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.

Things even peachier for US craft beer

Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.

At the beginning of July I posted a piece on the US craft beer industry and the healthy state it was in. I based this on data available from the Brewers Association (BA). Since then, however, new data was released by Internal Revenue Service covering breweries operating at the end of June 2014 in the US and was published by the BA. There are now 3,040 breweries across the US. This is represents a 7.7% increase in breweries since 2013 and the number of breweries operating is at the highest level since the 1870s.The BA estimates that 99% of breweries are craft and that the majority of Americans are no more than 10 miles away from a brewery. The figures aren’t fully analysed and I’m looking forward to reading them when they’re released.

In the same piece, I mentioned that the Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat from Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. was going to be available in limited quantities in Ireland. I had the opportunity to taste it this past weekend. You’re immediately hit by an aroma of sweet peach and vanilla oak. There’s also a nose tingling effect resulting from the bourbon warmth. With the head clinging to the side of the glass, it pours extremely pale, a light gold and is filtered clear.

You get the peach up front but the bourbon takes over, matches with the sweetness though. However, you’re hit by the aroma on each sip; similar to a tropical shampoo taking over your senses when washing your hair. It’s drinkable, dangerously so when compared with the snifter sipper that is the bourbon barrel ale. This beer has also spent six weeks in used casks.

I’m not one for cocktails (I prefer the Bellini with just the champagne) but I can see that at 8% ABV this beer is aimed at those who do. On the other hand, when you take into account the popularity of fruit wheat beers out there and in particular Sweetwater Blue (with blueberries and at 4.9%) out of Atlanta, this beer could perhaps be lower in alcohol and still achieve the same impact. Doing something like that could prove to be a big seller (even on a seasonal basis) if they wanted to re-release it on a more regular basis.

Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.
Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.

It would be good to see some more lower alcohol bourbon-inspired ales on the market. Take for instance BrewDog’s Bourbon Baby at 5.8% ABV. It’s a scotch ale aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels. There’s rich, sweet fruits on huge nose. The beer pours dark and topped by a frothy head. There’s the expected vanilla woody notes on huge taste and sweetness continues into the finish complete with a warming sensation. According to Fraserburgh’s finest: “This is light. This is dark. This is Bourbon Baby”.

There's certainly room in the market for lower (albeit not too much) bourbon barrel aged beers
There’s certainly room in the market for lower (albeit not too much) bourbon barrel aged beers

Celebrating the independence of US craft brewing

This year saw the passing of a true revolutionary, Jack Joyce, co-founder of Rogue Ales and patriarch of Rogue Nation. He was a firm believer in “freedom of expression, absence of bullshit, variety, and the pursuit of beer with taste” even challenges the conventional craft beer mantra of small, independent and traditional. A former lawyer for Nike and who had negotiated Michael Jordan’s early shoe deals, Joyce was committed to “doing things differently, a desire and a willingness to change the status quo” and be believed that being a “leader doesn’t mean you have to be the biggest”. He like Fritz Maytag, Ken Grossman and even Jim Koch and Steve Hindy (although he reportedly didn’t agree with contract brewing) left an indelible mark on the US craft brewing scene. So when he checked out on 27 May 2014 what shape was the US craft beer industry in?

Jack was toasted at a beer tasting I hosted at the beginning of June
Jack was toasted at a beer tasting I hosted at the beginning of June

There are now 2,768 craft breweries in the US out of 2,822 total breweries. This represents the continued upward trajectory of craft brewing. There was an increase of 15.3% in number of craft breweries n 2013 than the previous year. In keeping with year-on-year growth in market share and production output, there was a significant increase in the number of regional craft breweries in 2013.

USCraftBrewers-Growth

US Craft Brewing Facts:

  • There are 2,768 craft breweries in the US (overall 2,822)
  • Craft breweries increased by 15.3% in 2013; regional craft breweries (+22.6%), microbreweries (+22.8%) & brewpubs (+7.1%)
  • Slight decrease in total number of microbreweries opening in 2013 (304) to 2012 (340)
  • Sales up 17.2% in 2013 (overall beer sales down 1.8%)
  • Market share stands at 7.8%
  • 49% increase in US craft beer exports
  • 18% increase in craft beer volume production (overall beer down 2%)

This time last year, I posted a piece on Fritz Maytag in Revolution in Red, White & Brew because I wanted a US feature for July 4th. He was a pioneer not only in terms of what he did in saving and transforming Anchor Steam but more generally what he did for inspiring independence in US brewing. A group of us were only discussing his contributions to the revolution during the European Beer Bloggers Conference (EBBC 2014). This year, I’ve decided to focus on an Irish-American connection in Dundalk-native and now resident of Lexington, Kentucky Dr. Pearse Lyons.

