Tasting Room: Annette May, Certified Cicerone

Michigan BLUE Magazine
Summer Issue 2013

When you dine at a fancy restaurant with a lengthy wine list, you are usually offered some assistance by the sommelier, a high-falutin’ title for the person who knows the most about the bottles that stock the wine room. If you pull up a barstool at the local pub, you’re less likely to find many craft beer experts pulling the handles on the draught dispenser. But, a similar bartending background combined with strenuous certified training has qualified Annette May, Beer Manager of Dearborn’s Merchant’s Fine Wine, to be the country’s first female Certified Cicerone®, the beer world’s equivalent to the best sommelier in the business.

A native Aussie and former nurse, May came to Michigan and her unique notoriety by way of Chicago and happenstance. Over the years, she’s lectured about beer to national conferences, taught classes about beer tasting, served as a judge in homebrew competitions, even made many pints with her husband, a professional and home brewer, in their basement. In short, she probably knows more about beer and beer styles than an entire barroom full of seasoned “experts”. Who better to set us straight on the best brews to drink with the chilly fall season’s hearty fare?

Wine pairing usually starts with two choices: red or white and sweet or dry. What do you first think about when pairing beer with food?

Because beer has so many different components, it’s usually best to think about the food first. Though starting with some preferences about whether you enjoy “sweet, bitter or spicy” and “dark or pale” could be useful.

Are there simple ways to classify beer styles?

Start with ALE & LAGER, because every beer is either one or the other, and take it from there. If you want to get crazy and explore the finer points, you can follow an organization called “BJCP” (“Beer Judge Certification Program”) which classifies many sub-styles of lager and ale into 23 categories that each have up to 5 sub-styles each!

As a Certified Cicerone®, you must have all those categories memorized, but what advice would you give the rest of us everyday beer drinkers?

Similar to wine and food pairings, it’s always good to match intensity with intensity but when I’m asked to recommend a brew, I like to think of three basic options: complement, contrast, or cleanse.

I’ll suggest a complementary flavor if I’m matching a nice grilled piece of meat with a beer that has similar caramel, toasty flavors. If a dish has a bit of heat or spice, selecting a contrasting flavor can tone down the intensity. A hot Asian dish with a soothing carbonated wheat beer, or a spicy Indian dish with a sweeter malty pale ale. Finally, beer has carbonation that can cleanse the palate, so a highly carbonated Farmhouse Ale or other Belgian ale can be wonderful with a fatty cheese or foie gras.

Speaking of food and beer pairings, have any personal favorites that come to mind?

This probably deserves to be a longer conversation (over a pint or two), but I’ll start with three. Pork Mole (made by me) with Chipotle Porter.  (one really complements the other). Roasted duck with hazelnuts & strawberries over greens with an “Olde Bruin” or Belgian sour brown ale (a good example of a contrasting style).  Cheese and beer – endless combinations.

With 100’s of microbrew choices out there, is there any one style that is a tried-and-true customer favorite?

Here at Merchant’s Fine Wines, India Pale Ale is the favorite beer style amongst craft beer drinkers. Wheat beers are also hugely popular, especially in summer.

What was your most memorable meal while traveling in Michigan?

Oh gosh, there have been so many. I think the “Chef’s Choice” menu at The Cook’s House in Traverse City. Though the Duck Confit Nachos at Vivant Brewery in Grand Rapids are to die for.

What is your favorite place on earth?

My house, because my kitchen manages to continuously bring forth EXCELLENT meals, and my basement has a brewery in it!

What do you most enjoy about the beer business?

Besides the actual beer, the happy, nice, warm people that are part of the whole “craft beer world”. What could be better than to make people happy with something you’ve created yourself?

What is your most satisfying achievement?

Being married to my husband, who shares my passion in both beer and food, and who loves to spread joy (with beer and food) to everyone as much as I do. Though being the first female Certified Cicerone is pretty good too, as it gave recognition that YES, WOMEN LOVE, AND KNOW ABOUT BEER TOO!

What’s new for the microbrew?

Lower alcohol, full-flavored options, called “Session” or “Table” beers, are becoming more popular of late. These are the kind of beers that are full of flavor yet low enough in alcohol that one can enjoy a few pints without falling down. For years, it has been overshadowed by the “arms race” to brew the strongest, or most bourbon-aged, extreme beer out there and the fact that there’s a lot more skill required to brew a 3% beer that’s full of flavor than a 12% beer that just packs a big punch.

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