Birth of the beer sommelier

Will Hawkes

jamesmartin 300x199 Birth of the beer sommelierIt’s a dispiriting experience familiar to anyone who has ever asked for beer in one of London’s many high-end restaurants. The wine list requires its own trolley and a pair of wheezing waiters to heave it around, but the beers available can be reeled off in two seconds by a curled-lipped sommelier. On offer are a couple of multinational brews and, if you’re lucky, a nod towards Britain’s burgeoning brewing sector in the shape of a fairly safe offering from the world of ale.

There are notable exceptions – some of them with Michelin stars – but they’re few and far between. The situation, however, appears to be improving if three dinners that took place in the capital this week are any guide. Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery and author of the recently-released Oxford Companion to Beer, held court at the Draft House on Tower Bridge Road on Monday and James Martin (above left), chef and television presenter, produced a beer and food matching dinner at the University of West London on Tuesday. Perhaps most interestingly of all, though, was a dinner at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair on Monday to launch a new beer sommelier scheme.

Four men became the first accredited beer sommeliers as part of a project that, according to the Beer Academy’s Rupert Ponsonby (above, second from left), is intended to get restaurants to start taking beer seriously. “The intention is that they will be a catalyst for bringing in more people from the on-trade,” he says. “Already, Brown’s Hotel say they want people to do the course and to become beer sommeliers – even at the University of West London, they’re saying they want to try it. I think it’s going to light the blue touch paper.”

The four pioneers – all of whom have a background in beer – will not actually work as sommeliers but they’re intended to act as figureheads for the scheme as it evolves, Ponsonby says. In this respect British restaurants will be following in the footsteps of their counterparts across the Atlantic. Food and beer matching is one of Oliver’s pet subjects – he even wrote a book about it, the Brewmaster’s Table – and he points out how learning to match beer and food can improve people’s lives in a very simple way.

“I think that when you turn people on to those things [like pairing food with beer], you run into them a few years later and they’re so happy about this thing that you pointed out,” Oliver (below) says. “I often think that those things happen in a very small moment – like being a jazz fan because someone played you a [John] Coltrane record. On the other side of that door is a slightly better life.”

garrett 300x183 Birth of the beer sommelierThe food served at Brown’s on Monday certainly backs up that point. Perhaps the best combination was a dish that combined a fillet of deer and haggis with a porter brewed in Bermondsey by The Kernel: it’s hard to imagine any wine being a better partner. Nonethless, says Ponsonby, it has been hard going trying to convince British restaurants to take beer seriously. Even now only a handful of top restaurants – including Le Gavroche, Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons and the Michelin-starred Indian restaurant The Quilon – offer a decent variety of beer.

“Things are moving faster than they even have before,” he says. “We’ve been doing beer dinners for a long time but we were hitting our heads against a wall and people thought we were pathetic, and it was a waste of time, and the whole thing would never catch on. It’s only really in the last few years that things have changed. Brown’s, for example, now have 18 British beers on offer. Every [restaurant] can do their own thing and they’ve [been able to] understand that you can make a margin in beer and you can bring different age groups into your restaurant. There’s real cause for optimism.”

Still, there are plenty of people who remain to be convinced (“What is holding us back is two things: snobbery and ignorance,” says Ponsonby. “I think the combination of those two has been pretty deadly”). This is where, Ponsonby believes, the likes of Martin come in. The Yorkshireman presents Saturday Kitchen, a popular if formulaic food programme which includes a segment where wine is paired with food. The brewer Dave Bailey (from HardKnott in Cumbria) led a campaign in the summer to get beer on the show and Ponsonby says that, having met Martin, he believes that will happen soon, if not within the next six months.

For now, the key is challenging assumptions about beer. “We had a lot of women in their sixties [at the James Martin dinner] – many of them came up at the end and said ‘I didn’t like all the beers but it was a total eye-opener. I never realised there were so many styles, such a diversity of flavour in beer,’” he says. “We need to do more tastings to get more people to do beer pairings. You can do it with pie and mash, with cheese, fish and chips – easy food – to puddings and all the way through the menu.”

As for the beer sommelier scheme, there is plenty more to come. “This is only the start,” says Ponsonby. “This is the first qualification. We’ll be developing more to grow it into a bigger thing. If you think of the Masters of Wine [qualification], there are probably three or four years involved in getting that so we’re only at the start. It’s a statement of intent. We need to keep on building it from there.”

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