Surprise Me Beers

Adam Cacioppo, July 25, 2013

Have you ever been to a brewpub, taproom or restaurant and told the bartender, server or pourer to surprise you when asked what beer you’d like? Full disclosure: most of the time I order a beer, I don’t care what it is. I can appreciate each beer individually, and this becomes increasingly apparent as the available beer variety increases.

One day years ago, I was prompted to order a beer and couldn’t make up my mind. Without wanting to give it too much thought, I simply said “Surprise me.” The server looked at me quizzically at first, and then started asking me what I typically like (lighter or darker, hoppy or malty, etc.). My response was simple: “Doesn’t matter; I like them all.”

Mostly a product of an abundance of variety to go along with my own indecision and indifference at the time, the Surprise Me strategy has taught me a few things over the years:

  1. DO NOT employ this strategy at a busy bar. If they’re busy, bartenders don’t typically want to devote a lot of time thinking about what you are going to drink. They just want to get your order and move on to the next customer. So be considerate of the bartender and his or her time.
  2. Be prepared to pay a few dollars more than you typically would for a beer. On more than one occasion I’ve gotten a tab and had to pay for a $12-$15+ pint or a 22 oz-er. Hey, it’s all part of the fun.
  3. There’s a good chance the person taking your order will look at you funny. It’s ok. They’re not usually judging you (unless they’re busy and don’t want to deal with it). Usually they haven’t ever been asked to choose a random beer for someone else before. Sometimes they have fun with it.
  4. You’ll have some beers that don’t agree with your palate. This doesn’t mean you’ve been given a bad beer (unless it’s technically flawed, in which case there’s a bigger issue at play), it just means the person you’ve entrusted with your order doesn’t like the same style of beer as you.
  5. You don’t have to play this game during your whole visit to the restaurant, pub, etc. If you find a beer you like, keep drinking it. If you get someone who pours a style you typically don’t like, by all means, specify next time which beer you’d like.

I would say only the first one is a rule. You’ll know by the look the bartender gives you when you’ve ordered a Surprise Me beer when the bartender is too busy or doesn’t want to deal with it. The other points here are just observations and lessons.

Now my strategy has taken over as somewhat of a social experiment.

My favorite local beer joint has 60 beers and ciders on tap and another 120 beers available by bottle (both 12- and 22 oz.). I can tell you, of the three pourers I typically interact with, one prefers IPAs, one prefers lighter ales, and the other prefers red ales. You’ll discover people have trends and tastes.

At times I’ve been disappointed by getting a beer that I typically wouldn’t have ordered given the setting (time of day, weather, activity). But I can tell you that far more often I’ve been completely happy and often times pleasantly surprised with a Surprise Me beer. And, occasionally, I’ve discovered someone who hits a home run with every beer they select; someone whose palate is in lock-step with my own: my beer spirit animal.  

One of my favorite local beers is the Napa Smith Hopageddon. It’s an Imperial IPA and the brewery is about ten minutes from where I live. The first time I tried it, though, was as a Surprise Me Beer. Hopageddon is 144 IBU, and 9.2%, so I wouldn’t drink more than a couple unless you’re looking for an effective means to an end. At the brewery it’s poured into a snifter, which helps release some of the aromas given off by the abundance of hops.

Napa Smith Hopageddon

Appearance: Hopageddon is a dark copper color. As far as Imperial IPAs I’ve had, this is one of the darker, redder ones I’ve had. I like the color and I’m thinking DuPont should make it a shade of paint. Carbonation is small and consistent. The beer head is thick and wasn’t too much to sip through. 4.6/5.0

Aroma: With beers in the 144 IBU range, you’re not going to get much in the way of malt or yeast aromas, and Hopageddon doesn’t disappoint.  I got strong pine and light citrus aromas (think of a grapefruit and lemon stuck with a bunch of pine needles, like a citrus voodoo doll) with some resinous hints. 4.6/5.0

Taste: Hops rule the beer here, but I wouldn’t consider this beer a hop bomb. As compared to other 120+ IBU beers, this perceivably less hoppy than some others that I’ve had. 4.3/5.0

Mouthfeel: I like the way the small carbonation bubbles dance across the palate with this beer. My least favorite aspect of this beer, however, is that it is a bit syrupy. This is not a huge surprise considering the malt needed to balance out the hops, but it’s not my ideal. 4.1/5.0

Overall: As far as Surprise Me Beers go, I’ve certainly had worse. I like hoppy beers like this typically in the spring and fall, but it makes a good kicker at any time. It’s available in a few places around Northern California, and I’d the brewery to see about availability throughout the country. 4.4/5.0