Table Talk: An interview with Annabel Smith, the UK's only beer inspector
National Cask Ale Week takes place from 29th March to 5th April, celebrating Britain's national drink with festivals and events taking place across the country. In the run up to the week, we caught up with Annabel Smith, the UK's only female beer inspector to find out more about her unusual job, how she got into it, and what makes a good pint.
I got into beer inspecting by running a pub for 12 years. It had a very high turnover of cask ale and I learnt all my skills from looking after real ales hands on. Following this, I worked as a trainer for Guinness, but never lost my passion for the real ale market. A colleague at Guinness emailed me the job advert for a Beer Inspector one evening stating "I have found your perfect job". It escalated from there.
I have always loved the smell of brewing it reminded me of baking bread. For me, beer is the most refreshing, natural, thirst quenching drink in the world.
I first tried beer when I was running a pub. All the beer had to be checked in the cellar for taste, clarity and aroma before pulling it through the lines to the bar. This is my first memory of getting to love the product.
More men seem to drink cask ale than women because women are conditioned from an early age that beer is a man's drink. Beer is predominantly marketed to men (can you think of a female friendly beer advert?). Women also have the common misconception that beer is fattening, therefore avoid it - but it's the least calorific alcoholic drink they can order across the bar.
A good cask ale is determined by Temperature (too cold and all the flavor disappears, too warm and it tastes rank); Clarity (if a cask ale is cloudy it can be indicative that the beer is not fully conditioned); Aroma (must be fresh, appetising - vinegary, yeasty, chemically etc); Taste (all good cask ales have a natural CO2 content giving a slight tingle on the tongue. Good flavours include floral, grassy, citrus, peach, pineapple, banana, toffee, horlicks, biscuit, coffee. Depending on the beer!
My favourite pub is The Brewers Pride in Ossett, West Yorkshire. It's my old pub and I love all the regulars! It's also an absolute shrine to beer - they take care over the product, they listen to what their customers want, the staff are brilliantly trained on beer and can recommend any product, and the range of beers constantly changes.
Choosing my favourite type of cask ale is is like asking what my favourite food is - I could give you a list of 10, and then think of more. Most beer drinkers would give this answer, it's almost impossible to identify one beer which shines above the rest.
Beer quality is important to cask ale because cask ale is a living product (not pasteurised) and the licensee has to take that beer through secondary fermentation in the pub cellar (conditioning) - which takes skill. Cask Ale is unique to pubs (you cannot buy it in the supermarket) so the quality of it is critical to the pub trade as a whole.
My ideal evening is sitting at the table next to the open fires in The Brewers Pride, surrounded by friends and my lovely partner (who works in the brewing industry). All drinking cask ale and discussing what we're going to do at the weekend
Cask ale is the only beer category in growth at the moment This is due to its diversity of flavours; its lack of negative associations with binge drinking; the fact that you can only drink it in a pub, rather than buying it a supermarket; the quality, which as improved dramatically over the past few years.
It's a real good news story for the pub industry as, having had a few years of really bad times (pubs closing down etc), cask ale is the strong survivor
The best thing about cask ale week is that it encourages a lot of consumers to consider cask ale for the first time, and that we can celebrate a truly British icon. It's great to see all the breweries and pubs pulling together to create an event that will strengthen our industry as a whole.
Annabel Smith is National Account Manager at Cask Marque, an independent accreditation scheme to recognise excellence in the service of cask ale. www.cask-marque.co.uk
To find out more about Cask Ale Week, visit www.caskaleweek.co.uk
23 March 2010