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As British Institute of Innkeepers and Institute of Brewing and Distilling Beer Sommelier of the Year, and one of the founder members of the Meantime #Beerheroes, I’ve been asked to write a blog post on how I got into beer in the first place and why I wanted to become a beer sommelier. So here goes.

I was surrounded by beer from birth – I never had a chance to avoid it, even if I’d wanted to. My family, on my Mother’s side, had always owned pubs and one of my very early memories is going down into my Grandfather’s pub cellar. The whole concept of going underground was weird, and the partial darkness and the dank, musty smells and cobwebs made it even weirder.

This was down in Dorset and the Eldridge Pope brewery of Dorchester sent out the ales in huge oak casks as rough, unfined beer, which had only just about finished fermenting. In those days, landlords like my Grandfather had to add isinglass, a gloopy fish product, to the cask to get the yeast to settle. The huge casks then had to be rolled around (“roused”) to mix the yeast and finings up. They then had to let the casks rest, so that secondary fermentation created some natural carbonation (“condition” as it was called) in the beer. Cellar work in those days was highly skilled, and my Grandfather always did it himself. His pub, the Royal Arms (demolished long ago) was an Eldridge Pope tied house, but because of the high turnover that it enjoyed and his skill in the cellar, he was allowed (yes – allowed) to keep draft Bass – a super-premium ale in those days.

My Mother was born in my Great-Grandfather’s previous pub, the Ship near Shaftesbury, and she met my Father when they were working behind the bar at the Royal Arms. When I was growing up there was always some beer in the house – my Father drank Strong’s Bitter for choice. In those days it came in returnable heavy glass flagons which held a quart (two pints) and were resealable with a threaded rubber stopper. You got a gallon at a time – four quart flagons in a wooden crate.

My Father used to drink out of a pewter tankard with a glass bottom. The glass bottom supposedly dated from the Napoleonic Wars and was there so that you could see if a crafty recruiting sergeant had dropped the King’s Shilling into your beer. If he had done, and you drank the beer, you were judged to have volunteered for the wars. My Grandfather always drank Worthington White Shield, a bottle-conditioned IPA, from an elegant half pint tulip shaped glass.

In Dorset in those days there were four traditional breweries – the best beer came from Eldridge Pope, then there was Hall and Woodhouse of Blandford, if you were in west Dorset there was Palmers of Bridport and then, at the bottom of the pecking order quality-wise, there was Devenish of Weymouth. Other breweries such as Strong’s of Romsey, Brickwoods of Portsmouth and Whitbread all had pubs in the area, so when I was starting to drink beer regularly myself (a little bit under the legal age, if I’m honest) there was a very wide range of traditional English cask ale to choose from. My favourite then was Eldridge Pope’s Royal Oak, their best bitter brand, as served in the New Bell in Pokesdown, my local and a building that had once been a brewery itself.

However, I always knew that there was more to beer than just English ale. Half of my family is German and on family holidays I discovered a magic, golden sparkling beer, crisp, cold and refreshing. Lager – specifically Pilsner – proper Lager, not the travesty that was being foisted upon the British market by unscrupulous brewers’ marketing campaigns. Because of my German heritage, I was always aware that cask bitter was only part of the story, and a life-long interest in world beer styles was born one Summer afternoon in Panrod, the little village in the Taunus hills where my Grandmother had been born.

I went to college in the mid-Seventies in Birmingham – two large breweries, M&B and Ansells, had a virtual stranglehold on the pubs, and the beer was not good at all. There was a third, smaller brewery, Davenports, but I think they only had one pub in the city centre.

Luckily, my then girlfriend’s family came from Bloxwich and Willenhall in the Black Country – it was only a short train journey to go and visit her Grandmother, who always had the kettle on before you’d taken your coat off. Early evening, we’d go to one of the many local pubs and have a few excellent pints of proper Black Country mild – a wonderful chocolatey session beer, smooth and quaffable with a big creamy head.

