Sisterhood Is Brew-tiful
Beer is the third most popular beverage on the planet. But when it comes to food and drink pairing, wine reigns supreme. In fact, is there even such a thing as a beer sommelier?
As it turns out, there is. We met Tara and Crystal Luxmore, also known as the Beer Sisters, at Tequila Bookworm. Sporting matching tops proclaiming "Sisterhood is Brew-tiful" and broad smiles, the two buck the highbrow image often associated with that of wine sommeliers. No silver-plated tasting dishes. No self-entitled stare.
The name Beer Sisters isn't just catchy marketing, either; they're actual sisters, as well as Prud'homme Certified Beer Sommeliers, a Canadian designation. Crystal also holds a certificate in the American Cicerone program, while Tara is set to write hers in the Fall. They've also run a beer education school catering to the public out of Tequila Bookworm's upper level. We couldn't think of people better suited to explain the inner workings of the world of beer.
"I never thought that I could be a beer writer," says Crystal. A freelance journalist by trade, her first exposure to the world of beer tasting came while looking for a good reason to expense a trip to Australia. Cliche topics, like the wines or Great Barrier Reef Down Under wouldn't cut it. As luck would have it, a local friend had recently gotten into the craft brewing scene and suggested visiting the local craft breweries. Eight breweries later, Crystal returned to Toronto and pitched a regular beer column to her then-newspaper, The Grid.
During that time, Crystal dove deeper into the realm of beer and started to study it. It started with writing the Prud'homme exams, followed by working towards the Cicerone designation. Soon, Crystal was setting up events and beer tastings across the city, with Tara often working as a beer backup - selling tickets and helping with setup.
Finally, an opportunity to go formally into business together came when both became pregnant at the same time. Tara, who has a background working in visual merchandising in Canada and the UK, took her time on maternity leave to pursue the Prud'homme certification at night.
Becoming A Beer Somm
"A lot of people are like 'you must have the best job, you guys just drink beer everyday'," says Tara. But in reality, the job remains a job. The Beer Sisters keep methodical notes of all the beers sent to them for sampling. Tastings often start at ten in the morning, which the two inform me is when our palates are the most awake.
"We spend a lot of time at home, pouring a small amount of beer into a tasting glass, dumping it, writing a few quick notes about it, and dumping the rest of the bottle," says Crystal, reasoning that if they drank whole bottles for breakfast there would never be any productivity.
Similarly, attaining certification as a Prud'homme Sommelier or Cicerone isn't just a matter of drinking beer. While the exams don't have the cultish rigour that the master sommelier certifications are portrayed in the Netflix documentary, Somm, there are some similarities.
The upper-level exams (there are four levels for the U.S. designation, three in Canada) have a blind tasting component; however, these don't require mentat-like abilities to discern terroir, style, and year. Instead, candidates are tasked with pinpointing a particular style of beer, as well as providing tasting descriptions. There's also a portion devoted to detecting the off-flavours that can sometimes occur during the brewing, transport, or serving of the beer; things like light-struck beer, poorly-cleaned taps, or hiccups in a complex brewing process can all create unpleasant flavours. Examiners recreate this by doctoring beer samples with special flavour kits.
Equally as important are each exam's written component: a series of essays and multiple choice questions designed to test an applicants knowledge of beer styles; brewing methods; and maintenance of a bar's precious taps, lines, and kegs. Tara pulls out one of her Cicerone study guides to show us the different sections. It's a spiral-bound monstrosity as thick as one of our tasting glasses.
Acing higher levels of the tests requires more than booksmarts and a sensitive palate. "You have to have some connections in beer so you can go to a bar and take apart their draft lines and clean their system and talk to a brewer," says Crystal, "so most people that get it are working in beer, full time, for a few years."
Luckily for the sisters, the connections that they've forged with bars and breweries over the years provides ample space for practice. The two have time carved out at Tequila Bookworm to learn the ins and outs of its draught lines.
"With beer bars there's a lot that can happen from the keg fridge to the glass," says Tara. "And there's a lot that needs to happen to have perfect, perfectly-served beer: that's perfectly carbonated, no off-flavours, clean glassware. Things, I guess, that we take for granted."
The Science of Taste
It's at this point that our tasting flights appear from the bar. The two sisters have picked a series of four for us to discuss: High Road's Gose, Folly Brewpub's Field Day, Bellwood Brewery's Jutsu, and Granite City Brewery's Broad Axe. Yet before we even get to the beer Crystal and Tara break out a small bag of Jelly Belly beans.
"I want you to plug your nose, then chew the jelly bean a couple of times," says Tara as she hands each one of us a jelly bean. I bite into the little red bean in my hand.
"What do you taste?"
Barely anything. Just a vague sweetness. A glance around the table shows that it's not just me.
"Now unplug your nose. Do you notice a difference?"
