About Time You Met: Beer Sommelier Annabel SmithBy Angelica Malin
Annabel Smith has worked in the beer industry for almost three decades as a licensee, educator, beer inspector, and public speaker. Having qualified as one of the first UK Beer Sommeliers, we chatted to Annabel about tasting notes of different beers, the role effervescence plays and tips on pairing food with beer:
What is a beer sommelier?
A beer sommelier is an expert in the field of beer. Considering beer is every bit as complex and varied as wine, there’s a lot to learn. A beer sommelier has an extensive understanding of styles, flavours, and ingredients. In addition to this, we study the brewing process, correct storage, and serving of beer, appropriate types of glassware and the history of beer.
A keen palate and sense of smell are essential to detect and decipher the different flavour notes in beer, and crucial when pairing different beer styles with food. Much of my time is spent teaching people about beer, but I also curate menus with brewers, restaurants, and bars to create a beer range that harmonises with their food offering.
You were one of the first women in the UK to be certified as a beer sommelier in 2012. How has it been being a woman in a male-dominated beer industry?
There have been a few ‘firsts’! Before I got my beer sommelier certification in 2012, I was the first female beer inspector for the Cask Marque Trust who I joined in 2005. Amongst 49 male inspectors, I was the only female, but I was treated exactly the same as them and I learned a lot of my craft from them. Some people ask if it’s difficult being a female in this industry and whether I encounter any prejudices. There have been misconceptions about me and what I do, but overall, my experience has been extremely positive. I have more than demonstrated my knowledge, ability, and skill in this field, and have been respected for this regardless of my gender.
I love what I do, and it’s one of the reasons I co-founded an organisation called Dea Latis to shine a light on women working in beer, and women who choose beer as a drink of choice.
In the UK, we seem to see wine pairings more than beer. Can beer do this job at dining tables?
Oh yes, definitely! For example, I work very closely with Birrificio Angelo Poretti, an Italian brand from Valganna that has been brewed specifically to pair with food since 1877. Its unique blend of hops, malted barley and soft water creates a lager that is perfectly quaffable with all kinds of food. From rich Northern Italian food like creamy polenta and fatty beef cheek to lighter Mediterranean meals like seafood and cured meats. It’s extremely versatile and can elevate other cuisines such as Southeast Asian dishes like Pad Thai.
Different types of beer pair well with certain kinds of food by just following some easy to remember guidelines called the 3C’s – contrast, complement and cut through.
That sounds simple! Wine pairing always seems so daunting for the average diner.
Part of my job is to make beer a less daunting prospect and get drinkers to understand how well it can work with food. For example, all beer has carbonation, and it’s this effervescence which can cut through oily and fatty foods in a way that wine can’t. For example, the fizz in Poretti will cut through the rich fats in antipasti platters of olives, salami, and cheeses. The tiny bubbles scrub away at the fat on your tongue and act like a palate cleanser in between each mouthful of food. The bitterness of hops also ignites appetite receptors making the diner hungry for more. However, it is similar to wine pairing as each type of beer (Pilsners, IPAs, Lagers, Sour Beers, etc), pairs with different dishes respectively for a unique dining experience.
The Gender Pint Gap was an interesting report that you published. Do you think women still view beer as a masculine drink?
There are multiple reasons why there are fewer female beer drinkers than men, and Dea Latis spent two years researching female attitudes and behaviours towards beer in the UK. Women have a lot of misconceptions about beer: calorific content, the way we serve it, that it’s a ‘man’s drink’. But beer is gender-neutral; people should be able to enjoy whatever drink they like without being judged. Part of the research unveiled the role that glassware plays in the perception of beer.
In the UK, we talk about beer in terms of ‘pints’. This implies volume and can be quite intimidating for some drinkers because it seems a lot. Think about it: ‘Would you like a pint of beer?” versus “Would you like a glass of beer?”. One word changes your perception straight away.
Our European neighbours take a very different approach and offer a ‘glass’ of beer, rather than a pint. It’s one of the reasons why beer is typically offered with food as a viable alternative to wine in other countries. For example, Poretti understands the importance of this, and their whole ethos surrounds beer being served in a carafe and poured into elegant glasses around the dining table.
What is your favourite beer?
This is a really tricky one for me to answer! My favourite beer today might not be the same as it was this time last week, or next week. It depends so much on the weather, where I am, who I’m with – and of course whether I’m having some food with it!
What are your top pairings of beer with food?
A crisp lager (like Poretti) is fabulous with a charcuterie or cheese board. A creamy wheat beer is lovely with a fiery curry because it takes the harshness out of any chilli heat. A cold IPA goes brilliantly with spicy crab cakes, and a traditional British ale blends well with pub grub like a steak and ale pie or a Ploughmans. Dark chocolatey beers, such as porters and stouts, are a great match for venison, vanilla ice cream and weirdly, blue cheese.
What are your plans for the future?
To continue doing what I’m doing: to educate, inspire and inform more people about what a wonderful drink beer is through training, events, writing and broadcasting. Beer is the most imbibed drink in the world after water and tea, and if that’s not something to celebrate, I don’t know what is!