We sit down for a pint or ten with Sophie Atherton – beer writer, blogger and current All-Party Parliamentary Beer Sommelier of the Year.
Soph, it’s your round… (and don’t forget the pork scratchings)
So, what exactly is a beer sommelier, and how did you start?
A beer sommelier is essentially a qualified beer expert who’s been on courses, taken exams and provided evidence of their beer knowledge to an independent body (The Beer Academy) which assesses whether they are knowledgeable enough to be accredited as a beer sommelier. Unlike a wine sommelier, we are more likely to be found running tastings, giving talks and generally being an ambassador for beer (it is the best drink in the world!) rather than working in a restaurant or licensed premises – but that could change now the qualification has been around a couple of years. Also worth knowing is that in the US beer sommelier tends to have a different meaning than in Britain – and is more likely to be someone curating a beer list for the bar they work in.
I got started by being a beer-lover and drinker for a long, long time (almost a quarter of a century!). I’m also a journalist. A few years ago I went back to freelancing and needed a specialist subject – and they say write what you know. Once I started interviewing brewers and writing about various beers I realised there was lots more to learn so I took some of the Beer Academy courses to boost my knowledge. Then I met a bloke in a pub who told me that (at that time) no women had taken the sommelier qualification and I thought I should do something to remedy the situation. A few months after that I became the first woman in the UK to be accredited as a beer sommelier.
Was it difficult breaking into a market traditionally seen to be the domain of bearded, sandal wearing men of a certain age?
Ha! Obviously I’ve always been aware that more men than women drink cask ale and I’ve dealt with my fair share of odd comments about my pint-drinking ways over the years; and when I became part of the beer industry, again, I noticed that women are still in the minority, but if I’m frank it’s probably made it easier to – as you put it – break into the market because if someone wants to hire a female beer expert then there’s only so many to choose from.
Are people born with a good palate, or is it possible to train it?
That is a tough question. To the first part I really don’t know. To the second I think it is possible in the sense that you can teach people to think about flavour and give them a vocabulary to describe what they’re tasting. I think probably quite a lot of people eat and drink – and even enjoy their food – without thinking about what it tastes like or why they like it, so in some senses training a palate could be as simple as getting a person to start thinking about what they’re eating and drinking. On the other hand some people just don’t seem to taste as deeply as others – so maybe there’s an element of you’ve either got it or you haven’t.
We’ve heard tales of a mythical ‘tasting wheel’, that beer and wine tasters use to help them describe flavours. Does it exist, and if so, do you use one?
Flavour wheels certainly do exist and I’m sure many swear by them but I’ve never found them terribly useful. To me it’s much better to get on with tasting and smelling as much as you can – not just beer itself but anything that might present itself as a flavour or aroma in a beer. Then make notes to try and capture the experience so you can express it when describing a brew. Describing a beer relies on being able to make comparisons with other tastes and aromas and it’s not always easy to do that, which might be why flavour wheels were invented in the first place.
We understand you’ve started growing hops on your allotment. (We saw the pics on twitter, not that we’ve been hiding behind the rhubarb, stalking you). What type are they, and what plans do you have for them?
I’ve got to be honest that my husband, aka Beer Husband, is really the hop grower but I think he was inspired by a piece I wrote for the Sunday Telegraph about growing hops. Our plants are Prima Donna which is a dwarf variety of the more widely known First Gold. It is only our first year so we’ll have to see if we get a decent crop but if we do we’ll either have a go at making our own green hop beer with them or find a friendly brewer who can help us use them. Some brewers will infuse casks of something they have already brewed with green hops to produce a unique beer with a familiar base – so that might also be an option. We’d also like to try our hands at growing our own barley… but I’ve no idea whether we’ll manage it.
Imagine this scenario: You are appearing on an edition of ‘Come Dine With Me’ and Nick has just served you up an average looking meal. His efforts are well meaning but ultimately crude. It’s a selection of grilled vegetables for starters, a badly stuffed marrow for main and some West Country cheeses for afters. What beers should he serve with each course to make this unappetising spread more palatable?