As soon as my fingers leave my nose, my senses are flooded with the true taste of the candy; in this case, it's cherry. It's a simple demonstration of how closely linked the sense of smell is to our sense of taste.
"We all know that our tongues can sense six different flavours," explains Crystal. Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami, and - the new kid on the block - fattiness. "Our noses can pick up 20,000 different aromas, which then we connect and perceive as flavour."
Smell is so important to tasting that Tara and Crystal recommend never tasting a beer straight from a bottle or can. Pouring a beer into a glass releases carbonation, resulting in more scent compounds rising to the top. It also means that, for a dedicated taster, wearing perfume or cologne can throw off one's sense of taste.
For sessions of multiple beer samples, tasters can reset their sense of smell by sniffing the back of their hand, similar to smelling coffee beans during perfume trials.
High Road - Gose
Tasting Like A Cicerone
Now it's time to get into the tasting. The two guide us through our first glass, a gose from High Road, with a practiced cadence.
The glass barely lifts from the table before we come to the first stage, called a distance sniff. Some of the more volatile flavour compounds - off-flavours or sulphur compounds - can waft as high as six inches above the glass, giving an ephemeral first impression. "If you go in deep, sometimes you might miss them," says Crystal.
Not all beers will have this though; the gose is a delicate beer, and I get very little this far away from the glass. We're also not seated in the most ideal condition for this - next to Tequila Bookworm's open garage-door windows and nearby Queen Street's traffic.
Next, a closer nosing of the glass. This time, the brew is a mere inch or two from my nose. "Take a gentle sniff during this," says Tara as she cups a hand over the top of her glass and gently swirls. I'm greeted by distinct fruity, citrus notes emanating from the beer. Perhaps a touch of honey or stone fruit.
"What you see visually does make a difference on how we perceive flavour," says Crystal. In much the same manner as wine, we each hold our glasses up to the light to observe its colour and clarity. This beer has a pale, straw colour and is nearly opaque; a finger placed on the opposite side of the glass can barely be seen.
"You're also, as a cicerone, looking to see if the glass is clean, if there's any sediment floating around," adds Tara.
Finally, we settle into our first sip. "You want to coat your tongue, don't float the tongue," cautions Tara. The first sips of the gose are tart, almost puckering. This particular beer style originated in a German mining town whose water source had some residual salinity. That, coupled with the use of lactobacillus - the same yeast strain used to sour yogurts and sourdough - makes for a style of beer that is light and refreshing.
With more careful sips I coax out fruity notes - likely from a New World hops strain - and creamy, wheat-like notes on the exhale. It's perfect for the summer, and a great start to the tastings.
Folly Brewpub - Field Day
Cut, Contrast, and Compliment
The next glass is a wheat beer from Folly Brewpub, a small Dufferin Grove micro-brewery that specializes in Belgian-style ales. This one beckons with soft, citrusy notes as well. It's made with a slightly sour yeast - though not one as sour as a lactobacillus - which lends a white wine fruitiness. There's also a pronounced bitterness that slowly rises above our first sip's grapefruit and orange notes.
"It takes thirty to fifty seconds after you swallow for bitterness to register," explains Crystal. I'm surprised by this beer; its bitterness is nearly overpowering. But, especially with food pairing, that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
"The first rule of beer [pairings] is to intensity match," says Crystal. The two sisters suggest that Folley's offering would stand well alongside a bold Caesar salad. The beer's bitterness would lend enough heft to match with the dressing's strong garlic and anchovy base. At the same time, some of its more subtle citrus notes could compliment the lemon and bacon.
In addition to intensity matching, Tara and Crystal share three more basic pairing principles: cut, contrast, and compliment.
Compliment is probably the easiest to grasp. The malted barley in beer makes many styles work well with foods that also have grain-like characteristics (bread would be a super simple pairing example). The beer making process also produces a maillard reaction in the grain sugars, making something like a nut brown ale work well with a pan-roasted pork chop.
On the other hand, playing with contrasting flavours can yield some nearly unbelievable pairings. A classic example is pairing fresh oysters with an Irish stout, like Guinness. At first glance, the two seem too disparate in flavour; yet, in practice, the stouts dark, roasted acidity works to highlight the oyster's natural sweetness. Tara and Crystal also suggest an India Pale Ale (IPA) with carrot cake - something I'm looking forward to experiencing myself.
Finally, there's cut. It's here that beer might have a distinct leg-up on wine: bubbles. "It's often why somms - when they're really, really stuck for a great pairing - will turn to Champagne. Because it's dry and bubbly, so can cut through anything," explains Crystal. "Beer is often dry and bubbly. [Bubbles] will cut through the fat of cheese, they'll cut through even eggs. A classic brunch pairing is an eggy dish with a wheat beer [...] like an eggs benedict."
At the moment, beer and food pairings don't have the same culinary cachet as wine pairings. The art is still only found at the more beer-first establishments in the city, and never at the more haute cuisine places in the city. But that doesn't mean doesn't have the same potential. "We're really passionate about beer and food, and we think there's a big place for it", says Crystal.
