Sandra Cook is a self-proclaimed wine geek. So when she decided to attend a beer-tasting class, it seemed like a natural extension of her interests-and a great way to better navigate the vast selection at craft beer destinations.
"We tasted several beers with food pairings," says Cook, who covered meetings and events for the Houston Meeting Planners Guide and is the author of Relocating to Houston and Surrounding Areas: Everything You Need to Know Before You Move and After You Get There! "The beers were served so that we gradually progressed in bitterness. Some were mild, some malty, some hoppy. We even tasted a sour beer."
What she learned surprised her. "I was amazed that I tasted a hoppy, IPA-style beer that I liked, because I rarely like IPAs. I learned that different hops yield different types of bitterness, and some of those can be more pleasing to me," she says. "Some said they liked learning about the ingredients in beer and why they are used, others remarked about the nice aromas of good beer and how that influences the taste experience."
Turns out that beer, like wine, can be complex and varied, particularly the many styles of craft beer. And the rise of Beer 101 classes- like the one Cook attended-means more opportunities to engage groups of people, whether they’re just getting into craft beer or have been drinking the same tried-and-true style for years.
"There’s a lot to learn and to be appreciated about craft beer," Cook says. "It’s as fascinating as the world of wine, or even more so. Learning about the nuances of the ingredients and the methods used in certain regions can make a huge difference in what you smell and taste. You will definitely learn something that will enhance your enjoyment of beer."
Crissy Lintner, managing director of the Dallas Division of Obsidian Public Relations, promotes events at the Meddlesome Moth in Dallas and the Flying Saucer Drought Emporium’s locations across Texas. She’s seen an influx of interest in Beer 101 events for employees, conventions and high-level events.
"This is an interesting trend, considering the craft beer boom we’re seeing in Texas," Lintner says. "More and more companies are looking for creative ways to entertain, particularly when in town for big conventions or meetings. A Beer 101 event can add extra ‘oomph’ to the experience."
Craft Beer Buzz
Kevin Floyd, managing partner at Houston’s The Hay Merchant, led the Beer 101 class Cook attended. With The Hay Merchant’s 80 beers on tap and 75 in bottles-all from independent craft breweries- Floyd has plenty of inspiration to draw from as he guides groups through an interactive tasting.
"I do a Beer 101 class for groups all the time. It’s a fun team experience," says Floyd, who has hosted craft beer tastings for C-suite executives, university departments, oil and gas companies, seminary students and women’s groups. Floyd usually hosts Beer 101 events in The Hay Merchant’s private event space and recommends keeping class sizes to about 30 people. "When you start getting to 60 or more, it becomes difficult to manage because it’s really interactive," he says. "It’s a guided tasting, so we’ll walk through the production steps in beer, the base components of beer, and as we go through that process, there are particular beers we’ll taste that highlight particular components."
Floyd, who earned a degree in speech communication at West Texas A&M University after receiving a debate scholarship, enjoys the educational aspect of beer tastings. "I teach groups how to taste beer. The main difference is that wine has a pretty narrow flavor profile; all whites and all reds fall into a narrow band of potential flavors. With beer, there’s a potential for a huge swath of different flavors."
While the tasting steps between wine and beer are similar-visual appeal, smell, taste-the final action is not. "When you taste beer, you swallow instead of spit," Floyd says. "The finish and flavor the beer leaves in the mouth after swallowing is an important tasting component."
Beer 101 special events, private tastings and classes can be hosted at The Hay Merchant for $80 to $90 per person or held off-site for $150 to $175 per person (with a minimum of 20 people). The information presented is essentially a modified version of the staff training Floyd requires of The Hay Merchant’s new employees.
"I really believe in education, training and development," Floyd says. "All our staff goes through an extensive training process when hired, then our ongoing continuing education program. Our staff should be guides for our guests and help them make good decisions. With so many new beers, even a savvy consumer has a hard time navigating. It can be really overwhelming."
A Texas-Sized Impact
Texas beer is trending in the meetings and events industry, and it’s boosting the local economy in other ways, too. Texas craft breweries rank No. 2 in the nation when it comes to economic impact (California is No. 1), according to a 2012 study released by the Brewers Association. The study reports the Texas craft beer industry made a $2.3 billion annual economic contribution, a finding that seconds a long-range analysis by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.
The Texas Craft Brewers Guild, an Austin-based nonprofit association that represents Texas craft breweries, reports the industry had a $608 million economic impact on local and regional areas in 2011-and that it could pump as much as $5.6 billion annually into area economies by 2020.
But you don’t need to bird-dog the numbers to know Texas’ craft beer is coming into its own. "In 1995 it was hard to fill up a tap wall with 60 beers. Even five years ago, there were seven breweries in Texas, but that’s not the case today," says Keith Schlabs, managing partner of the Texas-based Meddlesome Moth and Flying Saucer restaurants.
According to the Brewers Association, the number of actively licensed brewers in Texas is closing in on the century mark, with dozens more in the pipeline.
"Craft beer is not just a trend. Breweries are now well-funded and sophisticated, with computerized equipment and labs to ensure quality," Schlabs says. "People are eating better, they’re aware of what’s in their food, they’re asking questions and not settling for bland. They’re drinking better wine and better beer."
Discovering a Gateway Beer
Schlabs’ case in point: Consumers used to be OK with sugar- and preservative-laden margarita mix, but today they prefer a handmade mix that uses fresh and locally sourced ingredients. A similar revolution is taking place in the beer industry as craft beer gains ground on its mass-produced counterparts.
"There’s more craft beer buzz right now than I’ve seen in 20 years," says Schlabs, whose restaurants offer private beer tasting events and a bevy of craft beers. The Flying Saucer, for example, carries more than 200 unique beers.
"We’ve had law firms book happy hour beer tastings. This progressive tasting includes five to eight courses that gradually take them from light beer to flavorful, complex beer," Schlabs says. "I’ve had planners say, ‘We never get a turnout like this.’ Everyone is engaged. It’s social. They are sharing experiences about beer. It’s a good icebreaker."
Craft beer was a good icebreaker for Schlabs, whose beer career began in college as an amateur consumer. "In college, I was drinking whatever was the cheapest beer. Then I started working in a restaurant and it changed my whole life. One taste of a craft beer changed my perception of beer and I began exploring other craft beers," he says. "That one beer was essentially the gateway beer for me. It was very different. It had good flavor. It had a sharp hop character, a malty backbone. Of course I didn’t know all these things then, but I knew it had good flavor. Drinking that beer showed me beer could be flavorful and piqued my interest to try other styles."
Perhaps that’s why Schlabs feels a kinship with the befuddled customer who may not know enough about craft beer to order correctly. He hires and trains certified cicerones and ensures all his restaurant employees are beer savvy so they can target beers that will work well with a customer’s palate. For example, if a customer wants something light and fruity, a wheat beer should satisfy. If a customer wants a crisp, clean profile, then a pilsner or golden ale is in order.
"Once we introduce people to craft beer, we know they’ll like it," Schlabs says. "Beer is fun. It’s unpretentious. It’s social," he says. "Everybody likes beer. And if you don’t like beer, we have beer that will change your mind."