PHOTO: Laura Brehaut/Postmedia News
Laura Brehaut/Postmedia News
Originally published on August 1, 2012;
Calgary Herald: August 11, 2012; page H8
Mirella Amato knows her beer. She holds the distinction of being the first woman in Canada to become a Certified Cicerone (pronounced sis-uh-rohn), which is the beer equivalent of a sommelier, and is constantly expanding her knowledge and experience through further education and interactions in the industry. Amato, also a sensory evaluation specialist, holds guided tastings, judges internationally, trains staff and designs beer lists for restaurants, and consults with breweries on product development.
When looking for a change in careers a few years ago, Amato looked for a way to combine her entertainment background – she has a degree in performance – with her passion for beer. She started talking to brewers to determine the best role for her skill set, “They were saying it would be great if someone could just help spread the word and get people excited about beer and tasting beer so I took a bunch of classes, wrote a bunch of exams and continue to study and learn as much as I can and share what I’ve learned with as many people as I can.”
One of the public guided tastings that Amato runs is the Girl’s Guided Beer Tour, which is in its fourth year at Toronto’s Festival of Beer and second year at the Queer Beer Festival.
“The tour is really about reconnecting women and beer because I think that connection has been lost a little bit,” Amato says. “Certainly if we think about the stereotype of the beer drinker most people will immediately imagine a guy, so I’m exploring the reasons behind that. I’m also exploring the lost connection between women and beer because brewing historically was always a woman’s job, and it’s only quite recently that it has become more of a male-dominated field.”
The Girl’s Guided Beer Tour was inspired by Melissa Cole, a beer specialist in the U.K., who was running a similar tour at the Great British Beer Festival. With Cole’s go-ahead, Amato made the concept her own and started running female-focused tours in Toronto. Central to Amato’s tour is the idea that women don’t appreciate different beers than men. The women-only environment is intended to make women comfortable in their exploration of beer and excited about trying new styles. “There are a lot of people who are trying to market beer towards women who have decided that very specific flavours will appeal to women,” Amato says. “Just look around. There are no two women out there who have the same taste. We all like different things. We all like different clothes. We all like different shoes. We all eat different food. It just seems really silly to me to think that there’s a specific kind of beer that will appeal more to women than other beers.”
Amato sees her approach as the opposite of that pigeonholing. The beers that she chooses for the tour are the same beers she would choose to present to a group of men, “it’s just the content and that connection between women and beer in what I’m talking about is different,” she says. The content focuses on the history of women and beer, from a goddess in Ancient Egypt (Tenenet, goddess of childbirth and beer), to Saint Brigid of Kildare, Ireland (who is said to have turned her dirty bathwater to beer), to notable Canadian brewers: Susannah Oland of Moosehead Brewery and McAuslan Brewing’s Master Brewer Ellen Bounsall.
Although Amato’s business, Beerology, is expanding from the early days when the majority of her work was guided tours, she doesn’t see herself moving away from opportunities to connect with burgeoning beer drinkers. “I don’t want to ever lose sight of what beer is like to someone who is just discovering it for the first time,” she says. “My goal is to get more people into beer and excited about beer, and helping them understand beer and all of the fun ways to explore it.”
The focus of Amato’s work is not on the process of brewing itself but on the resulting flavours – how different styles translate into flavour, describing flavours, and pairing flavours with those in food. “I was always a huge fan of beer because it’s delicious,” Amato says. “In particular I was intrigued by craft beer and the fact that it was brewed locally. I could visit the breweries, I could talk to the brewers, I could get my hands on the ingredients and taste them and smell them and that whole experience was really exciting to me.”
Experimentation and play are key to Amato’s approach to her work. She finds inspiration from others in the hospitality industry, for example she has been working with chefs on pairings as part of the Ontario Brewer Podcast series. “They have surprised me with pairings that I would have never have thought of,” she says. One such example was “the [Old Credit] Holiday Honey Ale, a honey beer, and [Chef Howard Dubrovsky] paired it with a really spicy kimchi soup. So the soup was very bold and the beer was mellow and sweet.” This particular pairing is from the May podcast, which is available on Amato’s site. Amato’s number one suggestion for people interested in pairing beer with food is to simply try different combinations. “Pairing beer with food is fun,” she says. “The great thing about it is that beer is not a huge investment. Especially now in Ontario you can buy single bottles, you can buy single cans, and you can even pick up three or four different beers if you’re with friends and sample each of them with your food to see which one you like best.”
If you prefer to pair by the books, Amato recommends that rule #1 be to match the intensity of the beer with the intensity of your food. For example, if your food is extremely flavourful and intense, you wouldn’t want to go with a light beer because “you might as well just be drinking water,” Amato says. On the flip-side, if the flavours in your meal are delicate and light you’ll want to stay away from a high alcohol or bitter beer because it will overwhelm your food. From there, we have what Amato refers to as “Mirella’s rule of thumb,” because as far as she knows, she’s the originator. “It’s more of a guideline than anything else,” she says. “And it’s just something that I’ve found works.” Central to the rule is to match the colour of your beer with the colour of the main ingredient in your dish. For example, if you were eating chicken or white fish, following Amato’s rule you would go with a strawberry- or gold-coloured beer, and if you were eating pork or lentils an amber beer would be a good choice, and going even darker, if you were eating steak or chocolate cake then a dark brown or black beer would make a good match. “I don’t know why it works, but it kind of does. Always keeping in mind the intensity,” she says. “There are all sorts of little tips and guidelines. I think just starting there you’ll find that beers just pair themselves. It’s pretty awesome.”
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