As I peeked at my friends, they burst into applause. Since becoming one of only eight female beer sommeliers in the UK, these boozy blind tastings have become a regular occurrence when out with my mates.
I can still remember my first taste of lager. I was seven and my dad Andrew snuck me a sip of his pint at home. As the bitter taste hit my tongue, I spat it out – it was disgusting. After that I didn’t touch beer until I was a teen, and only then because it was cheap.
Later, at university in London studying advertising and marketing, my go-to drink on a night out was vodka and cola. I barely drank lager until I graduated in 2006 and got a job in advertising.
In spring 2014, I started working on a campaign to reignite Britain’s love affair with beer and as part of the project I had to try all sorts of different brews, from fruity-sour to smoky-dark.
The more I drank, the more I realised I really liked beer. Not only that, but I was fascinated with its history and culture.
I became so passionate about the drink that a few months later I decided to become a beer sommelier – someone who’s professionally trained to have extensive expertise and knowledge of the drink.
The course, which cost £1,500 at the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in London, takes three years, part-time.
At the end, I knew I’d have to do a blind taste test and identify 20 different beers, as well as specific flavours and aromas.
And I’d have to prove I could confidently talk about the history of beer and how to pair it with certain foods, such as the way the citrus zest of a wheat beer complements salmon, while a summer BBQ is best with a bitter as the caramel harmonises with charred meats.
While studying furiously, I continued my day job in advertising, but my evenings and weekends were filled with tasting as many different beers as possible.
When I celebrated my 31st birthday in Greece in June 2016, I even got to drink a dark lager brewed on the foothills of Mount Olympus using water filtered through the volcano itself, which was amazing.
The night before my exam in November 2017, I made sure I didn’t eat anything spicy and avoided breakfast that morning, so I could have a clear palate.
Immediately after the three-hour exam, I was told I’d passed with flying colours. I was totally speechless and burst into tears – becoming one of just a few female experts in the country was a huge achievement.
Now, although I continue to work in advertising, it’s with a strong specialism towards beer. I also write expert articles and run tastings for corporate companies.
By nature it’s an incredibly social job and I’ve already travelled all over the world, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and America, tasting local and rare beers to develop my expertise.
I’m self-employed so the money does vary – the average salary is around £25,000 a year, but some sommeliers can be paid £1,000 for a day tasting session.
- China is the largest beer-consuming country, but Czech adults drink the most beer per capita, averaging 250 pints a year each.
- 20 million pints of beer are enjoyed every day in Britain.
When people find out what I do for a living, mostly they get very excited. Just last summer a group of lads on a train asked me to join them for drinks when they heard my job title and spent the rest of the journey quizzing me about beer. When I’m out for dinner, some friends ask me to pick a beer for them, or assume I won’t order normal drinks. I’m not a snob, though, and I love a standard lager – but having said that, my favourite is a peanut butter milk stout from Tennessee.
As a whole, the industry is still very male-dominated and even now people think I know nothing about beer because I’m a woman. There are times when I’m at the pub studying the beer menu, and the bartender or guys behind me will joke that I should hurry up and order a wine.
Instead of taking offence, however, I just smile – safe in the knowledge that I know far more about the perfect pint than they ever will.
Sources: Kirin Company, British Beer and Pub Association.
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