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Britain’s Youngest Beer Sommelier Knows What’s Up With Beer

We spoke to Britain’s youngest beer sommelier Jethro Holman about how we can enjoy a better kind of beer.

Co-created with Meantime Brewing Company.

What a wonderful thing beer is. I'm getting to an age where more of my life has featured the drink than not. If you grow up in England, you're part of a culture that celebrates stuff like cask ales, beer gardens, and pub crawls. Beer, in all its glorious forms, is something that defines our weird little island. So I drink it down the pub, in the club, at the football, during birthday parties, and on train journeys lasting longer than 40 minutes (which is socially acceptable, mind).

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You'd think I was a proper beer anorak. But that couldn't be further from the truth, and if you too like to polish off a few tins on a Friday then you'll probably know what I'm getting it. From my experience, most people who buy beer regularly tend to stick to the same handful of brands, which are probably governed by price above all else. Sure, you might avoid the £1.29 cider that tastes like paint thinner and you may even try the exotic IPA on tap at your local gastropub, but for the most part, we keep to what we know.

According to Jethro Holman, Britain's youngest beer sommelier, this attitude—or, at the very least, my attitude—needs to change. Not just so we can try a better kind of beer, but so we can have a better time in general. Wanting to find out where he was coming from, I joined him for a few pints down at his place of work, the Meantime Brewing Company in Greenwich.

Hi Jethro! Start from the top: How did you become Britain's youngest beer sommelier? Jethro Holman: I had a suit job after university and I absolutely hated it, it was really depressing. So I quit. I had a mate who worked in the brewery and he asked if I wanted to come down. I was really into my beers, so I did. The longer you hang around the brewery, the more people you meet—like brewers, bartenders, other sommeliers—and the more you talk to them and learn about beer. Then I started doing brewery tours. And when customers are asking you more and more questions, and you've been doing more and more reading, you suddenly realise you can answer all the questions people have, and that in itself makes you want to learn more.

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You mean there's more to learning about beer than just drinking it? There's reading involved too? Both. You have purely factual books, like encyclopaedias of beer. So say if I try a new beer, what I'd always do is look up the encyclopaedia definition of it, then I'd probably go on the internet and get an understanding of what the general public drinking it think of it. Then I'll drink it and review how I find the taste compared to how other people find it. So it's a bit of everything. We also have regular staff tastings, run by our resident sommelier, where we'll try five or six new beers. And we do sometimes drink quite a bit of a new beer to get "used" to the product.

As for the sommelier qualification itself, what do you have to do to obtain the title? It's awarded by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, who do all of the qualifications for brewers as well. There are about four courses and they involve judging beer and tasting beer. These courses can take a few years to finish, and in the last one there's a two and a half hour exam where an examiner gets you to try 16 beers, and you have to talk him through each one.

You start right from the beginning, analysing its colour, taste, flavour, then it gets more complex. It's a bit like doing a maths exam - you have to show your working. By the end you're asked what region of the world the beer's from, or maybe even what region of a particular country, and then, if you can, you say what the beer was exactly. They also have you spot the problems in beers that have had different defects added to them, like sulphites and sulphides.

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How much do you have to know about the actual process of brewing? I think you do have to know—I don't know … It's really hard to talk about these things without sounding like a bit of a wanker.

Just go for it man. I think you do have to know a bit. I'm here all the time in the brewery so I'm always around the brewers and the brewery floor. If you don't understand how it's made then you can't understand how a flavour's got there. Like if it's a particularly malty beer you would have to know how they've achieved that, or if it's got a certain hop character you need to know in what way they've hopped it because there might be four different possible methods. If you didn't know this, your explanations about the beer would be completely limited. So yeah, I'd say you do have to know about the brewing process.

So this beer I'm drinking, the Pilsner Lager, what can you tell me about the brewing process for this? So it's the same process as our London Lager. It's one of the most basic brewing methods in the world—well not basic, but 93 percent of beer drunk in the world is that style of beer.

