There’s a blaze in the fireplace of the south lounge at the Chatham Bars Inn. The decor is tasteful and boasts big comfy chairs and lots of wood. It’s quiet except for the murmur of low voices in conversation. There is a small portable bar which seems to be the focus of the room.
About 15 people drift in, a waiter unobtrusively serves a cocktail or two, strangers greet one another. The mood is “casual chic” and very friendly.
Chatham Bars Inn has been offering a series of mixology classes on Friday evenings from 6 to 7 p.m. Taught by Adam Coutu, the classes are free, and as the chill of winter persists, the attendance grows.
These classes offer the best of a cocktail party — conviviality and alcohol — without the networking or trying to impress. Coutu begins the class by asking, “How many of you expected to come and learn about vodka tonight?” CBI’s website designated this particular night as a vodka demonstration, but the schedule has been rearranged because the class is being extended into April. Vodka makes an appearance on March 1. Rum is the subject of the class on Feb. 8. Hendricks Gin will send an ambassador on Feb. 22. On this night, it’s beer.
Coutu is low-key but authoritative, and when guests politely interrupt to ask questions he says easily, “We’ll get to that…” He has a plan, as well as a lot of information to share. He does not get deterred and controls the direction of the class with grace.
There is a lot to learn about beer. Beer is made with water, yeast and grain. There are two kinds: ales and lagers. Ales are produced at warmer temperatures, and the yeast ferments at the top. Lagers are produced at lower temperatures with the yeast fermenting at the bottom. Ales are more plentiful because they take less time to make (seven to 10 days, where lagers take about a month) and are therefore less expensive to produce. The lore is that the first beer appeared, like many inventions, when someone made a mistake; bread, left in water to preserve it, was left too long. Coutu dispenses information about containers, kegs, bottles, and cans, and their effect on the product. Hops make delicious beers, but they are hard to come by.
IPAs are a fairly recent and very popular trend. IPAs are India Pale Ales. When India was a common destination for trade, pale ales were consumed by sailors because they prevented scurvy and provided carbohydrates.
After the guests learn about the making, history and distribution of beer, Coutu hands out clear plastic cups for hands-on education. He pours a little beer into each cup, directs everyone to take a sip, and asks, “What do you taste?” People call out “pineapple,” “grapefruit,” “mint,” “wheat.” He then tells the group to ignore their first sip. “Now, what do you taste?” There is general agreement that the second sip tastes different, and the words “pine” and “resin” are the descriptors.
After the beer tasting, Coutu creates a sour beer margarita. With Coutu tweaking the group’s participation, they arrive at the general consensus that a margarita consists of tequila, cointreau (or some kind of citrus liqueur), lime juice and something to sweeten the drink. In this case, Sea Quench beer will substitute for a simple syrup. As the guests enjoy their margaritas, Coutu claims that any cocktail can be made with beer. Add beer, subtract simple syrup. His sour beer margarita lends credence to the claim.
Coutu formally ends the class but assures us he’s available for further questions. Unlike a college or high school class, the students’ exit is not quick. People linger to chat and exchange contact information. Conversation flows easily among the guests. Most people cannot take themselves too seriously if they’ve attended a class about liquor, and alcohol likely has loosened some tongues.
Like a good cocktail, the class mixes well and leaves a pleasant aftertaste.