Beer School in Session: Learn How To Sip and Savor Craft Brews with 'Beerkowski'

Rachel Benkowski is the host of Beer School at Bone Haus Brewing in Fountain Hills.
Rachel Benkowski is the host of Beer School at Bone Haus Brewing in Fountain Hills. Allison Trebacz
It's the second Tuesday of the month, and Bone Haus Brewing in Fountain Hills is packed. The brewery's owners are bringing in stools from outside and rearranging barrel tables to fit everyone in. Everyone's trying to see a table by the tanks where a woman with bright red hair is set up with a microphone.

"Hey, guys. Welcome to beer school," she says. "Today, we're going to get a flight of beer, we're only going to get one taster at a time, and we're going to drink it together."

Rachel Benkowski is a bartender and marketing manger for Bone Haus Brewing. She's also a historian by day, specifically focusing on Egyptology, and is working toward becoming a second-level-certified cicerone, or beer sommelier. Benkowski has been running Beer School once a month for most of the last year, and this week, it's sold out.

"Working behind the bar, I've learned that many people love beer," Benkowski says. "But they might not know what they like or why they like what they like. They'll hear these key terms but aren't sure what that means. My goal is to help people feel more confident and be better consumers."

Each Beer School session is different, but they all involve a tour through a flight of Bone Haus beer and a lesson in beer history. The syllabus for this session covered helles lager, kolsch, and the difference between stouts and porters. It also included descriptions from the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), the official source of beer styles used for international judging, and the cicerone program.

Beer school was a natural bridge from Benkowski's cicerone studies, she says. The second of four levels of certification involves seven individual courses that span beer styles, serving, tasting, food pairing, and more.

Only 4,200 people have received the second level of certification, while more than 950,000 have received the first. It's no small task, but Rachel "Beerkowski" has embraced the challenge and wants to share the knowledge.

"Number one, please do not drink the beer until everyone has their taster. We're going through all of this together," Benkowski says as tasting glasses are passed around by Bone Haus staff.

The first beer is the Sonoran Shimmer, a helles lager.

"We need to assess the color before we taste. I wrote down what the BJCP says about all these styles," she says, "and then we're gonna learn what your palate picks up."  

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Beer School attendees study the color and opacity of each beer.
Allison Trebacz
Simultaneously, a full taproom of people refrains from taking a sip. Instead, they oblige. Nearly everyone in the taproom holds the beer in front or above them, and Benkowski guides them through the appearance and aroma.

"The BJCP says that this beer should be a pale yellow to a pale gold color. Do we agree? Or do we disagree?" she asks. "And with a lager, we definitely want it to be nice and crystal clear. This beer is definitely crystal clear."

There are murmurs of agreement from the tables. There are also conversations about the shade of gold, the head of the beer, and some disagreements about the aroma. Benkowski smiles after a few people shout out the profile they're getting.

"While you're tasting it, I'm going to read what you should be picking up," she says. "Now we can take a sip. Do we notice any sweetness?"

The bulk of the taproom is engaged and talking about their palate. Words repeated throughout the crowd include "dry," "spicy," and "herbal."

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Beer School in session at Bone Haus Brewing.
Allison Trebacz
When the tasting conversation winds down, Benkowski delves into what makes it a lager, a little bit about hops, and the general history of beer and its ingredients. While she does this, it allows everyone a chance to savor their taster and for the bartenders to prepare for the next tasting. It is an impressive balancing act involving pouring 40 tasters while gathering and cleaning the glasses from the finished round.

Benkowski's love of beer turned into a passion after she started bartending at Bone Haus a few years ago. Since then, her passion has spilled into a community that started as a small thing on Instagram. Now, she's pursuing her Level Two Cicerone and has co-founded a non-profit for women in the beer industry. Called the Beer Babes Family, the non-profit raises money for grants for female brewers and female-owned beer operations.

How do they raise money? Beer, of course. Breweries from around North America have collaborated on several special releases. The most recent Babes Brew was a Chocolate Raspberry pastry stout in collaboration with Ad Astra Brewing in Prescott.

It's the fifth release they've done, adding to a list of collaborations with Ember Home Brewing in Cave Creek, Bone Haus, and breweries in Russia, Quebec, Reading, Pennsylvania, and Nashville, Tennessee.
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Pistols of Roulette is a Bone Haus stout made with coffee and Madagascar vanilla.
Allison Trebacz
A whole taproom holds up a stout to the light.

"Remember, we're not drinking this one yet," Benkowski says.

It's the fourth and last taster. It's a rich, dark stout called Pistols of Roulette. The bulk of the taproom quiets down and holds their beers out, studying the opacity.

"Does anyone know the difference between a porter and a stout?"

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Benkowski introduces the tasting notes from the BJCP style guidelines and then she delves into a presentation about the history.
Allison Trebacz
A few people shout out different flavors. Finally, someone says malt, and someone else cheekily says "the name," it is the fourth taster, after all.

"You can't have a stout without a porter. Stouts were essentially brewed to be a more robust porter, and the word 'stout porter' is what actually described the style before we started calling them stouts. [The brewers] at the time were experimenting with malts, and they came up with something a lot more bitter, a lot more roasty, and here we are with a marshmallow stout," Benkowski says.

The world of beer is changing. Craft beer from the early aughts isn't the same. Instead, we have smoothie sours, pasty stouts, and crazy new styles that don't have names yet.

"We love, Rachel," says Jennifer Farrer from the Phoenix chapter of Girl's Pint Out, an organization that empowers women in the world of beer. "So many men and women just think women don't like beer but here we are. Women [in beer] still have a long ways to go, but there are people like Rachel, and what we're trying to do, that get more women in the community."

Beer School is hosted on the second Tuesday of every month at Bone Haus Brewing in Fountain Hills. Tickets are $15 and are available on the Bone Haus website. The next sessions are July 19th and August 9th. Beer Babes Family Beer is a limited release and is available at select taprooms and bottleshops around the Valley.

Bone Haus Brewing

14825 East Shea Blvd. #101, Fountain Hills
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