Annabel Smith has been Training Manager at Cask Marque for nearly a decade, is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers, and is one of just 40 Beer Academy-accredited Beer Sommeliers in the UK. She is a founding member of Dea Latis, a project encouraging women to drink more beer, and regularly hosts tutored tastings to men and women alike. It Comes In Pints? had a chat with Annabel about her relationship with beer, what was involved in becoming a sommelier and why she thinks beer is yet to be embraced by women en masse.
It Comes In Pints?: Have you always been a beer drinker?
Annabel Smith: Since I’ve legally been allowed to drink beer, yes! It’s something I’ve gravitated towards partly because of part time work I did after I left college – working in a pub, basically. I’m of the generation where most girls drank pints of beer.
ICIP: What kind of beer in particular were you drinking then? Has your palate evolved over time?
AS: Definitely lager. It wasn’t ale at that point, but it was all kind of interconnected with the work I started doing. I started working in a pub full-time and it was very anti-lager, it was a very traditional ale house. I learned a lot there about what to do with the beer in the cellar, how to look after it, how it was different from lager. I realised it had an awful lot more flavour than mass-produced lagers that I had been drinking, and part of the job was you never ever sold the beer to a customer without trying it first thing every morning to make sure it was absolutely perfect.
ICIP: What was the process of becoming qualified as a Beer Sommelier?
AS: I had to prove that I had hosted a number of tutored tastings, that I’d helped businesses to choose beers to go with menus, that I had changed people’s opinions about beer. That was actually the most time-consuming part, putting together the proof of evidence file. Then I had to take an advanced Beer Academy (BA) course. You tasted hundreds of different styles of beer and then you sat a one-to-one examination. A BA examiner brought out 21 samples of beer for me to try. I had to say where the beer came from, what style of beer it was, what hops and malt I thought had been used, even attempt to identify the brand, all from a blind tasting. For the food matching, the examiner hands you a menu and asks you to pick five beers to go with starters, mains and desserts. They don’t want you to reel out something you’ve read in a book, what they want to see is your opinion about a beer. For example, a lot of people say stout goes with oysters. And I don’t get it, I’ve never understood that match at all. I think that stout goes brilliantly with apple pie and custard. Every weekend I went out and bought three different styles of beer and just took them home, had a bit of cheese and a bit of pâté, and just filled out notebooks with my own tasting notes. They said don’t be afraid to challenge what previous experts have said about beer. So it is quite a fun accreditation to go for!
ICIP: There are 40 Beer Academy-accredited Beer Sommeliers in the UK and 8 of them are women – the press seems to make a point of calling you a female Beer Sommelier. Do you ever get fed up with being described this way?
AS: I think this is all contributing to interest in the category. If it means getting a piece in the paper, I don’t mind at all if it says “female beer sommelier”, because at least beer is being written about. For the last twenty years there’s been sod all written about beer, really, and all of a sudden it has started to become interesting again to the media.
ICIP: Obviously a lot of your work at Cask Marque is to do with cask ale, so where do you stand on the cask vs keg, real ale vs craft beer debate?
AS: At Cask Marque, what we’re doing is testing the quality of cask ale in the on-trade. But we do get a lot of brewers, especially big multinationals, coming to us and saying “we also want you to test our lager or our stout”. So in the trade we’re about all beer, not just cask ale. My opinion on the whole kind of craft movement is, if it’s a really well-produced beer, and it’s kept correctly and served correctly, I have no issue with how it’s being packaged.
ICIP: We spoke to some women at GBBF who said that they felt they need to back up their opinions on beer with knowledge so as not to be “caught out” whereas they felt men can bluff about beer. Do you agree?
AS: Ooh, that’s quite an interesting point! I think generally, when you think about food in general, if women have a brilliant dish in a restaurant, they have a natural curiosity as to how it was made, how the flavours were achieved. I think men would just go “that was a brilliant meal!” Women are more naturally curious about variety of flavours and trying to understand why they enjoy something, but equally why they don’t enjoy something.
ICIP: When you’re talking about beer or recommending beer, do you change what you say depending on whether your audience is women or men?
AS: If I’m talking to a group of women they usually come in with some very definite preconceptions about beer. It might be a general “I don’t drink it, so I don’t like it”, or “it’s a man’s drink”. So with women I give them a bit of history about why they don’t drink beer, and why it’s so embedded in male culture, then go on to bust some of the myths. With men, it’s much more about how important the beer industry is to the economy. I tailor it towards ages as well. I talked to a WI group a few weeks ago who were all sixty-plus so I did a lot of little stories, like in the 1930s how popular Guinness was, and they all remembered all the old Guinness adverts. If I’d given that talk to a group of 18 year olds it wouldn’t have been relevant.
