The Full Fridge Dilemma: It's like FMK, but for Beer

Around this time of year (post-Christmas, post-holiday parties, etc.) I end up with a lot of beer in the fridge.  Beer I've bought to serve.  Beer I've received as a gift.  Beer people brought to a party and left behind.  So, so much beer.  

Talk about First World Problems.  

But it occurred to me that, problem of the (over?) privileged that it might be, it's still a legitimate problem.  We're also about to head into a month when, like many of us, I'm looking to give my body a rest and ratchet down the alcohol consumption.  So we have a real supply-demand issue here.  And it occurred to me that this "Full Fridge Dilemma" might be worth approaching in a more systematic way.  Some are going to stay.  Some are going to go (eventually).  And some are going to go right now.  It's like FMK, but with your beer.

The Big Sort

The way I see it, I have two goals here.  First, I want to drink the beer I have when it's at its best (or, at the very least, before it starts to turn towards its worst).  Second, I want to avoid playing catch-up for the rest of the year.  This dilemma, if un-addressed, will plague me for months, since I'll still be adding beer to the equation - I need to get ahead of it.  Otherwise I'll just be drinking by "best by" date, and that just doesn't sound like fun.  I need to clear out some space in this fridge.

So, first things first: sort.

The first sort will be to split out the things that you don't much want to drink anyway - and start playing Santa Claus.  If I look in my fridge and see a bunch of strong Belgian ales, then you better believe that anywhere I go for the next 2-3 months I'm going to be gifting them out, so pull them out of the fridge now and put them aside.  We all have things we don't often drink but people bring over/gift to us anyway, so treat that Sour Triple IPA like you would a vanilla-scented candle and re-gift it.

The second sort will be to pull things out that you like, but actually improve with age.  Grab that Baltic Porter, Russia Imperial, and Belgian Quad and stick them on a rack in your basement.  Congratulations, you now have a beer cellar.  

Last, sort out beers you know other people will drink: party beer.  Grab that half case of Dortmunder, those spare bottles of Pilsner, and that four-pack of dry stout and just put them in any fridge (a cold winter garage usually works great, too).  If you keep them cold, they'll be in plenty good shape to offer the next time you have people over (Super Bowl, Academy Awards, whatever).  

Congratulations - you should now have much more room in your fridge!

But that was the easy part.

A Question of Priority

Now you need to decide, among those lucky beers still left, what to drink and when.  We need an order.  Someone's going to be first - someone's going to be last.  And whichever beer ends up last on that list is running a risk, because what we're left with (if you've sorted properly) is mostly beer that, like Val Kilmer, isn't aging well.

Lots of people will give you the "hey, just drink what you want!" line.  OK, maybe.  But I think that if you're really interested in getting the most out of your beer you should take a survey of your fridge and drink them down in this order:

  1. Hop-forward amber beers: as their bitterness and hop flavors fade, their malts (and they're often in the rich, caramel, melanoidin-y camp) are going to become really assertive, and without that bittering/hop flavor to balance it they can come off as being unpleasantly sweet.  You want to get these things off your shelf ASAP - and don't let terminology fool you.  Thinks like English Pale Ales/ESBs are basically amber, and they can go bad in a hurry, leaving you drinking papery butter water. 
  2. Amber lagers: "What?  But they're lagers!  They'll keep forever!"  No, no they won't.  Maybe they won't turn quite as fast as the hoppy ambers, but they'll still trend towards the too-rich.  I also notice that the clean fermentations they're subject to make staling/oxidation flavors a little more obvious, too.  
  3. IPAs: Usually, time is a "muting" actor on the flavor of IPAs, so they have a little more staying power.  They lose that super-bright hop flavor pretty quickly (2-3 weeks?), but after that it's a slower trip down during which you still taste the hops, just not as prominently.  They'll be fine for a while.  Time hurts - but doesn't kill - most of them.
  4. Pale Hoppy non-IPAs: So, American Pale Ales, American wheat beers, etc.  They don't have as much hop character to trade off as time goes by, but at the same time they tend to taste just fine without it since they're often a bit lower in alcohol and darker/richer malts, so the worst case is that you end up with a generically grainy beer.  Most will hold up just find for a couple of months.
  5. Light Belgians: Saison, Witbier and the like have some great survivability, in part because there's so much going on in their flavor profiles. You have hops, esters, grain, and even if there's a slight infection a bit of tartness/acidity isn't really a deal-breaker.  At our homebrew club's 100th meeting we popped open an eight-year-old Saison that was our first group brew, and it was still pretty good!  Long story short, even though their flavors will change over time, it doesn't seem to devolve into something that's unpleasant to drink.  But since they're a little lower in alcohol than their Belgian Strong cousins, they're a little more time-sensitive since their oxidation will just taste papery/metallic, not that cool sherry note you get in stronger beers that oxidize.
  6. Everything Else: Most other non-strong beers (I'm thinking of hoppy browns, stouts, sours, German wheats, etc.) keep and drink pretty well, even with some significant age on them.  German Hefe, even old and stale, is still perfectly drinkable.  A hoppy brown ale will probably have enough residual roast to keep it from being cloying.  Pilsner will always work as a simple light malt showcase even if its hops fade.  You can save these for last.