Granite City Brewery - Broad Axe
Breaking The Rules
As we start to move on to the next glass, I'm intrigued by the order that Tara and Crystal have chosen for today's tasting. "It's a tricky one," says Crystal, "because usually you put sours last because of the acidity. Then you go in order from lightest to darkest - not in colour, but flavour profile."
Instead, they've decided to start with sours first because of it's lighter flavour and low alcohol content on paper. Then, the stout in the middle to break up the experience, finally ending with the pale ale.
"This is an unconventional way of doing a beer tasting - putting the stout in the middle," explains Crystal, "but a brewmaster friend of mine often does it to break up a bunch of pale beers."
This one, an Irish stout from Granite City, provides intense notes even at a distance sniff ("soy sauce!" says Kim). My tastings revealed plenty of roasted and caramel flavours - think toasted nuts and fresh coffee. There's a bitterness from the dark-roasted malts used for this style, but it's much more subdued compared to the hop-heavy Folly wheat.
The method works. Much like smelling the back of our hands to reset our noses, the dark brew now at hand is a welcome break from the hop, citrus, and sour characteristics of the last two beers. It's also an interesting reminder of how new the cicerone designation is in the culinary world. Unlike the entrenched, almost dogmatic, wine industry, beer remains in a state of flux.
"There's lots of sort-of rules that people are now breaking so early. It's just like any new school of thought on anything," says Crystal. "There's lots of room for creativity and trying new things. And I think it's important to just try stuff and not be afraid to be wrong. I think in so many things like wine tasting or beer tasting [...] you're afraid to be wrong."
Bellwood Brewery - Jutsu
A Brave New World
"Our last one, [is] Jutsu from Bellwoods," explains Crystal. "Bellwoods I would say being one of the marquee breweries in Canada - I think it's probably one of the most famous craft breweries outside of Canada. Sometimes people judge themselves by what Canadian beers are pouring in New York City.
Made with a Vermont ale yeast and plenty of hops, Jutsu has a lot of complexity. On the nose is a spicy, resinous pine note that visitors to Kensington Market might be well acquainted with. We can taste the hops, too: stone fruit, citrus, and spicy pine/citrus notes, but with a subdued bitterness.
"Yeah, weed," Crystal laughs. "Hops are a cousin of marijuana and they're very resinous. So, depending on what strain [of hops] you get, you can get very resinous, almost dank, smells."
An American Pale Ale, Jutsu is closely related to the IPA style that has swept the international beer scene for close to a decade. Hops, especially American hops, are a key contributor to these big beers. This wasn't always the case for beer.
The advent of Prohibition in the '20s saw many smaller breweries shutter permanently. After the law was repealed in the '30s, only a handful of large breweries remained producing the light commercial lagers we often associate with North American beer culture. This all changed once home brewing became legal again in the '70s.
"A bunch of home brewers started to look at English brewing traditions, and German brewing traditions, and Belgian brewing traditions, and started to experiment," says Crystal. "So there's American hops that American home brewers were trying out - different flavours that British brewers [and] German brewers, wouldn't touch. They said too big, too bold, too brassy."
It wasn't long before these hop-heavy beers exploded into the market, a trend that spread internationally. "Breweries all over the world are looking to America for beer styles," says Tara. Crystal recently traveled back to Australia to discover that many craft shops were brewing Vermont-style IPAs.
A big reason for this is the availability of ingredients beer makers enjoy. Unlike wine grapes, with their distinct sense of terroir, each ingredient in beer is readily accessible around the world. Crystal explains to me that if a Canadian brewery wanted to make a Vienna-style lager, for instance, it could order malt from that region and yield a very similar result.
This has served to fuel innovation in the craft beer industry - allowing for styles to spread across the world and brew masters to put their own touches on it. And with artisanal yeast growers, new hop varietals, and customer malters starting to put up shop to meet the demand for different ingredients, it's safe to say we're enjoying a beer Renaissance.
"Now there's a craft brewery in almost every neighbourhood in Toronto. There's a craft brewery in every major Canadian city," says Tara, "Like I grew up in Northern Ontario in a small town of 2,500 people [...] and there's a craft brewery that's opening up there."
I rise from my chair just a little wobbly, and with the sense that we've just scratched the surface of the world of beer. Modern beer culture holds such a refreshing dichotomy of ideas. On one hand, beer has gone gourmet. Drinkers across the world are starting to think about food pairing, IBUs, hop varietals, and proper glassware. On the other, beer still remains the beverage of the everyman. It's accessible, without the pomp of wine - and not nearly as many unbendable rules.
As we say our goodbyes to the Beer Sisters, I glance over at Tequila Bookworm's prodigious beer menu. Four down, more than a handful of good nights to go.
Words by Nicholas Wong. Photos by Abhishek Dekate.