Dr. Pearse Lyons addressing attendees at the International Craft Brews & Food Fair (source: Alltech)
Dr. Pearse Lyons addressing attendees at the International Craft Brews & Food Fair (source: Alltech)

At EBBC 2014 I had the opportunity to have a beer with Brian Yaeger and it was in his 2008 book Red, White and Brew that I first came across Pearse Lyons and what he was setting out to do in terms of brewing in Kentucky. The Southern US states, with a couple of exceptions (e.g. Texas, Florida etc), were fairly late to the craft beer revolution. Today the State of Kentucky is only 39th in number of breweries and 45th in terms of breweries per capita. On this side of the Atlantic, few had heard of the Lexington Brewing Company up until recently.

A familiar sight at Irish beer festivals
A familiar sight at Irish beer festivals

Over the past two years, the awareness of the Alltech, Dr. Lyons and the Kentucky brands both in terms of beer and whiskies has grown. He may have left for the US in the 1970s but he has always kept one foot on the island, just look at the Alltech investment in Dunboyne. He’s even building a distillery in Dublin. There’s a great team at Alltech and I’ve gotten to know a few of them over the past couple of years. However, one can see Dr. Lyons as the driving force behind all that they do and he describes himself as an “entrepreneur, salesman, marketer and scientist all rolled into one”.

The Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. produces a number of beers, all ales. Their flagship is Kentuck Bourbon Barrel Ale, which is the result of aging their 6% Kentucky Ale in bourbon barrels for six weeks. I’m not that much of a whiskey drinker and always found bourbon a unique prospect but I must say this beer has grown on me, especially when it’s served in a snifter. It tastes of good ol’ Kentucky bourbon. They have followed suit with a stout also aged in a bourbon barrel with the added addition of Haitian coffee (also owned by Alltech), which maries well with the bourbon smoke. They produce a good value IPA (although would love to see them bring the cans to Ireland) and a Kölsch-style beer, which when I first saw the beers on sale a couple of years ago in Nashville, was branded Kentucky Light. As a sign of encouraging new craft beer consumers, this name was thankfully dropped. They have produced three seasonals but only one of which has arrived in limited quantities in Ireland, the Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat. The others being two collaboration brews, a bourbon barrel maibock (with Blue Stallion Brewing Co.) and the other being a blend of barrel aged stout that has been specifically aged for two years and Country Boy Brewing’s Black Gold Porter, oh and of course the blend is then barrel aged for good measure.

Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. was asked to supply beers & whiskey for ths US Embassy's Fourth of July celebrations
Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. was asked to supply beers & whiskey for ths US Embassy’s Fourth of July celebrations

A year ago this July, Alltech held the first International Craft Beer and Brewing Convention in Dublin and a second edition was held earlier this year. The good news is that the event (rebranded as the International Craft Brews and Food Fair) will return in February 2015. The first focused on entrepreneurship (see Brewing up new businesses) and the second had growing the market for craft beers (targeting customers and publicans) as a theme. There’s even the Dublin Beer Cup and opportunities for brewers to introduce their wares directly to consumers. N17, Rascals, Stone Barrel Brewing and Independent Brewing made their beer festival debuts in Febuary 2014.

image

The two Dublin editions afforded valuable opportunities for people in the trade to network and form new connections, some of which have resulted in new business for Irish breweriers. For example, Galway Bay Brewing has just done a collaboration brew with Chicago’s Begyle Brewing, a conference alumnus. Hardknott from Cumbria got added opportunities to visit Ireland and ahead of this year’s conference, brewed Yerba with Metalman. Alltech has rolled out this conference in Kentucky and I’m sure a number of Irish brewers are itching to be invited.

For what he has done in terms of brewing and for what he’s doing in terms of promoting the industry more widely through conferences and numerous events, this is the reason I chose to feature his contribution to the craft beer revolution.