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The Comedy of Errors

Beer Sommelier John Westlake

11 October 15 words: Tom Guy
October is getting taken over by the all things hops-related, so we've grabbed the pros to pick their brains
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illustration: Mike Driver

Last year you qualified as a beer sommelier. Tell us a bit more about what that means…
It’s really a culmination of many years drinking beer around the world – it’s not something you’d be able to do at the drop of a hat. It’s run in three stages by the Beer Academy (part of the Institute for Brewing and Distilling). It culminates in a one to one examination with an examiner of the institute. You have to identify something like 36 different beers, arranged in categories, then look at what can go wrong in a beer. The idea is to be an ambassador, you need to elevate beer to the level that wine has carved out for itself. There are now 72 of us worldwide.

You’re quite important figures in driving beer forward then. How will beer sommeliers help the brewing industry?
The industry, in many ways, has only got itself to blame. [It should be] elevating beer to something to be savoured and ravished – not just poured down your neck. The ability to buy beers in thirds, and restaurants pairing foods with beer as well as wine is slowly gaining ground. It’s really just trying to encourage that trend and develop that image of beer and responsible drinking.

Beer vs wine vs spirits – where do you think beer settles?
I do think there is a direct comparison with the wine market. If you think about it, wine can only be made from grapes and you have red and white ones. But beer, you can make it from barley, wheat, oats, rye, all malted in different ways. There are something like 140 different hop varieties available to the commercial market right now, which are really like the brewers’ palette. Fermentation processes differ, whether it’s a lager, a sour ale, an English top-fermented bitter, whether it’s hard or soft water, the yeast itself imparts characteristics. That’s how important the taste is. There is a much greater variety than the wine trade can ever offer. Spirits are slightly different, there’s a whole thing at the minute with craft gins with different botanical spirits being used and coming on the market. But you wouldn’t have a gin and tonic with your cod and chips or steak pie. They’re drinks for cocktail bars and an evening out.

How do you think beer compliments the emerging food scene?
Personally, I think it complements food better than wine does. No one will convince me that a chunk of cheddar and a piece of crusty bread will taste better with a glass of wine than an English bitter. You can find a beer to match just about anything. There are certain dishes where I think beer is far more appropriate than wine – I can’t think of any wine in the world that would go with a curry.

Have you got any good food pairings?
A classic would be lightly smoked fish – salmon, halibut, that sort of thing – with a Belgian wheat beer. The lemony, vanilla flavours and the gentle floral notes really complement fish. Chocolate dessert is splendid with a sour Lambic beer flavoured with morello cherries. A good casserole and hearty meat dishes go really well with a good IPA or a strong British ale like Adnams Broadside.

Are you the only beer sommelier in Nottingham?
I think I’m the only one in the East Midlands…

What is your impression of Nottingham as a brewing city? We have a rich brewing history…
If you want to go right back we can go to Hutchinson, Shipstones, Home, Kimberley (just up the road) and Mansfield all competing. [Nowadays], in terms of variety, we’ve got over thirty breweries within a twenty-mile radius of Nottingham. There’s almost a new one every month.

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illustration: Mike Driver

In terms of the media, Britain’s Beer Alliance have done ‘There’s a beer for that’. There was ‘Beer Day Britain’ by a fellow sommelier, Jane Peyton. You’ve got CAMRA classics like the Great British Beer Festival and cask ale week coming up at the end of the month, as well…
Wetherspoon’s biannual beer festival is coming up [Friday 16 October to Sunday 1 November] that generates a lot of interest. They will have about fifty beers, about ten of which will be foreign beers. I’ll be one of the judges at this festival. There’s the SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) East England Regional judging going on on the first day of the Robin Hood Beer Festival [Wednesday 7 to Saturday 10 October]. I’ll probably be doing a tutored beer tasting at Trent Bridge Inn too.

Do you find those beer tastings are getting popular now? They hark back to the wine tasting evenings of the nineties. Is the most exciting thing to do as a sommelier to talk about, drink and get others excited about beer?
It’s not so much about the volume as opening people’s eyes to the sheer variety out there. People tend to come into a pub and ask for a pint of lager or a pint of bitter. Even in the world of lager, there’s so much difference between a well-aged German or Czech lager [and mass-produced lager]. The word ‘lager’ means storage and a good lager will be matured for about three months. You won’t find the likes of Fosters or Carling spending that amount of time hanging around the brewery. Particularly now you have craft [beer] coming in from the West Coast of America. There are some very interesting beers coming into the British market from the likes of Yeastie Boys and Renaissance in New Zealand. One of the most amazing places, I think, is Italy. I went there eight years ago and they used to only have about three micro-breweries – now they have 600.

What’s your take on the new wave of craft brewers? Are they raising the bar or changing the status quo?
It makes the market more dynamic and more exciting. There are certain styles of beers, like lager for instance, that always need to be carbonated and ideally served colder and are probably best in [keg] format. You couldn’t ship real ale, cask-conditioned beers long distances.

How does cask beer form that relationship with ‘craft’ beer?
It’s the cycle of life, unfortunately. When I joined CAMRA, cask beer was on its last legs. Traditional beers had almost been abandoned by major breweries. It was beer brewed by accountants – make it for as cheap as possible and sell it for as much as you can.  There were a small amount of family brewers keeping it going. The wheel has turned, and cask beer is now the biggest growing sector of the industry, but the craft keg sector is turning the wheel again. The difference is, you’ve got interesting quality beers bringing flavour and dynamism into the market, rather than bland factory beers.

I suppose that’s what the modern beer movement is all about – quality over pound signs.
Yeah. What you’ve got now is people who are willing to pay the equivalent of £7 or £8 a pint for something that is interesting, with flavour and a real bit of character to it [regardless of dispense method]. It’s not a challenge directly to cask beer, but it will take a part of the market I’m sure. As long as the market is a broad church, and different beers are coming in expanding the market, then that’s great.

I agree. Especially when you talk about locality. Nottingham, it seems, is now a cultural beer city where beer is really being pushed forward…
I think [Nottingham] can hold its head pretty high in that category. There are a number of cities playing to be the beer capital of Britain – Derby, Sheffield, and Norwich. I think Nottingham is up there, and an equal challenger to all of them.

John Westlake on Beer Guild

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