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D.C. residents are lucky to have the craft beer selection we enjoy, and I’m reminded as much every time I walk into a good bar or store. But if you drink lots of beer (I call it “research”) the selection can be maddening. Though my heart is in it, I just don’t have the constitution to try every good beer at a restaurant with, say, eight taps and a fetching bottle list. Such are the problems in my life.

Enter the side-by-side tasting. Every now and then, my friends and I convene around a dinner table for a beer tasting with a mission: We choose one style, like IPA or stout, and taste each one “blind.” (More on this in a minute.) We compare notes, then reveal which beers were which. Invariably, some of us discover new favorites.

If those old household commercials have taught us anything, it’s that comparison is the best way to test something. When you taste beers side-by-side and discuss them with friends, your impressions are more likely to stay with you and inform your buying decisions the next time you pick up a six-pack. It’s fun, educational, and just a bit nerdy. But while I opt for the full-on, annotated geek-out, all you really need is friends, glasses, and beer.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Pick a beer style and stick to it. You’ll learn more by comparing stouts to stouts, lagers to lagers, etc.
  2. Taste blind (not literally). Put the bottles in numbered brown bags so you can try each one without bias. It’s surprising how different some old favorites taste when you’re not expecting them. If you really want to get scientific, don’t write on the bags — instead have a second person (not the bagger) assign a random letter to each number and write down a key. That way not even the pourer will know which beer is which.
  3. Cleanse your palate. In the Pepsi Challenge, the two sodas were indistinguishable without eating an oyster cracker in between. The snacky food should be light and minimal, like water crackers or saltines. I prefer to skip the food altogether and sip some interstitial club soda.
  4. Warm it up! Beers should generally be drunk at temps in the 40s or 50s. Forget the bullshit about “frost-brewed” and “coldest-tasting” — you can’t taste beer at 34 degrees. Lagers should spend a few minutes outside the fridge, dark beers and Belgians can warm up even longer.
  5. Six beers or less, and 3-ounce pours. OK, these numbers are arbitrary, but the point is, after a few tastes your palate gets tired and flavors start to run together. Think back to the last beer festival you went to. How well do you remember the third beer you tasted? How about the seventh or eighth?
  6. Don’t lose your notes. Sounds obvious, right? Well, try remembering that when you break rule #5 and drink a dozen beers. Tasting beer is fun, but you’ll take more out of it if you don’t lose your notes…and your phone…and your keys….

Photo by merfam via Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License