Visit one of the myriad tasting rooms in Maine, and you may be confronted by a simple choice: Do you order a beer from the list of brews available, or do you have a little bit of everything? Fundamentally, it is about whether you are drinking or sampling – and there is a difference.
If you’ve never been to a particular brewery, it is tempting to order everything that it has to get a sense of its style, personality and portfolio. At most breweries, there is an option to order a so-called flight of the beers available in a smaller sample size. Typically, this means a receiving a selection of 3- to 4-ounce pours of beer served simultaneously.
Critics and connoisseurs like to argue about what the correct amount of beer that is needed to fully evaluate a beer’s quality and taste. In short, this boils down to two things: time and attention. Flights of beer provide a larger sample than you would get at a festival, so it is at least giving you a real opportunity to taste it. If you are judging a beer on its merits – not whether or not you are enjoying it based on your own personal tastes – then ordering a larger pour of the single beer would be better. If you are using a flight to decide what to order for your pleasure, then a flight should be more than enough beer to decide what pint to order first.
Flights can come in many forms, and usually contain between four to eight pours, customarily poured all at once and served together in some kind of holder. The best flights are setup like a multi-course meal, ordered by strength and flavor strategically to take you on a journey through a tasting. A flight “paddle” is meant to evoke the shape and design of the brewer’s mash paddle and usually includes dimples or holes for the glassware to fit. Others have used woodworkers or other makers to create boxes, trays, cages and more. Some of the more unique I have seen in Maine even include holders that have been upcycled from used skis (Lone Pine Brewing) or lobster traps (Island Dog Brewing). I am especially fond of the four-flight “boxes” that Rising Tide utilizes for its samples because they are the best at preventing any beer loss on the long walk across the tasting room, which is perfect for someone as uncoordinated as me.
While this may sound like an ideal way to get to know a brewery, ordering a flight can have some major pitfalls and should be done only when appropriate. Because it involves several pours and a setup to serve, pouring a flight can take much longer than pouring a full-sized beer. If you are wavering between ordering a flight and a pint, look around the tasting room and the serving area. While most tasting room employees will serve you a flight with a smile even on the busiest days, many really wish you wouldn’t order them at peak times. If it is busy or there is a line to order, it may be best to opt for the more straightforward order to keep things moving.
If you plan to take the flight outside, think twice. Light and heat have significant effects on the flavor of a beer. If you are working your way down a line of samples, that means that the last sample in the paddle will end up more affected by its environment than the ones at the beginning that were consumed right after being poured.
In Spain, on hot summer days, many locals and visitors will enjoy tapas with small glasses of beer, known as a cañas. These small, simple glasses aren’t really meant to be the equivalent to sampling glasses in the United States, but instead have a more straightforward function. The heat of the day can cause a beer filled in a standard pint to end up warm by the time that it was finished, leaving the last centimeters of warm beer to languish in the glass. On a hot day, you may want to order beer the way the Spaniards do, getting small pours one at a time, rather than a flight, so that you can enjoy them as fresh as they can be.
There’s no official rules about when you should order a flight instead of a larger pour at a brewery, and it depends on what you want to get out of the experience. There is one flight-related rule that should not be broken, however. The flight glassware and holders are part of the brewery’s serving equipment, and they should stay at the brewery. Just because the glasses are small or the box they are displayed in is attractive, it does not mean that they should be stolen. When you’re done with flight, it is up to you to make sure that the paddles land safely back at the bar.