Drink with a Purpose

In a perfect world, we'd always drink what we want, when we want it, and it would always be in great shape.  That's never going to happen, though - so set yourself up for success and give your beer its best shot at making you happy.  Make your beer choices with a purpose.

And as one final tip?  Go the "Wedding Feast at Cana" route - if folks are already a little tipsy (you included), drink the beers that aren't doing so hot.  You'll mind it a lot less.

Keep it simple.  


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Bringing It: The Pitfalls and Perils of Bringing Your Own Beer

A party hosted by a gluten hater.  A BBQ at a macro-chugging friend's place.  A wine pairing dinner.  A visit to the in-laws' house.

What do all of these (and more) have in common?  They're all venues where you, as a craft beer drinker, might want to bring something of your own to drink.

I understand the impulse.  Heck, it's even polite: it's a long Super Bowl, and I want to make sure I contribute to the beer pile since I'll be here for a few hours.  But bringing beer with you can be a risky proposition, and should be approached with care, lest you insult your hosts and/or engage in alehole-ish behavior.  

What's the Big Deal?

Lots of you are thinking "what's the big deal?" - what's funny is that you're not even all in the same group of people.

One camp is thinking, "what's the big deal?" because they're omnivores who will be content drinking anything, whether it's Bud or Sierra or Sonoma or Dasani.  They might bring something as a gift, but otherwise they're fine with whatever ends up in their glass.

Another camp is thinking, "what's the big deal?" because they can't see how it could possibly be rude to bring something to drink to a party. 

I'm not saying it's rational, but follow me on this one: there's a way to see it as an implicit (and, depending on how you explain what you've done, explicit) criticism of your host.  Think of it this way: you plan a party, set a menu, stock the fridge and coolers, and then a guest arrives waving a six-pack of Deschutes and asking where he/she can put the other five (having just popped open the first and demanded "appropriate glassware").

Bit of a slap in the face, no?

Guard Rails

This week at Beer Simple we're simply going to discuss some good rules of thumb to make sure you're not accidentally being aleholes.  Your circumstances may vary, of course, and I'd love to see discussion of these, but I think this will give us a good starting point.

1. Always distinguish between "brought this for you" and "brought this for us" and "brought this for me."  Tell the hosts whether you intend them to save this for a special occasion, open it right then to share, or add to the beer stockpile of the event for anyone to grab.  "Brought this for me" should never be the option selected.  Only a boor would show up and say, "hey, make sure no one drinks these - they're mine!"  I wouldn't even mention it...except that I've seen it happen.  More than once.  But do distinguish between a bottle of barleywine or mead that isn't necessarily a fit for a pool party so that your host (who may not know) isn't pondering whether you expect him to break out the snifters.

2. Work the cooler/fridge; don't invade it.  If there's nowhere to cold store your beer, suck it up.  But what you can do, in almost every case, is pull-a-beer/add-a-beer.  When you remove a bottle of Shock Top (whether for you or someone else), add in one of yours in its place.  If questioned, you can point out that "a full fridge runs more efficiently."

3. Sell it as an option, not an alternative.  Maybe even before people ask, tell them that you brought a great beer that you couldn't wait for everyone to try if they feel like it.  Even if you're the only one that wants it or drinks it, you'll be making it clear that you aren't a highly-particular alcoholic who always travels with a preferred beverage, but instead you're someone who wants to share some good beer (without disparaging the host's beer).  

4. Mix it up.  Don't drink exclusively the stuff you brought.  Let people see you with a Michelob or a Shiraz in hand.  

5. Be content with any drinking vessel.  The contribution of "proper glassware" is real, but almost certainly negligible.  If you're choosing for yourself, fine - but don't ask, and certainly don't instruct.  

6. DON'T BE AN ALEHOLE.  Even if you think you're being funny, and even if the host or others make the joke in front of you, don't say that you brought it because what they've offered isn't what you drink.  The relative merits of Aspen Edge Low Carb beer (still the worst I've ever had) vs. your favorite local brewery aren't important if pointing it out at the expense of courtesy and manners.  

To a lot of people these are common sense.  If so, great - I still think they merit repeating now and again, though.