When I came to London in 1978, the sheer variety of beer was a revelation. The so-called Real Ale revolution was in full swing and cask ales from all over England were widely available. In the office where I worked were several lads of my own age, keen beer drinkers to a man, and we had some great evenings trying all sorts of traditional beers. An entrepreneur called Roger Berman had several pubs and had cottoned onto the Real Ale boom in a big way. The Sun, in Lamb’s Conduit Street near my office, was famed as a pub that had twenty five ales on handpump at any one time. You never knew what you might find on tap – Bateman’s, Breakspear’s, Ruddles and Hook Norton were all favourites of mine back then.

It was in one of Berman’s other pubs, the Moon near Southampton Row, that I first tried draft Grolsch, which was brewed in a small local brewery in northern Holland. I had met a friend straight from work and we were drinking bitter as normal. At seven o’clock there was an announcement that there were two kegs of an “authentic Dutch Real Lager, never before available in Britain, here on trial this evening only”. It was free as long as it lasted. My mate and I sat there drinking free Grolsch until closing time.

In another of Berman’s pubs, the Seven Stars in Deptford, I had my first bottle of the magnificent Westmalle Tripel, and this brings us to World Beer. There were some specialist shops which sold foreign beers back then – in particular I remember Alan Greenwood’s Beer Agency in Lewisham, where I bought, amongst many other things, my first ever Kölsch – a bottle of Kűppers. There was also a good shop at the bottom of Lee Rd, just off Lee Green, where I bought my first bottle of Geuze , something I wasn’t quite ready for at that point, I admit.

I bought a copy of Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer when I first came to London and I couldn’t stop reading it. It is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most influential books of my whole life.

I knew there were good beers in Germany – Pilsner and Export. But Wheat beer? Berliner Weisse? The hybrid ale/lager styles of Nord Rhein–Westfallen? Smoked beer?

And Belgium – home of the world’s wackiest, strange, most diverse beer culture?

You can think I’m exaggerating if you want to, but this book changed my life. I made my first pilgrimage to Brussels in 1981, and subsequently visited Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. I went to Munich, Cologne and Dusseldorf. I discovered that the area where my family lived, around Wiesbaden, was in fact wine country and that the beers there, although I had always enjoyed them, were not Germany’s most interesting. However, an hour’s drive eastward, just the other side of Frankfurt, took you to Franken, an absolute wonderland of beer with the lovely baroque city of Bamberg – arguably the brewing capital of the world. Later I went to Prague and Brno. When I visited places that Michael Jackson had mentioned I was never disappointed.

In the early Eighties, my wife and I were sheltering from the rain in a specialist Flemish beer bar, the Oud Outspanning (or something like that) on the Graslei in Ghent. It was quiet and the owner came over for a chat. He gave us a booklet with details of several other specialist beer bars, which were a new idea in Belgium at that time. One, which we visited shortly after (possibly the next day!) was t’ Brugs Beertje in the heart of Bruges. There, thirty-odd years ago, we met the owner Daisy for the first time, and she has a smile and a hug still for us every time we visit what has developed into one of the greatest temples to beer in the world. The Beertje was one of Michael Jackson’s favourite pubs and a picture of him and Daisy hangs over the mantelpiece to this day. Years later, through my career at Meantime, I was privileged to meet Michael on three occasions.

So much for how I got into beer, then. Why did I want to become a beer sommelier? One answer would be that I was encouraged to take the IBD accreditation by Meantime. I was keen to take up their offer, though, because I thought it would help me as a beer communicator. I think an important part of what I do these days is to spread the gospel about good beer, whatever the style. Meantime’s mission is to change the way people think about beer, and I’m very much part of spreading that message. Being a beer sommelier has allowed me to talk to lots of people about the huge range of beers that are available, to help them appreciate the beers they drink, to encourage them to try new beers, to match beer with food, and to talk to them about how beer is made.

It is my great privilege, through the training work that I do with Meantime, to talk to large numbers of young people entering the licensed trade, hopefully to educate and enthuse them, and to encourage them to see the trade as a career as it was for my Grandfather, not just a stopgap until something else comes along. If I can communicate my lifetime of fascination with beer to these young people and set them on the road to a great career, then I feel I have achieved something worthwhile.

Beer Heroes

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