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Early love of pubs and ale set Sophie on course to become a top beer writer and taster

Added: Tuesday, August 20th 2013

Beer runs deep in the Atherton family. Sophie Atherton, the first woman beer sommelier and feted in July as the Beer Sommelier of the Year by the Parliamentary Beer Club, has her father to thank for her love of beer and good ale in particular.

Sophie, aged 39, grew up on the London-Middlesex border, where her father, Dennis, drank in his local, the Ash Tree in Ashford, a Fuller’s house “that’s still there today,” she recalls. “He loved real ale and hated lager. He came from the time when keg beer and lager had taken over. He called lager ‘cold and fizzy’ and said bitter was better value.”

Sophie studied politics and women’s studies at Anglia Polytechnic in Cambridge – now Anglia Ruskin University. “There was only smoothflow John Smith’s in the students’ bar so I dragged fellow students to local pubs – and there’s no shortage of good pubs in Cambridge.

“Then I went on holiday in Germany and discovered wheat beer in Bavaria. When I went further north into areas that sold lager I wanted to get back to Bavaria. I especially loved the dark wheat beers like Aventinus (pictured below).”

When she finished her studies, Sophie worked as a book seller for the Ottakar’s group that was eventually bought and merged with Waterstone’s. She rose to be a senior book seller and enjoyed the work. But she wanted to write and signed up for a course in broadcast journalism at Highbury College in Portsmouth that specialised in training for radio and television.

But she still needed writing experience and went to work as a reporter on the Western Telegraph in Pembrokeshire. With that firm grounding under her belt, she moved to Exeter as the press officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, covering a vast area that took in Devon, Dorset, Cornwall and Somerset. It launched a love affair with the West Country and she now lives in Paignton in Devon with her husband, Nick. She spends a lot of time commuting to London and other far-flung places but she has the advantage of one of the loveliest train journeys in the country, along the Devon coast.

When both her parents died suddenly, a distraught Sophie left the RSPB and after a period of contemplation decided to work as a freelance journalist.

“People asked me what I specialised in. Things were hotting up on the beer front. I was picking out beers on the bar in the pub one day and somebody said ‘You bore on about beer – why don’t you write about it?’”

Sara barton

She had the good luck to meet Phil Mellows, a leading writer on the brewing industry for the Morning Advertiser. He advised her to join the British Guild of Beer Writers and she launched her own blog.

“That led to a commission from the Times to write a piece about women brewers,” she says. “I chose Sara Barton (pictured) in Grantham as her brewery – Brewsters – sums up the role of women in the industry. “Things picked up from there and I started to do PR consultancy as well as writing.”

Sophie’s career seems to depend on meeting the right person in a pub at the right time. She went on a guild trip to Burton-on-Trent that was, she admits, was aa glorified pub crawl. She was chatting in one pub to Burton MP Andrew Griffiths, who also chairs the Parliamentary Beer Club, when guild member Paul Hegarty pointed out that no women beer writers had qualified as beer sommeliers. Paul does PR work for the Beer Academy that runs the sommelier programme. A dozen beer writers had won the accreditation but they were all men, he pointed out.

“It was the light bulb moment,” Sophie says. “If I were to become the first woman sommelier it would get publicity and I would make a better living, as I was only ticking over then. So I pulled out all the stops to take the course. I did beer and food matching at home – my husband Nick is a good cook – and I honed my knowledge of beer styles.

“I was really nervous when I sat down to be interviewed for the certificate but after just 10 minutes the examiner put me at my ease my saying: ‘Shall we have a beer?’

“I had to demonstrate my knowledge of beer and I had a big, fat notebook full of tasting notes. Fortunately I’d been quietly expanding my knowledge of beer over the years. I was grilled for an hour and a half. Beers were put in front of me and I had to describe their flavours and which food to match them with. When I said I’d have a Devon cream tea with Cantillon Gueuze, the examiner laughed and said he would have to try that when he was next in the West Country.

Aventinus

“Finally he shook my hand and said I was the first woman beer sommelier. The publicity opened doors. There were reports of my accreditation in many newspapers, including the Sun.

“I did a beer tasting with Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour and I was booked for a tasting event at the Eden Project in Cornwall with 100 people and then did an event for St Austell brewery during Cask Ale Week. I was on TV for the Jamie Oliver Brits versus Belgians programme. The bookings paid for the cost of the sommelier course.”

In July she was asked by Paul Hegarty if she would do a beer and food matching talk at the Parliamentary Beer Club’s annual awards dinner in Westminster. It required her to stand and talk through the beers for each course in front of a large audience of MPs, peers and brewers.

“We rehearsed the dinner and I had two minutes to talk about each beer. I was really nervous on the night but it went well and when I’d introduced the last beer I thought I’d finished. They announced the awards for Brewer of the Year and Lifetime Achievement Award and then to my astonishment they called me up to receive the award for Beer Sommelier of the Year. I didn’t know they were making that award and I nearly fell over!”

Sophie’s plans for the future are to carry on writing and talking. “I’d love to write a book and also get more on TV about beer. It galls me that beer is looked on as wine’s poor relation. Every newspaper has a wine columnist. People don’t know about beer. They think it’s a generic drink and they’ve no idea of the styles available. When they taste them, they’re surprised.”

And beer sommelier Atherton is determined to go on surprising people.