Go Native, Unless You're a Native

And here's a thought: maybe just show up and drink what's there.  One night of drinking light lager or Cabernet or Scotch or water won't kill you.  

The only time I routinely bring beer with me is when I'm visiting close friends of family.  In that case, "going native" isn't as important, because I am a native.  It may even be the case that the people you're visiting expect you to bring a few bottles of something or other because they look forward to what you choose.  If that's the case, then by all means, beer-ambassador away.

All I'm saying is that this kind of "beer particularism" needs to be exercised carefully.  If not, we again run the risk of being the people that the Bud Super Bowl commercials say we are.

Manners cost nothing.

Keep it simple.


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Chipped: Test Driving Food-Beer Pairings with Seasoned Snacks

One of the more common things I get asked about is beer and food pairings.  While it's true that not every food goes with every beer, it isn't as though you're presented with a secret clipboard upon completion of the Cicerone exam that details the perfect beer for every food.  Individual tastes matter even more in pairing food and beer than they do in simply selecting beers you like - and there, people already act as though you've insulted their mother if you tell them that a certain beer is flawed or isn't generally very good.  Can you imagine trying to convince someone that their favorite beer doesn't pair well with bacon?

In short, I'm afraid that if you ask me about food-beer pairings, there's going to be a lot of me shrugging and telling you to "figure it out for yourself."  I mean, I'll answer the question, too, but it's going to come with a massive caveat of "this is why I think this is good, but you're going to need to try it first."

What I AM more than willing to do, though, is share a methodology for doing it, and (see the picture above) a vehicle for testing out your pairings.

Test Driving Your Pairing

You don't go into battle with an untested rifle - the great military historian and scholar Michael Douglas taught us ALL that lesson in "The Ghost and the Darkness."  The lesson applies here, too.  Before you go planning a beer dinner or pairing event, take the time to work out some good combinations: rules of thumb for flavors and approaches that help you scale up your preferences.

For this, we have an outstanding tool: the seasoned snack.

Chips are my favorite.  They come in every kind of flavor, seasoning, and configuration these days.  And I was offered a perfect opportunity to highlight their utility as a pairing tool when I was very kindly shipped a box with four bags of kettle chips from Neal Brothers (my blog yields effectively no revenue, but it yields free chips - that's a massive win, in my book).

The staggering advantage that a lot of people overlook here is that all you're doing in pairing is pairing flavors - not dishes or meals or entire beers.  Flavors.  So why not use something small, with frank and obvious flavors, to test drive your pairing?

Thinking About Pairing

You can write entire books about food pairings (and many have), but as a starting point, you're doing one of two things: amplifying or complementing.  

  • Amplifying is effectively just mimicking the flavors of one thing in the other - so, drinking a Belgian Dubbel with a baked spiced honey ham, since both have burnt sugar and clove flavors.  
  • Complementing is using offset flavors to yield contrasting (or even synergistic) results when two individual flavors come together - like drinking a NE IPA with a fennel salad, since citrus and anise are a classic complementary flavor pairing.

The other element isn't direction, but magnitude of the flavors: loud or soft?

  • Loud are assertive, obvious flavors - like bitterness in a DIPA or fresh-ground pepper on a steak.
  • Soft are secondary or tertiary flavors - like tartness in a Kolsch or piquant flavors in Gouda cheese.

Make some decisions - then try them out on things that exhibit those flavors!  Once you have a basic pairing toolkit and some experience, the whole thing gets a lot easier, and as your experience builds so will your confidence and accuracy.

Practical Pairing

Putting this into a practical context, let's think about our four bags of Neal Brothers chips.  They're all kettle chips, so they'll have a baseline level of fat and starch content.  After that, things get weird (in a good way):

Pink Himalayan Sea Salt: The touch of salt pairs very well with a grainy-sweet and slightly-fruity Kolsch, and the subtle flavors of each aren't overwhelmed.  

Spicy Srirachup: These were a big hit at an Oktoberfest party I brought them to - the rich, bready, caramel notes from the beer contrasted very well with the bright and spicy Sriracha notes.

Maple Bacon: The maple was surprisingly sweet here, and ended up being a great pairing with an English Bitter.  The flinty, bitter beer and the sweet maple made for a great complementary pairing, and the bacon was a good fit for the earthier notes in the beer.  A great autumn pairing!

Montreal Steak Spice: Surprisingly intense, these took a strong beer to balance them out: luckily, I had one on hand.  Pair them with a Baltic Porter and you'll find the chocolate and pepper balancing each other quite well, with the warm alcohols being offset by the touch of citrus and salt.  It was practically a meal.

The best part is that trying out pairing like this is fast and easy.  No need to pre-make the meal.  Just give yourself some good, basic flavor reference points.

Keep it simple.


Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).