For a long time, the term “sommelier” was only used to refer to wine waiters, but for the past ten years or so the qualification has also existed for beer sommeliers, and demand is growing. Annika Klee from the BESTMALZ marketing team completed her education as a beer sommelier in 2015. Part of her job is judging countless beers as a jury member at the BestBrewChallenge. BESTMALZblog talked to her about her work.
BESTMALZblog: Annika, what made you decide to become a beer sommelier?
Annika Klee: I studied beverage technology in Geisenheim. The program involved tasting a lot of wine, sparkling wine and champagne, but not much beer. So when I started working in the brewing industry, I wanted to find out more about beer with the support of my employer at the time.
How do you train your sense of taste?
The program is full-time and lasts two weeks. At the beginning, you learn the basics – the ingredients in beer, brewing and so on. You also spend one day brewing. The theory side also includes subjects like serving beer as well as hygiene, health, marketing and flavor pairing. After that the tasting starts. We learned a lot about flavors and typical beer tastes. You get to smell or sample individual flavors taken from a labeled box. That way, you learn about things like diacetyl, which produces an undesirable buttery taste in beer, or the fruit and spice flavors that you should be able to detect in the beer later on.
What sort of person should you be, or can anyone become a beer sommelier?
Basically, anyone can do it. You have to pass two theoretical and two practical examinations and produce a team paper. That is pretty demanding, and some participants fail the tests. Of course it helps if you have a good sense of taste and smell. But that can be trained too.
Do you have to continue honing your senses after completing the course?
Of course I do! Our customers often give us beer to sample and I also like to take some with me when I visit craft beer producers. Then I meet up with friends, we try the beers and talk about them. You learn a lot from talking to other people, and that’s something that is encouraged in the course.
Now for the classic question: What does a beer sommelier do exactly?
Many breweries send their staff to sommelier courses so they can learn the skills they need to judge beer and advise customers. In the hotel and restaurant trade, beer sommeliers are still the exception. I sometimes organize beer tasting sessions at events, and of course my background knowledge helps me in my job at BESTMALZ: We often get inquiries from brewers who want to know how they can use our malts, and I am in a good position to advise them. Apart from that, I am in the jury for our brewing competition BestBrewChallenge, which is starting again soon.
How do you judge which are the best beers at the BestBrewChallenge? Isn’t it simply a matter of taste?
We judge the participating beers according to different criteria. The basic decision is, whether the beer is characteristic of a particular beer style. Other criteria include the flavor, appearance, taste and mouthfeel. We describe each beer in words and awards points for each criterion. These are entered into a program that then computes the ranking. Last year ten of us in the jury judged 38 beers. It lasted a whole day, because everyone had to assess each beer.
When you sample so much beer, don’t you get a bit tipsy? And can you taste anything after the tenth beer?
No, you don’t get constantly drunk. The samples are very small, and you have to eat something in between. We sampled groups of 5 or 6 beers with similar characteristics one after the other, because it’s easier then to taste the difference. If you drink a pale ale straight after a stout, you can’t distinguish their characteristics so well. In between, we always neutralize our taste buds by drinking water and eating white bread.
At BestBrewChallenge, you always specify which malt has to be used. What is it this year?
This year, participants have to use 49% BEST Heidelberger – our palest base malt. And, unlike in the past two years, they have to stick to German purity law. That means not using any additional flavors, just hops, malt, yeast and water. We wanted to be a bit more traditional this year, to go back to the roots, so to speak. This could be a challenge, especially for foreign brewers, because it makes it a little bit more difficult to be creative. On the other hand, the remaining 51% leaves enough scope. It doesn’t seem to have put many people off – we have already had more than 80 applications, over half from other countries in Europe and beyond. We are definitely looking forward to lots of lovely, pure beers!
BESTMALZblog: Thank you for talking to us!
Interested participants can register for the BestBrewChallenge until 18 May 2017. Mashing starts on 19 May. For more information, see: www.bestbrewchallenge.com.
Information on the beer sommelier program is available from the German association of qualified beer sommeliers: www.biersommelier.org/de/verband/ausbildung.php
Here is an overview on the different beer certification programs in English: http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2014/01/difference-between-beer-certification-programs-bjcp-beer-judge-cicerone-doemens-beer-sommelier.html