That's good for me—we're starting from the top! You've got it. Our pale malt uses East Anglian barley, and it's only hopped once in the brewing process. The Pilsner uses German hops, whereas our London Lager uses British hops. This makes the Pilsner a little bit drier, so if you didn't understand how it was hoped you wouldn't understand why it's a bit drier compared to the sweeter London Lager. It should be quite easy to drink.

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It is. I'm enjoying it. The reason I got you that one over London Lager is just because it's my preferred choice. They're both the same style, but I prefer that one.

A sommelier means someone who pairs food with drink, so say a drink like the Pilsner Lager, what would that pair well with? If anything, that lager doesn't taste of very much, and I mean that in a good way. I'd describe pale lagers as accompaniment beers. Say for example, I'm into a beer that's a 9 percent dark beer that tastes like tar, I don't have any time for my friends, or music, or sport or whatever, if I'm drinking that. Whereas the lager is very drinkable as it's not so flavoursome. So when it's paired with food, you don't want to overpower it with something very flavoursome.

I know the classic thing is to have lager with a curry, but as far as I'm concerned you can't taste a pale lager if you're eating a curry at the same time. I would rather have it with say fish, or chicken, a more delicate flavour.

What about the hoppy ones, like the London Pale Ale you see at loads of pubs, what would that match with? Hoppiness cuts through grease. I think that beer is so popular right now due to the popularity of American food in the UK, like massive burgers and the like, because it goes with that sort of meal—greasy and filling. It's lighter and cuts through it. Something we've got that's super hoppy, like our India pale ale, which uses all British hops so it's almost marmalade-y, that's what I'm having with my curry, because it's a big enough flavour to stand up to the flavour of the curry. So the flavour from the dish won't wash out the flavour of the beer, and vice versa. It maximises the flavours of both things and makes them work together.

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Speaking of American things, how do you account for this interest in American-style craft beer over the past five years or so? American beer is so interesting. Look at European beer. It's historically the best in the world. There are breweries in Germany that have existed since 1021. They're going to have to be good by now. Belgian monks have been making beer for hundreds of years. We know what we're doing in Europe, but that also makes us a bit boring sometimes. Belgian monks rarely want to change their beer recipes, and they can't even talk so they're not gonna chat about them either.

But the Americans honestly don't care. They don't have history holding them back. You name it, they're trying it. And it's fun, it's a laugh. Sometimes the beers are rubbish, but sometimes they're really nice. We kind of have that same ethos here in that we like to mix it up a bit. For instance we made this beer the other day called a Feisty Cali Belge—a Californian hopped, Belgian yeast pale ale, but made with Cornish scotch bonnets. It was awesome—more like a Belgian pale ale but as you swallowed it did kinda warm up your mouth.

Why do you think this American attitude to brewing came over to the UK? The British public are more discerning than they've ever been—not just with beer. Now a lot of people are going to artisan coffee shops, getting their fancy lattes. I think the craft beer thing is the same. It's fun. As much as you may look like super dweebs, it's fun to get a paddle of beers with your mates in a craft beer pub, because it's a conversation starter and it makes you enjoy what you're drinking more. Craft beer is more social. You're going to chat about it, eat food with it, think about it, and if you're a real geek you're going to read a book about it. There are some super snobs in craft beer and I find them frustrating because they're only blocking other people from drinking good beer. I think everyone should be involved with it, because beer is the best drink that ever lived.

On that note, what place do you think there is for the regular lagers, the tins, and the pints of Stella? I am all for them. I buy them. I would rather have a well-brewed beer, a more quality beer, but there are times when you're at a gig and someone's going to give you a can of Red Stripe and you're won't turn it down because it's going to be delicious. There's a beer for every occasion. I've got friends who will deliberately buy me a Coors Light at the pub to try and piss me off, but I'm going to enjoy that Coors Light and talk to them because they're my mates and I enjoy their company. You can never tell anybody that a beer is bad if they're enjoying it.

Damn right. Thanks Jethro.