever seen some beers in a bar are served in a fancy goblet or a mug with the handle on the side? That’s designed to control the temperature of the beer. Holding a glass in your hands makes the beer warm and gross. By drinking out of a glass with a stem, you are not holding onto the beer glass and heating the beer trapped inside. So, if you’re going to be standing around, doesn’t it make sense to hold a longneck? That’s why they’re so popular in bars. You wouldn’t think twice about someone in a wine bar drinking wine out of glass. It’s the same concept as a stem, but if you’re going to sit around and drink a light beer for a long time, consider replacing it even if you’re not finished with it.