While many armchair quarterbacks and summertime grill-masters profess to know a thing or two about their brew of choice, Steven Riley has the certification to back it up. Riley is a cicerone, which is to beer what a sommelier is to wine. Riley is one of about ten across Canada, and about 150 in the world.
“A lot of people say, ‘oh, I drink beer all the time, I can be a cicerone,’ but it takes a lot more than just drinking beer,” says Riley. To become a cicerone, like all good certifications, Riley took a course and pass an exam with a mark of 70% or greater. Out of the ten that Riley took the exam with, only two passed.
Since we believe in going to the experts, we asked Riley to share some wisdom about Canada’s favourite alcoholic beverage.
“Always pour bottles into a glass,” says Riley, “bottled beer is over-carbonated and by pouring it out, the carbonation is released back to a normal level.”
While on the patio (yes, those days will come again) it may seem more natural to sip beer from a bottle than from a pint glass, releasing the carbonation is essential to enjoying the intended experience. Plus, by releasing that carbonation you won’t waste all that stomach real estate on carbon dioxide, when it could be saved for some beer-complementing meats.
“In Canada, 79% of the time food is present when drinking beer,” says Riley. In that regard, Riley says matching the intensity of the flavours is crucial. A light flavour requires a light beer, while a strong flavour requires a heavier beer. There’s nothing as refreshing as a beer and a burger on a hot summer day. As dignified as a glass of scotch is, it just doesn’t compliment pub fare the way a tall pint can.
“In the ’70s, there were only 30 brands of beer, today there’s over 400. Canadians aren’t drinking more beer, but they are drinking more types of beer,” says Riley. With more brands and styles Canadians have a chance to really expand their palate. Across Canada, beer-centric bars offer a wide variety of brands and styles of beer.
“A lot of selection doesn’t always mean quality,” Riley explains. Still, there are ways to ensure a perfect pint. Riley says that trained professional servers ensure that the taps and lines stay properly cleaned and that the beer stays fresh. “Beer ages in kegs, and if a certain type isn’t as popular it may spend a lot of time aging. The quality of beer depends on qualified bartenders,” Riley says. Thus, when it comes to choosing the right bar to sample beers at, it’s best to find one with a smaller, varied selection. And one where the bartender is a pro, not an out-of-work actor, slumming it.
“More people are talking about beer and flavour profiles,” says Riley. This not only increases beer-awareness, but it also allows drinkers to experiment more frequently. The flavour profile–a term which just barely flirts with pretension, consists of a variety of hints and aromas. Not surprisingly, in beer, the most dominant are the tastes of hops and malt. The malt contributes to sweetness, while the hops are responsible for beer’s bitterness. In lighter beers, a hint of citrus fruits may be present, whereas molasses and caramel preside in darker beers and stouts, like Guinness.
Professional tasters like Riley begin with a visual examination of the beer. Is there too much or too little head? Neither is a good sign. Is there a deposit in the bottle around the neck that suggests bacteria?
Next they smell the expertly poured brew. It’s important to note the way the cereals and hops interact aromatically, and what other scents come to the nose. Riley calls this step the ‘drive-by’ as the beer is smelled only briefly from chest level to catch the immediately noticeable aroma.
Lastly, they taste the beer, those lucky bastards. But, and here’s where they differ from regular folks, they taste with precision, noting the mix of flavours as well as the beer’s ‘mouth-feel:’ its creaminess, its body, and its astringency.
Because he’s an expert, our cicerone is not short on suggestions. The next time you’re feeling adventurous, Riley suggests mixing up a beer cocktail. Good man that he is, he even gave us these off-center beer cocktails:
1 Pint Rickard’s White
1 oz Grand Marnier
Orange juice to taste
1 part Shembly
1 part Ginger Ale
And for dessert:
Scoop vanilla ice cream into a bowl, drizzle with maple syrup, and add some Rickard’s Dark. Kind of like a root beer float for adults, minus the root.