Party beer is not that complicated of a concept. Quite simply, if you buy it, they will drink it. And if someone is judging the free beer you are giving them within the sacred confines of your own home, do yourself a favor and don’t invite this person back.
That said, party beer anxiety is a real thing, although I like to believe I’ve conquered mine. In hosting a small gathering recently, I was pleased to realize that I had spent exactly no time angsting about beer choices, even though I had to make do with a Harris Teeter run the day before the big event. Foreshadows love/hate relationship with Harris Teeter.
What you need to remember is that no one needs to leave your party thinking, "damn, that was a MIND-BLOWING, LIFE-CHANGING beer selection." If you are striving for that, you will bring upon yourself a great deal of unnecessary suffering. There is only one Garrett Oliver and it's not you. The goal is simply to avoid a) having exclusively shitty beer and/or b) worse, running out of beer.
I do believe there is a simple recipe that ensures widespread beverage satisfaction, and here is the secret sauce to sharing the sauce, if you will:
Something Hoppy: If your party involves people who are into beer, hops are essential. Pick up pretty much any local pale ale or IPA with a reasonable ABV – we went with the 6% red IPA, a hoppy-seasonal fusion, from Union Craft. You are welcome to bring out the DIPAs, but I’m an adult and tired and entirely uninterested in suffering the consequences of mass DIPA consumption in any location where I am responsible for cleaning up. At a party, no one is thoughtfully examining the bottle to see what the ABV is and assessing their tolerance in relation to how many they’ve had that evening. Make it easy for them – and, let’s be real, for yourself – and keep it under 7%.
Something Light, Esp a Lager: Okay, so there are a whole bunch of people out there who exclusively drink lagers. Your father may be one of them. Heck, my father is one of them (hi, Dad!). You will need beer for these people. Also, there are people who find that group environments pair well with something crisp – I am often this person. It can still be quality and classy; in this case, we went with the solid standby, Brooklyn Lager. I’d also suggest a Czech pilsner here or a common, which I find to be a happy medium between those who hop and those who hop not, but you should probably accompany it with a lager of some kind. No matter what composition of people you invite over, there will be a critical mass of folks for whom “beer” means “lager,” and I will say this, we ran out of the lagers first.
Something Seasonal: If you are not excited about fall beer season, you are probably someone who complains about pumpkin spice lattes and have no real problems in life. My preferred pumpkin beer is Schlafly, but the Harris Teeter had sad pumpkin options. (Why, oh, why is there a ginormous display of fifty million Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ales? Who's decision was that? Better yet, who is fueling the demand for that? Is it you? If so, can we please talk this over before you perform the equivalent of using a $10 bill as toilet paper?) I went with Devil’s Backbone Pumpkin Hunter and threw in some Flying Dog Dogtoberfest, because there was also a ginormous display of that and my resistance to marketing was worn down by Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin Ale agony.
Some Generous Friends: If you ask the good people to your party, the good people will bring good beer. Guests rounded out the fridge with some excellent tripels, IPAs, and fest beers, including Spaten Ocktoberfest (going legit German now) and Deschutes Fresh Squeezed (a perfect party IPA).
Optional for Large Groups, Something that is Not Beer: There are, shockingly, loads of people who don’t drink beer, and some of them are your friends. If you are getting yourself the good stuff, show those non-beer drinkers you love them by getting them the good stuff, too. A nice cider – because friends don't let friends drink Angry Orchard – or a bottle of bubbly goes a long way in demonstrating that yes, you are aware of the diverse plurality of people who exist in the world and welcome them to remain in your social circle. Hopefully they will return the favor when they host the next party and not be like, "you like Rolling Rock, right?"
In closing, my final tip is that, no matter how full your fridge is when you set the party date, go out and buy new beer specifically for the party. The beer you’ve already bought for yourself is intended for you and and a few select others who will savor and appreciate it, not for the casual gathering where no one is reflecting on the finer notes of each brew. Do what we did and shamelessly hide your faves in the closet. They will be there for you, sweetly waiting, to accompany your reminiscing about the great event days after everyone has gone home.