After more or less spontaneously starting this blog in April last year, things took a more serious turn when I signed up for the Dutch Stibon beer sommelier training in September. Even though the first part of the course only covered the basics and I have been ‘practicing’ craft beer drinking for a while now, I learned quite a lot of new things and it actually made me even more enthusiastic about the world of beer. I am very happy to have recently completed the first level and am super excited to move on to the advanced part of the beer course!
If you’re thinking about following the Dutch Stibon beer sommelier course or are just interested in what you learn on the road to becoming a beer sommelier, here are some of the cool things I discovered.
I’m sure many of you will be very happy to know that the first lesson is about tasting beer! I learned that ‘flavor’ is actually the outcome of interaction between taste and the olfactory senses. That is why you don’t spit out the beer – as opposed to wine tasting – because there are also important tasting mechanisms in the back of your mouth and throat. We wouldn’t want to be wasteful anyway, right?
Tasting is not only a matter of swirling the beer in your glass and then taking a sip. You’ll be surprised how many factors influence your sensory experience. Noises or smells, like perfume, can affect the way you taste something in a positive or negative way. In the same way other flavors, such as smoking or eating salty snacks can reduce or enhance beer flavors.
Even visual stimuli, as unexpected as that may seem, influence your beer experience. As Randy Mosher says in his phenomenal book ‘Tasting Beer’ “we drink with our eyes”. That is why many breweries have brand glasses with their own logo, a savvy marketing ploy. A good example is Hoegaarden. Belgian witbier is just so much better from their ribbed glasses!
Though I have tasted innumerable beers, I found defining exactly what I was tasting one of the hardest things during class. Do the hops give the beer a resiny or earthy flavor? What does ‘earthy’ even mean? We tasted six beers every class. Trying to come up with a name for an undefinable fruity flavor for one of them, it wasn’t until someone yelled “mandarin!” that I could put my finger on it. I am going to need a LOT more practice!
The brewing process
The brewing process has perhaps the greatest influence on your beer tasting experience, but is equally the most overlooked by casual tasters. I often hear people talk about the type of hops or yeast used. The choice of ingredients is indeed an essential part of the process, but so is what you do with them. Brewers decide on the characteristics of the beer like color, balance, strength, bitterness and flavors beforehand. They are very much like chefs, knowing how much of the different malts to use, how long to boil the wort, how much hops to add and when. They are simultaneously chemist and artist!
We covered the basics of brewing, which is not extremely difficult, though I believe it becomes a lot more technical in the advanced part of the course. If you are a home brewer, this part will come relatively easy. Most beer lovers will have some sense of how the beer is affected by the different steps in the brewing process. In this class you dig a little deeper and also learn why.
The history of beer
Another interesting part of the course covered the history of beer, which is intricately entwined with our social and cultural history. Beer has been around for a very long time, most likely since our transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers, approximately 10.000 years ago. Did you know that the builders of the Egyptian pyramids were paid in beer? Or that before beer became a lucrative business in the Middle Ages, and subsequently became dominated by men, it was brewed by women at home? Even though Belgium and Germany were under the same rulers for centuries, their beer styles differ immensely, largely the result of the German Reinheitsgebot (Purity Law). The Industrial Revolution gave rise to new beer styles, like Porter, and in due course made brewing on a large industrial scale possible. It’s hard to imagine that before bottles were sealed with rubber (invented in 1824) or crown corks (1890), people carried beer home from the local pub in enamel pails. The growling noise the beer made while carbon dioxide was escaping is supposedly how the word ‘growler’ originated.
Beer and food pairing
The last class was fully dedicated to beer and food pairing. Wine is generally better known as being the beverage to drink with a serious meal, but beer is equally up to the task. In some cases beer is even better suited as its wide range of flavors, strengths and textures can be combined with almost any dish. For example, beer’s carbonation cleanses the palate, which is a benefit when eating rich or fatty foods, like cheese. Beer also has an answer to the problems that come with pairing wine with spicy or sour foods.
The main things to consider are matching the intensity of a food, finding harmony between the food and beer flavors, or finding balance in contrasting elements. For example, a hoppy beer will make spicy food taste hotter. If you are not a hothead, you might want to balance it out with a beer with a malty flavor. On the other hand, an imperial stout will pair well with chocolate truffles, as a result of the similarity in bitter tones. Here again it is helpful to be able to distinguish certain flavors. Another thing to practice in the coming months!
If you are interested in following the Stibon course, you can find more information on the website www.stibon.nl. Upon completion you become a certified (and internationally recognized) Doemens beer sommelier. Although the courses are in Holland (in Dutch), the final exam is done by the Doemens Institute in English on location in Germany or Austria.
For the non-Dutchies I can highly recommend Randy Mosher’s book ‘Tasting Beer’. So far everything I have learned is covered here and he does a sublime job of explaining it in such a way that it is easy to comprehend.
An equally informative book, but less detailed and more light-weight, is Mirella Amato’s ‘Beerology’.
I’m sure there will be many more interesting things to share after I start the second part of the course. To be continued!