ICIP: What’s the number one myth you’ve come across when you’re talking to women about beer?
AS: That beer’s fattening.
ICIP: So how do you dispel that?
AS: It’s less calories than any other drink you can order across a bar, other than water. Take half a pint of beer, a medium sized glass of wine, so 125ml, and a single spirit and mixer. The beer is right at the bottom of the scale, that’s 80 calories, then we go to 120 calories for your wine and 130 calories for the spirit. I know categorically who is promoting this myth, and it’s slimming clubs in this country. They say if you’re on a diet, you must drink vodka and slimline tonic – it’s a load of rubbish! It’s purely to do with lifestyle, for example if you go out and have five pints of beer, the last thing you fancy eating afterwards is a salad. You always go for your carb-laden things. It’s the hops in the beer that are causing you to crave those fatty foods. Hops themselves are a very distant cousin of the cannabis family. So you’ve got minimal amount of hops in beer, but it’s the hops that are causing you to crave certain types of food.
ICIP: Like the munchies?
AS: Basically, yeah!
ICIP: Do you find when women sit down and try beer, the problem is mostly the flavour and they need to find a taste they like, or that the problem is mostly image?
AS: The biggest problem we have is the fact that they’ve never been given an opportunity to try it in the first place. If you actually put a glass of beer in somebody’s hand and say “why don’t you try that”, the first barrier to it is colour. If you put a very black beer in a non-beer drinker’s hand, especially a woman, they’ll go “ooh, it looks really thick and heavy and I’m frightened of it!”. If you put a very pale, blonde beer in a woman’s hand they go “that looks quite nice and refreshing actually”, because they relate more to it in terms of lager or white wine.
I think the second thing is bitterness level, because women have a far heightened sense of bitterness than men do. The average number of tastebuds is 10,000, but women have a lot more than men. Basically when we were cave women, the blokes would go out and hunt for food and we would stay in the cave with our children. When the blokes came back with food, women would always chew it before they gave it to a child to make sure it was safe. If they tasted anything which was bitter it set off a receptor in the brain saying “don’t give this to a child; it’s poisonous”. We’ve retained that bitterness receptor in the brain; you can tell, when a lot of women drink bitter beers, they scrunch their face up, and it’s purely this reflex going off in the brain going “it’s not safe”. Whereas men have lost that reflex in the brain and they can take far higher levels of bitterness.
ICIP: So what’s a good entry beer for women in general? If you were trying to get women into beer for the first time?
AS: Okay, I’d certainly go for something a bit floral, a bit sweeter, and I’d always go for a light colour, but not necessarily a fruit beer. It’s almost like putting sugar coating on it. In my opinion, any beer that you’ve brewed specifically for women always fails in the marketplace. Because women just go “you know what, if it’s not good enough for men, I’m not bothered about drinking it, so don’t try to fuss it up as something feminine”. I’d always say, don’t go for one that’s very, very bitter, very heavily hopped, because you’ll put your first time beer-drinker off for good. Strangely enough a lot of women like mild. Mild is quite an old-fashioned beer but it’s low in strength and it’s a lot sweeter than other darker beers. But of course, mild is almost black in colour, so as soon as they see it, it’s like a dichotomy between the appearance and flavour, whereas if you could just put a blindfold on them and give them a glass of mild, I bet they wouldn’t believe it if you whipped the blindfold off and said you’ve just been drinking a very dark beer!
I think also we’ve got a bit of an issue in that most women I speak to absolutely hate the glassware that beer is served in. It just makes a change to our perception of beer if it’s served in a lovely glass.
ICIP: Do you think that’s something that the craft beer environment has that normal pubs maybe don’t?
AS: I think it’s a massive advantage they have. Most of the family-owned breweries in the UK are still run by men, and it’s sixth, seventh generation of brewing and they should have recognised long ago that there is room in the market for having nice, stemmed glassware. I actually did an experiment at one of the breweries in North Yorkshire, hosting a ladies’ beer and food evening. The last beer of the evening, I used the same beer but I put some of it into half-pint glasses and some of it into wine glasses.. 90% of the women said they liked the wine glass, and I said “you’ve actually tasted exactly the same beer”. Because of that glass, they thought it was a better quality product, it was nicer to drink, it was a better experience. It doesn’t cost much to do that, does it?