Between tastings, festivals and promotional to-dos, summer is perennially busy for the beer industry. But this particular summer will be especially hectic for Mirella Amato, Canada’s only Master Cicerone, or beer sommelier. Along with the public appearances that comprise her beer career, Amato released her first book, Beerology, last month. Its format, with a focus on four different types of “brews” – refreshing, mellow, striking and captivating – is unconventional, more choose-your-own-adventure than textbook. Accompanied by charts and graphs developed by Amato when she was studying for her beer-judge certification exams, the book is a straightforward plunge for both beginner and accomplished beer drinkers.
Tell me about your ‘crusade.’
One of the main reasons people aren’t more adventurous in the beers they drink is they don’t know those beers exist, or they don’t know where to start. My crusade right now is to promote beer appreciation, share information about beer, with the goal being that everyone in North America gets to the point where they have the same basic knowledge they have of beer that they do of wine.
When it comes to pairing with food, what are your general guidelines?
You have to be mindful of the intensity of your beer and the intensity of your food: They need to match up. If you have a light salad, you don’t want to pair that with a 14-per-cent-alcohol, really roasty imperial stout that’s been aged in a barrel. It’s going to completely bowl over your salad. On the other hand, if you have a big, rich stew with meat and tons of spices, if you pair that with a light lager you might as well be drinking water.
I use a little trick, something that I just realized one day, and haven’t read anywhere, so I call it Mirella’s rule of thumb: Line up the colour intensity of your dish’s main ingredient with the colour intensity of your beer. If you’re having white fish or chicken, use a pale golden or amber beer. If you’re having pork or lentils, you might want to go with an amber beer. If you’re having steak or portobello mushrooms you’ll go with a brown beer, and with chocolate cake you want to go with a black beer.
I’m not sure why it works but it just does, and if you do that, and keep in mind the intensity, you’ll be fine. For example, in the light amber-beer spectrum, with chicken, if it’s just steamed, you’ll want a light golden beer, like a Helles, but if that chicken is in a curry and a spicy, rich sauce, you might want to go for a pale ale. It’s in the same colour family but is more intense.
What are some common mistakes people make when pairing beer?
It’s my understanding that in pairing wine with food there are problem foods – asparagus is one. With beer, that’s much less of an issue. There are two things you do have to be careful of: One, if you have a really oily fish, you’re going to want to select a beer that doesn’t have too much hop. The hop can distort the flavour of the fish oils in the same way red wine can. The other thing is, if your food is spicy you want to stay away from a higher-alcohol beer, because it aggravates the sensation of heat, which is why wine can be a challenge with spicy food.
What styles or types of beer are underappreciated?
Pilsner. I really believe there’s a beer for every mood, food and occasion. I think when people explore craft beers they’re drawn to the flavourful big beers, and those beers are delicious and they’re exciting, but the Pilsner also has its place. When it’s warm out and you want to be refreshed, nothing, nothing is as refreshing as a Pilsner.
What’s amazing about beer is that there’s this huge spectrum of flavours. Right now, all of the flavourful, crazy beers are getting a lot of attention and the more subtle, nuanced beers are getting less attention. It’s okay to drink those beers. They have a time and a place, and it worries me sometimes because if the demand is no longer there, there’s going to be fewer and fewer of them. It’s way more stimulating to see a range of beers from a Pilsner to an imperial stout than to see a selection of 50 IPAs and 30 imperial stouts. We’re falling into the same trap of all the beers being in the same range again.
Have you noticed any differences in beer brewing and drinking culture between the United States and Canada?
The U.S. is leading the craft-beer movement worldwide right now. Their craft-beer movement predates ours by about 15 years; they’ve also reached critical mass. At this stage they have 3,000 breweries. It’s a highly competitive environment, many different flavours going on, many different styles. The Cicerone certification program comes from the U.S. because they saw the need to have beer sommeliers before we did. Canada is trying to catch up, and I can really see the gap closing. When I started in beer in 2007 there was a drastic difference, all kinds of styles and flavours there that you couldn’t find here. Many people have now become really adventurous in the beers they’re drinking, so there’s demand, so brewers can be more experimental, and that gap is closing quickly. I’m excited to see, once we catch up, what direction we’ll go in from there.
A few years ago the popularity of heavily hopped IPAs was incredible. What do you think the next big style or trend in beer will be?
I wonder if sour beers will do that. The thing with IPAs is that they have a bold bitterness to them, which is a polarizing flavour. There are many people, when they first had it, didn’t like it, but then it grew on them. I’m seeing a similar thing happening with sour beers right now, where people are not quite wrapping their brains around them.
Someone who works in wine and beer sales told me he is encountering more insufferable beer lovers – who will only drink certain styles of beer or judge other people’s beer choices – than wine lovers. In an effort to have beer taken more seriously, some people are going too far?
I’m not of the notion that beer needs to be elevated or better respected; I think it just needs to be better understood. In discovering and praising its bolder aspects, and the fact it can be paired with food, we shouldn’t lose sight of its strengths. It is a great social beverage. At the end of the day there’s a huge spectrum of beers out there, and while beer certainly has the ability to tread in wine territory, in terms of food pairing and beers that are meant for careful sipping, there are also areas beer is in, where wine is going to have a hard time going. If I’m on a dock on a hot day, I need a refreshing beer: Nothing else will do.
This interview has been condensed and edited.