New Year’s resolutions – How to become a beer sommelier

I was asked by the fantastic folks at Alltech to put together the following post for their Alltech Craft Brews and Food Fair blog on becoming a beer sommelier. You can visit the festival blog here

Some people can be incredibly difficult to buy presents for. Getting an idea of what they want can be akin to pulling teeth. I myself am guilty of such elusiveness. This causes problems for friends and family alike. They know I’m into beer: so bottles, cans, books, t-shirts and even brewery tours are common presents. Thankfully, the range and quality of beer gifts available improves year on year. However, the best gift I received was a voucher for a two-day course with the Beer Academy, yes there is such a place. This was the beginning of my journey towards becoming an accredited beer sommelier, and yes there is such a thing.

I don’t work for a brewery nor do I distribute beer, so the opportunity to learn alongside those that do was a fantastic experience. I took two years to complete the training. There are two compulsory elements before the final exam. It’s a fairly lengthy interview but there’s beer involved, lots of it. It may sound daunting but you’ll surprise yourself in how well you can taste beers blind and talk about them. Whilst the training can be completed faster, I wanted to really develop my knowledge of beer, through running tastings, hosting beer and food matching sessions and judging beer competitions. The certificates issued at each stage of training are cherished more than any academic accomplishment of mine. They also give you a badge too, which can make up for failing to get one from Blue Peter.

I know that any time someone mentions training or study, it can sound off-putting. But, this involves beer. Think of the possibilities. It’s true that you may get an odd look every now and then when you’re caught reading a book about beer at 8 a.m. but just remember – you’re studying! It’s also a great excuse to go into a pub or off-licence to try one or two new beers in order to broaden your horizons. And it’s not like you don’t do this already. You’ll broaden your knowledge of beer and food pairing, as well as cooking with beer – either enjoying a glass or two, á la the late-great Keith Floyd or adding beer to the recipe or possibly even both.

The snobbishness towards beer has lessened in recent years. It’s no longer just wine and whiskey. Increasingly beer is being recognised for its localism, and the sheer diversity of the different styles on offer. There are now 100 craft breweries on the island of Ireland and over 10,000 worldwide. It wasn’t that long ago that it was difficult to get a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in this country, but now you can easily buy beers from there too. Similarly, the offerings from California/Washington/Oregon outnumber the types of wine available from these regions. Know a whiskey drinker? Well there are barrel-aged beers which emphasise different nuances of whiskey-styles; of course Kentucky Bourbon Barrel ale is one of the best-known and popular examples.

Education can improve and round out one’s knowledge of any subject. Learning about beer is mostly trial and error. The education part helps gives you new tools and approaches to appreciating and evaluating beer. There’s a reason why your beer may look, taste or smell like that. It’s important that those in the trade up their knowledge of beer. While this is happening, it’s happening slowly. And it shouldn’t stop there. There’s room for consumers to develop their beer knowledge. Craft beer recommendations are often spread by word-of-mouth, through social media and blogs. It’s important that people get to know the beers they like, why they like them and just importantly if a beer could be “off” due to a brewing hiccup or a fault with the bottle or tap.The added bonus from doing an accredited training course is that you get to judge serious beer competitions. It’s important for the brewers that they have their beers judged to common criteria by people trained in how to assess them. I was invited to judge the Dublin Craft Beer Cup in 2015 and tried approximately 140 beers over two days. Beer judging can be a wonderful test of endurance. You’re writing detailed notes and scoring each beer. It’s hard work but also you get to meet great people.Tasting and judging beers are only part of the story. There are opportunities to meet brewers, visit their breweries and try their latest releases, some before they go on sale. You can use the accreditation as much or as little as you want. I’ve recently returned from visiting 20 breweries in the U.S. over a ten day period. You can expect to be invited to judge beer competitions overseas and to attend international beer festivals. I’ve even received invitations to attend a couple of hop and grain harvests.

Becoming an accredited beer sommelier should be just a start. There is almost no end to the beers out there. This year alone, I’d say the number of beers I’ve tried is in the high hundreds. I keep a running total through the notes I keep and photos taken. There’s always a beer festival on the horizon, like the Alltech Craft Brews and Food Fair, so tickets to these can become a present for the craft beer enthusiast too.

The Alltech Craft Brews & Food Fair takes place in the Convention Centre Dublin, 5-7 February 2016. Tickets from €15.00 online (excluding booking fee) or €20.00 at the door . You can also purchase tickets from participating Centra & SuperValu stores.

Opening Hours:

  • Friday, February 5th: 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
  • Saturday, February 6th: 12.30 p.m. – 10 p.m.
  • Sunday, February 7th: 12.30 p.m. – 7 p.m.

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