7 questions with: Natalya Watson, beer sommelier
Beer Sommelier, Advanced Cicerone, Author, Podcaster, Educator and beer lover, we speak to Natalya Watson about food pairings, beer education, future trends and more!
How did you get into beer?
I’ve had a rather round-about way into beer. The short answer is I was introduced to good beer by friends in graduate school and was hooked from there.
But the slightly longer answer is probably a little more helpful for someone looking to follow a similar path! After studying microbiology at UCLA, I pursued my Master’s in Public Health at UC Berkeley, focused on food safety and nutrition. (At was at our local pizza place in Berkeley where my beer enlightenment began!).
After a short food policy internship in Washington, DC, I moved to New York City and worked in communications and marketing for an organic baby food company. While in NYC, I used beer as my way to get to know the city, visiting bars, breweries, and bottle shops in every borough. From there, I took on a part-time bartending role, started home brewing and blogging with friends, and began to formalise my beer education, passing level one of Cicerone Certification Program: Certified Beer Server.
After three years as a beer geek, I decided I was ready to see if I could work in beer full-time. So I took the plunge and relocated to London. I got my start working behind the bar at Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green, then took on the role of UK Marketing Manager for Belgian family brewery Duvel Moortgat, which I held for the next three years.
During my time at Duvel, I furthered my beer expertise, becoming both a Beer Sommelier and Certified Cicerone. I then began teaching at the Beer & Cider Academy, judging at beer competitions, and launched my podcast Beer with Nat, to help shine a spotlight on the incredible women in the beer industry that I was meeting along the way.
Focusing in on my passion for beer education, I left Duvel last May to set up my own business, Beer with Nat, centred around tastings, training, and consultancy. Since then, I’ve achieved my Advanced Cicerone certification and my debut book, Beer: Taste the Evolution in 50 Styles, was published by Kyle Books in March 2020.
Now, during lockdown, I’ve taken my tastings online and will be launching a Virtual Beer School, a 12-session interactive online prep course for the Cicerone Certified Beer Server exam, on September 3, 2020. Want to learn more about beer and show what you know? Join me! Sign up here: https://discoveringbeer.co.uk/virtualbeerschool/
What motivated your decision to become both a Beer Sommelier and Advanced Cicerone? And what are the main differences in studying for both?
The more interested I became in beer, the more I sought to build not only my confidence, but my credibility. So I set my sights on achieving a certification as a way to ‘show what I know’.
I started with the Cicerone Certification Program as my journey into beer began in the US. In New York, I passed level one, the Certified Beer Server. Then not long after moving to the UK, I passed level two, Certified Cicerone. But I quickly realised that the local certification – becoming an Accredited Beer Sommelier at The Beer & Cider Academy – was more widely recognised here, so I set my sights on that qualification next. Then, knowing I still had more to learn, I went for the Advanced Cicerone exam late last year. After a six week wait for results, I found out earlier this year that I passed(!), becoming one of nine people in the UK to hold the qualification and one of 136 worldwide.
In terms of how the exams differ, the Beer Sommelier accreditation requires the completion of three daylong in-person courses at The Beer & Cider Academy, followed by a period of self-study and the completion of a portfolio of evidence prior to sitting your assessment. The exam is a 1.5 hour oral assessment which involves 15 blind tastings (think flavour descriptions, style identification and suggestions for beer and food pairings), along with the identification of 5 off-flavours.
The Advanced Cicerone exam is the third level from the Cicerone Certification Program and preparation is all through self-study using the syllabus provided. It involves months of reading, blind tastings, off flavour practice, beer and food pairing and more. The exam is a full-day affair with two 3-hour written portions, two 45-minute tasting sessions, and two interviews. (I’m exhausted just thinking about it!)
The Cicerone Certification Program has a slightly broader focus in that it also includes information on keeping and serving beer (draft systems, beer storage, clean glassware, etc.), in addition to flavour evaluation, styles, ingredients and the brewing process, and beer and food pairing.
Both certainly have their challenges, but they’re also both incredibly rewarding. If you do set your sights on going for either, I’m more than happy to provide help or advice!
