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Beer vs wine Swiss-trained beer sommeliers take on the world

Cyril Hubert abandoned a career in gastronomy to follow his dream.


The surge in the popularity of boutique beers has given rise to a new breed of beer aficionado – the beer sommelier. Cyril Hubert, a Swiss-trained French beer sommelier hopes his passion will take him to the World Beer Sommeliers Championships.

But first, the 33-year-old from Montreux must win the next Swiss championship which will take place in 2017. To train for the competition, Hubert holds regular tasting courses in brasseries around Switzerland, an activity which he hopes to develop into a full-time business.

On this evening, some 30 people have gathered in a small bar in the western town of Biel to listen to Hubert explain how beer tasting differs from wine tasting.

“Roll the liquid around in your mouth, but don’t spit it out because the taste buds for bitterness are located at the back of the tongue,” says Hubert. It’s a fact that means limiting the number of beers for tasting session is a necessary evil. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in the bar becomes decidedly more relaxed as the evening progresses.

Also different to a wine tasting, each beer is sampled in a different style of glass and not in a simple beer mug.

“In this way, you experience the aromas,” says Hubert who explains that the sound of the bottle top popping, the way a beer froths when poured and the way it is poured, all contribute to the analysis and enjoyment of a new beer.

“For a beer that contains yeast, for example, you have to upend the bottle before serving it,” says Hubert. “You need all your sense to taste beer.”

Bourgeoning art

Hubert is one of 25 people from French-speaking Switzerland to have obtained his diploma as a beer sommelier upon completing a course offered by the hospitality association, GastroSuisse, and the Swiss Brasseries Association. The course was established in German-speaking Switzerland in 2010 and to date 150 people from that part from the country have also obtained their diplomas.

“We welcome quite a diverse public,” says Philipp Wach, who heads up the training course in French-speaking Switzerland that was established in 2012. Participants - who include bar owners, restauranteurs, and employees of beer distributors and specialist beer stores - complete a seven-day course followed by an exam.

“There are more and more artisanal brasseries in Switzerland but competence in assisting a clientele is still lacking,” says Wach. The aim of the diploma is to be able to offer the same kind of knowledge for beer as for wine, says Wach, but “beer will always be a niche market when compared to wine”. 

Beer ambitions

The first Swiss Beer Sommeliers Championship took place in Zurich last February and involved competitors being asked to identify different beers in a blind tasting. The winner and runner-up won the right to represent Switzerland at the world championships in Brazil in July, which was won by Italian Simonmattia Riva.

Of the second Swiss championship which will take place in 18-months’ time, Hubert does not bother to hide his ambition.

“I want to win, and to beat the Swiss Germans who are very good,” he says. “Winning both the Swiss and World championship titles would give my career some good momentum.”

Clearly passionate about his work, Hubert, who has lived in Montreux for ten years and who abandoned a career in gastronomy to follow his dream, has no illusions about the difficulty of choosing to build his future around beer. 

“I would like to be holding one or two tastings a week but for the moment it’s about one or two a month,” he says, adding that beer suffers from a bad reputation. “A lot of people think that this drink doesn’t really have different taste variations.”

Finding a favourite

While wine remains the number one drink in the hearts and minds of professional restauranteurs, Hubert hopes the explosion in the number of boutique beers will bring about a change.

“More and more people are looking for quality products and are ready to pay a higher price to have it,” he says.

But while he endlessly defends beer against its clichés, Hubert is no purist, sipping a mere shandy as he details the thousand and one flavours created by artisanal beer producers. Surely a shandy comes close to being sacrilegious for a beer specialist?

“I hate to say it but a shandy is good, especially on a very hot day like today,” he says. Hubert’s motto is there is a beer for every circumstance and every taste. “My job is to advise people in helping them find their favourites.”

According to Hubert, beer is good for your health - women can drink as much as half a litre a day, and men a litre. And the art of marrying beer with food is no less refined than for wine, he says.

“Have a dark, heavy beer to accompany a meal with a sauce. But a lighter version will go better with a salad,” he says. “The numerous stages of production make for multiple variations. Each ingredient brings its own complexity, and the quality of products is paramount.”

Risky drinking

The World Health Organisation warns of the high risks involved with drinking behaviours such as ‘binge drinking’ and ‘chronic alcohol consumption’.

According to international standards, ‘binge drinking’ for women is defined as the consumption of four or more standard drinks at a time, and five or more drinks for men.

‘Chronic alcohol consumption’ is defined as consumption of 20 grams of pure alcohol (approximated two standard glasses) per day for women, and 40 grams (approximately four standard glasses) for men.

A ‘standard’ drink is defined as three decilitres of beer or one of wine, both of which contain 10-12 grams of pure alcohol.

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(Adapted from French by Sophie Douez),

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