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Grounding the Flight

A case for enjoying a taproom visit without a billion little glasses

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Some beers are just too big and complex to be contained in a tiny glass.
  • Some beers are just too big and complex to be contained in a tiny glass.

It's a typical Saturday afternoon at Crux Fermentation Project: families and dogs outside, diners and beer nerds inside, and what seem to be half a dozen taster trays underneath the taps, waiting to be filled. "They tend to come and go in waves," the bartender comments. "It's sort of the same deal as Bloody Marys. Someone orders one, and then everyone sees the tray out on the bar and start figuring they'll have one too."

Beer flights are an ingrained part of the craft brewery experience. They have advantages for both sides of the transaction; the brewer can run through kegs more evenly and the customer can try a wide variety all at once without becoming too tipsy. The vertical flights of Abyss and Black Butte available at Deschutes' brewpub are regular highlights in Bend's food-and-drink calendar, and many are the foolhardy souls who ordered a flight of all 12 or so beers available at Bend Brewing Company and didn't quite make it to the end. (Flights at the BBC these days have a much more reasonable six varieties.)

The question, though, is this: Are flights really the best way to gauge the quality of a brewery? Many beer enthusiasts (including, admittedly, this beer writer) tend to take a Pokémon-style approach to their hobby—gotta try 'em all, and then check 'em in on Untappd. Flights are a convenient way to scratch that itch, certainly.

The problem is that four ounces of beer in a tiny cup usually isn't the way the brewer meant it to be served. It's just a passing glimpse of the beer compared to the full 12-ounce view. Beer often has trouble retaining a decent head in a sample glass, and there's not much chance to take in the brew's aroma from a small glass, either. Finally, many varieties of beer open up new flavors and sensations over time as they warm up in the glass (part of the reason most beer isn't meant to be served ice-cold in frosted mugs), something that just can't happen in a couple of ounces.

Flights have their place, thanks to their fun convenience, and ordering a flight of, let's say, nothing but IPAs is a great way to train less-experienced beer palates. But they also fundamentally alter the experience of visiting a brewery. Instead of sitting back, relaxing with a pint and chatting with friends, you're studying the glasses, focused more on the beer than your surroundings. That's partly why some taprooms, including Hair of the Dog and Cascade in Portland, have done away with the flight paddle entirely, instead selling individual small pours for $2 or so and encouraging patrons to enjoy each beer as a single experience.

With that, try to resist the urge to reach for a tray next time. Crux, for example, currently has four great barrel-aged beers on tap, including the 9.9% In the Pocket saison. Are these best tackled in little pours all at once, or would going all-in on a single one and savoring it for the next half-hour make for a more enjoyable visit to the brewery? The latter might be true more often than many people think.


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