First off I would tell him that he shouldn’t insult beer with poorly prepared food! The best beers are lovingly and skilfully made and they deserve food cooked with equal care and attention. However, I’d assume the grilled veg might be, shall we say, ‘well done’, and I’d match it with a rauchbier (which means smoked beer) such as Aecht Schlenkerla in the hope the chargrilling and the smoked malts which give the beer its characteristic flavour would prove a complimentary match for each other.
The marrow main is more tricky and it would depend a lot on what it was stuffed with. If the filling was chilli con carne style beef then I would try it with a porter such as Gadds’ Dogbolter or Thwaites Tavern Porter. Rich, dark chocolatey beers are a surprisingly good match for chilli or hot curries. If the marrow had a vegetarian stuffing, rice and beans perhaps in a creamy sauce, then I would either go the American IPA route – Goose Island IPA for example – or I would try it with a wheat beer like Schneider Weisse Original (a traditional Bavarian brew) or St Austell Clouded Yellow.
The selection of West Country Cheeses sounds pretty appetising to me! I’d want a couple of beers with this to cover off the possibility of strong and mild cheeses so I’d have the excellent Sixpenny IPA from Dorset, which I think of as a British IPA with a US twist, and probably also Tring Brewery Death or Glory which is a strong barley wine style beer. It’d be good if there was some Tavern Porter left over from the main course too as it is also great with cheese. I once won a cheese hamper for suggesting pairing it with Old Gouda!
We’re off to the Frocester Beer Festival in a few weeks. Which beers should we be looking out for?
I’ve been searching online for a beer list for this festival but couldn’t find one. I advise getting one as soon as you can, looking for styles or beers you like the sound of and making a hit list of those you want to try. If you see anything from Moor Beer in Somerset (not so far from Frocester so it’s possible) make sure you try some as all their beers are amazing. Bristol Beer Factory and Arbor Ales are also not too far away and are also worth seeking out and of course anything really local as one should always go out of their way to drink the local brew while in town.
Beer collaborations with breweries are all the rage at the moment… do you have any plans?
I did one with Dorset-based Art Brew last summer. It was called Sophie’s Rustic Ale and was a 4.7% British farmhouse style ale – sort of a cross between a bitter and a saison. We dry-hopped it with marigolds to make it a bit different. By the time people read this I’ll be fresh back from Brains in Cardiff where I brewed a Märzen at their Craft Brewery as part of their Continental Beer Challenge. I’m also having discussions with Kubla Brewery near Taunton in Somerset about a collab brew for this autumn and every time I run into Luke Raven from Ilkley Brewery we keep saying I ought to go up to Yorkshire and brew something with them – which I’d love to do.
There’s a developing trend for dropping shorts into beer. Do you subscribe to this devilry?
At first I thought you meant throwing an item of clothing into the brew! To quote Marwood – the ‘I’ from Withnail and I – “You should never mix your drinks.” I love beers that have been aged in spirit casks, the mixture of flavours work wonderfully, but I don’t fancy dropping a measure of spirits in my beer. It’s just not really my thing.
And finally, what are your three desert island beers?
How come I only get three beers rather than eight as per Desert Island Discs?! Narrowing it down to three is way too hard. But, assuming it’s a genuine desert island – hot and tropical – I would opt for Brewdog Dead Pony Club (low ABV; strong, refreshing flavour), Gadds’ No. 5 Best Bitter (a reminder of being in a traditional British pub), and Williams Bros Profanity Stout (in the hope the evenings would be cool enough to warrant it).
Sophie’s rather excellent beer blog can be found here
You can also follower her beery adventures on Twitter @SophWrites
If you fancy learning more about beer, go here for courses, info and all kinds of beer related larks.
Picture courtesy of Charles Wells Ltd