Job that’s ale and hearty for Bruce
13:43 16 September 2013
copyright: Archant 2013
It’s something that every beer lover can drink to – the chance of meeting an expert who can not only introduce them to amazing ale but can also help them find the perfect pint to enjoy with their food.
Bruce Ash is Norfolk’s first beer sommelier, an ale aficionado who appreciates that craft-brewed beer is as noble and as complex as the finest wine and who can sniff out distinct flavours like a truffle hound in a fertile French forest.
Bruce, from Aylsham, started his beer career on a youth training scheme when he was just 16. After a two-year apprenticeship with Woodforde’s, he has progressed from cask washer to cask racker, warehouse manager to senior brewer, brewery manager to beer sommelier. With head brewer Neil Bain, he is also responsible for bringing new products to market.
“I look after the day-to-day brewing, the weekly brewing schedules and the staff, I’m in charge of stock control and am involved in all the latest developments of the beers. I work in the lab to analyse bitterness, colour, gravities and yeast identification. I also taste beer. That’s one of the best bits of the job,” laughed Bruce, who in 26 years has seen Woodforde’s grow from producing 500,000 pints a year to more than five million.
“I’ve always loved beer and when I was younger I drank any kind of beer I could get my hands on. It was only when I started brewing when I was about 20 that I really started to understand what makes a really great beer and realised that I could pick up distinct flavours in what I was drinking.
“A great beer needs great ingredients and it needs to be consistent so that people can’t stop themselves coming back for more. You need the best malt and hops and the perfect balance of sweetness and bitterness.
“I have put in a great deal of practice over the years which, as you can imagine, has been a huge sacrifice… I don’t drink wine, I don’t drink spirits. I drink beer.”
Bruce qualified as a beer sommelier in January having completed a raft of courses at the wonderfully-named Beer Academy, an off-shoot of The Institute of Brewing and Distilling, to test his knowledge, palate and skill at pairing food with beer. In order to qualify, he had to pass qualifications in beer and cellar quality, judging beer and an advanced beer-tasting course.
His final exam involved blind-testing and then describing 15 different beers over the course on an hour. “Some had ‘off’ flavours in them for me to distinguish and I needed to identify the ABV. The final test was when the examiner brought out two beers and asked me to tell him what they were and what country they were from – from the first taste, I could tell they were from Germany and Belgium,” he said.
When I ask Bruce about the distinct flavours in beers, he produces “the beer flavour wheel”, a rainbow of flavours that an expert with a trained palate can distinguish with just a few sips.
Some of the flavours are quite…unusual (“don’t get me wrong, some of the flavours on the wheel are ones you desperately don’t want to taste in the beer you’re brewing yourself!”). They include: catty, cooked onion, shrimp-like, striking match, cheesy, plastics, cooked cabbage, burnt rubber, rancid – not quite the malty, hoppy joy of a really fantastic pint.
“I think the strangest flavour I’ve ever distinguished is Play-doh,” said Bruce, “Beers can have some very strange flavours in them and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. The art is in knowing what will and won’t work.”
For connoisseurs, Woodforde’s Wherry contains flavours including pine, citrus, apple and malt.
Every consignment of Woodforde’s is tested before it reaches a barrel, but despite spending a lifetime surrounded by beer, Bruce still enjoys a tipple – loyally, his favourite beer is Woodforde’s Nelson’s Revenge, but he is also fond of properly-brewed lagers and trying the beers produced by any of the county’s 30-plus breweries.
“The more you learn about beer, the more you want to try different beers and broaden your palate,” he explained.
On this note, I ask Bruce what prescription he’d advise for a non beer-drinker keen to dip a toe into the sea of craft beers now available in both Norfolk and the UK. I admit to him that I have never, ever, drunk so much as a half of beer.
“I’d suggest Woodforde’s Sundew, a crisp, golden beer which is really light on the palate and refreshing.,” said Bruce.
He added: “I hope that in time people will come to appreciate beer sommeliers in the same way they appreciate wine sommeliers – there are as many subtleties and flavours in beer as there are in wine and you need a high level of skill to understand the complexity of beer.
“The great thing is that you have to keep trying new beers in order to know what the competition is and what’s new – you can’t complain, really!”
Woodforde’s is at Broadland Brewery, Woodbastwick, Norwich, Norfolk, NR13 6SW, visit www.woodfordes.co.uk