Q&A with the Beer Sommelier®

By Matt

Matt Simpson, also known as "The Beer Sommelier®", is an Atlanta-based expert on craft beer and brewing.

Simpson appeared on several national news networks after President Obama's "Beer Summit" to provide a beer geek's perspective on the events. Simpson is also active in the local craft brewing industry through his organization of beer festivals and the "Beer 101" course he taught at Emory University.

Matt now runs our online beer course which will give you a complete guide to craft beer.

By the end of the course you’ll understand the creation process for beer, craft beer styles, craft beer tasting (appearance, aroma, flavour and mouthfeel), glassware and importantly food and beer combinations.

You will also have the opportunity to ask Matt any question you'd like throughout the course, but here's a few of the questions he gets asked most often...

I went to a bar that served me a Belgian beer in a cool, funky goblet. What’s the difference between it and my regular glass?

It’s all about the mouth, my friend. Nobody likes a bigmouth…except when it’s on a Belgian beer glass. Also called a “chalice,” those wide open mouths allow for a substantial head to form and your nose to get right in there and partake of all that heavenly, fruity aroma.

Keep in mind that when you drink a fine, craft beer, your palate is mostly olfactory (smell-based), so a good sniff is essential for picking up all the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle aromas.

And these glasses are always stemmed, so you not only don’t heat the beer up while holding it, but have a handle with which to swirl and hold up to the light. It also makes you look über cool.

In Belgium (pretty much all over Europe, and increasingly in the US), every brewery has its own glass…often, even a different glass for each distinct style they serve. And while they’re all different sizes and have different logos, except for a few sweet ale glasses, they almost all have that distinctively wide mouth.

Guinness seems like a rich, heavy beer, but I can drink loads of it. Why?

Because it’s not a rich, heavy beer. In fact, it’s actually one of the lightest craft beers made, with less than 200 calories per imperial pint (about 20 ounces) and about 4-4.5% abv.

Moreover, Guinness uses nitrogen (N2) to carbonate their beer, instead of carbon dioxide (CO2).

The effect N2 has on a beer, is to give it a rich and creamy mouthfeel. But Guinness is popular in Britain for a specific reason, as it’s one of the beers that the British enjoy daily.

These beers are called session beers, and they’re the ones meant to drunk in multiples, over a long session of drinking, chatting, singing, drinking, playing darts, drinking, eating, schmoozing…and did I mention drinking? I think you get the point.

Lighter beer + rich mouthfeel x time = lots of beer, without becoming overly intoxicated. Just remember, Guinness is good for you!

What’s that German beer law and how is it pronounced?

The Reinheitsgebot (pronounced rine-hites-ga-boat), was the German purity law, enacted way back in 1516. This law basically dictated that German brewers were verboten from using any ingredients in their beers, other than malt, water, hops and yeast.

There are a few interpretations as to why this law came to be, including that German brewers were throwing all sorts of adjuncts into their brews, making them cheap, impure and sometimes dangerous to consume.

But a more accurate school of thought is that the German government wanted to prevent too much competition between its brewers and bakers…who used lots of wheat and rye.

It’s been revoked in modern times (which is why you’re able to drink a real GermanHefeweizen, like Paulaner or Hacker Pschorr, today), but it remains a part of their beer culture and industry to this day.

What is “bottle conditioning” and what does it do for my beer?

Well, many beers are carbonated using a method called “force carbonation.” When large breweries bottle their beers, they often manually (artificially) pressurize the finished beer with carbon dioxide, such that it’s already carbonated when it hits the bottle.

Usually, this process is a result of having filtered out the remaining yeast, or pasteurizing the beer prior to this point.

They do this, because yeast eats malt sugar to make two things: alcohol and CO2. Too much yeast left in the bottle can often continue to ferment and create additional CO2…ranging in levels from none/slight to excessive.

If the latter, internal bottle carbonation can increase so much that the beer foams after opening. Or worse yet, explodes, due to an overabundance of internal pressure!

We call these beer grenades “bottle bombs.” So many brewers opt for this process, simply to create a uniform, stable product. All that said, the Belgians learned long ago that yeast left in the bottle, while somewhat risky, also creates a fuller, more complex and longer-lasting product.

So they made a practice of actually adding some additional yeast and sugar to the finished beer, at bottling time.

This is called “bottle conditioning.” To counteract the instability challenge, their solution was to create bottles that were sufficiently thick as to withstand any possible internal CO2 pressure, created by the added yeast and sugar.

And instead of capping them, they corked them, using a wire “cage” to secure down the cork and prevent it from popping prematurely…just as they do with Champagne.

Many brewers follow this tradition today, including some American brewers, like Allagash, Left Hand and Brewery Ommegang.

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