Let’s talk beer and food pairings! What advice would you give to those just starting out with learning how to pair beer with food?
Beer and food have so many flavours in common, they really are a perfect match. When you’re first getting into beer and food pairing, start with these basics.
First up, beer and food should be matched on their intensity: the beer shouldn’t overpower the food and, likewise, the food shouldn’t overpower the beer. So an imperial stout with a sea bass isn’t a fair match! Likewise, a steak with a light lager won’t really work.
Once you’ve matched on intensity, we then focus in on how the flavours interact, which is most simply summed up by the 3 c’s: complement, contrast, and cut.
Complementary interactions find similar flavours in the beer and food, like a chocolatey porter with a slice of chocolate cake. Alternatively, we can take the contract approach and play flavours in the beer and food against each other, like when pairing a stout with oysters. The salinity of the oysters makes the stout seem sweeter by comparison. Finally, beer has some incredible cutting properties – its carbonation, bitterness and booze can cut through any heavy or greasy foods, effectively scrubbing fat off the palate and enabling you to go back for more.
These are just some basic principles… the fun is in experimenting, so get to it!
What’s your favourite beer and food pairing and why does it work well?
I’ve got a big sweet tooth so I’m a big fan of beer and chocolate pairings. A really simple one to start with is Fuller’s London Porter with Green & Black’s Milk Chocolate. The beer already has loads of soft, caramelly, milk chocolate sweetness, so it perfectly complements those flavours in the chocolate itself.
But to try something a little different, I also love pairing Duvel Tripel Hop Citra with Café Tasse Lemon White Chocolate. We’ve both got complementary and contrasting interactions here. The Citra hops complement the citrus in the chocolate, while the sweetness of the white chocolate is a nice contrast to the beer’s high bitterness. It may sound a little out there, but it’s well worth trying!
How do you feel about the growing number of craft breweries being bought over by “big beer” brands?
I try to see the positive, which is that these acquisitions do often make craft beer more accessible to a wider audience, particularly through supermarkets.
While many beer lovers are likely already buying their beers from bottle shops or specialist beer bars, those new to beer may not know those outlets exist yet. (I know I certainly didn’t when I was first getting into beer myself.)
If beer drinkers can be introduced to more interesting styles, flavours and ingredients through their local supermarket, hopefully they’ll be encouraged to seek out craft beer-focused bars, breweries and bottle shops and start discovering even more about the wonderful world of beer. We’ve all got to start somewhere!
What brewers are you drinking most of at the moment?
This summer, I've enjoyed some great beers from Orbit, Duration, Utopian, Lost and Grounded and more.
Orbit's head brewer, Paul, re-brewed one of his old recipes, Tzatziki Sour, which - you guessed it! - is a sour beer brewed with cucumber and mint to taste just like tzatziki dip. It's certainly out there flavour-wise, but it's an incredibly refreshing summer thirst-quencher. Orbit's kolsch, Nico, is also one of my go-tos. Duration released their Quiet Song Belgian Wit this summer which was delicious. I've also loved all the lagers I've tried from Utopian Brewing - from their take on a Czech Pils, to a Vienna lager. And speaking of lager, is it even summer if you haven't had a Keller Pils from Lost and Grounded?! Their Saison d'Avon is also a winner if you're looking for something a little different. Cheers!
What are you expecting to become the next big thing in craft beer trends in the following months?
I think we’ll start seeing more sour IPAs here in the UK. They’re quite an interesting style as they’ve got a grainy malt sweetness, lactic tartness (from kettle souring), a gentle hop bitterness and loads of fruit-forward hop flavours. They’re not actually a style I particularly enjoy, as I think they actually have a bit too much going on(!), but they were certainly having a moment when I was last home in the States, so I can see them trending here soon.
If I can request a style I’d like to see more of though, I’m really hoping more breweries give dark lagers a go this year – like Vienna lager or Munich Dunkel. I recently tried Utopian’s Vienna Lager and Orbit’s Munich Dunkel and both were delicious. So they are out there…. I just hope they stick around and would love to see a few more breweries giving this style a go!
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