A couple of weeks ago I did some beer judging for ASH and followed that up a week later by judging beers home brewed by employees of Crescent Crown. I enjoy beer judging very much, but the process is actually very hard work. It's satisfying work and pleasiong, but it is not drinking beer for personal enjoyment. I wrote this to try and flesh out the differences. In the process, I can see some crossover to explaining how some monster tastings that occur at festivals or the result of a beer club trade or personal cellar openings can skew beer opinions and create some unwarranted beer geek hype. These are my guidelines, I'd like to hear yours.
Drink In Situ
Drink a beer in its place of origin. Trot down to your local brewery and you should have the freshest example. The brewery has complete control of the beer as they place it in its final vessel. You won't have to worry if the beer was treated well; that it wasn't out in the hot Arizona sun or sat on a dusty shelf.
If you are fortunate enough, travel to the town of a style's origin. Have a Pilsner in Plsen. These days, with some small exceptions, any style of beer can be made in any brewery in the world. It's fun to wrap your head around why a style sprung up from the ground (water), or the air (yeast) or any number of natural or man-made circumstances. The scarcity of some beers and the imperfect world of post prohibition distribution makes traveling for beer one of life's few authentic experiences. It's much more pleasant to be handed a draft beer from a publican than it is to pull one out of a suitcase or swaddled in bubble wrap.
Learn the Brewer's Intent
Brewing is compromise and there are literally dozens of things that have to happen for the beer to get into your glass. The brewer tries to control as many of these things as possible and often has to do something at the expense of another. These decisions impact the beer's flavor profile. Great beers often have great stories but even absent one as told to you by the brewer or the brewery staff, you should be able to piece a narrative together based upon the style or description. Did the brewer intend to hit the top end of the IBU threshold or was she looking to create a beer with sufficient bitterness with a hefty malt backbone? It's quite possible that the beer is not suited for your tastes by design.
Get a Proper Serving
Typically this is a pint, or perhaps two. If the beer has some heft, a 10 ounce snifter might be appropriate. Some of this can be divined from the brewers intent or style guidelines, but most beer is designed to be consumed in 12 to 16 ounce servings. Here is where you have to take off your festival go-er, beer ticker, beer rater or serial sampler hat. There are few beers designed to be enjoyed as a four ounce pour. Fewer to none as a two ounce pour. Brewers design beers to consumed start to finish with the hope that you entertain the possibility of having one or two more of the very same beer. Nobody brews a beer that is best served preceded by a 2 ounce pour of Russian Imperial Stout and followed up by a 1 ounce pour (that you split with your mate) of American Wild Ale. One thing you may have said to yourself (or heard others say out loud) is, "That was intense, but I don't think I could finish a glass of it." This is very instructive. It may have some spectacular inter-galactic rating, but face it, you wouldn't enjoy it in its natural beer serving state.
Drink With Others
Beer is a social drink that is meant to be shared and enjoyed with groups of people. I often hear people say they don't have a good palate with the implication that they don't physically have the ability to describe beer. We all have the same basic apparatus, the thing that distinguishes the "expert" beer reviewer is associating vocabulary with a taste or sensation. The only way that you can learn this language is to compare notes with others. With a tiny bit of education, talking about beer with others as you drink it can markedly increase your appreciation and enjoyment. Sometimes the best beer you will have is the one that you enjoy with others in a convivial atmosphere. Not a word is spoken about it, yet you both signal your server for one more of the same.
If you can wrap up all of these elements in a beer session or maybe even a couple of them, I think you'll agree that this is the best way to enjoy beer and take part in beer's culture.