Rise of the Beer Sommelier: A Pint’s Worth with Hayley Jensen

By on Friday, February 25th, 2011

Photo © J. Baskin

Hey, let’s play a game of word association! You’re in? Fantastic. Ready? When I say beer, you think…

Barrel.
Pong.
Blast.
Tap.
Belly.
Keg.
Sommelier.

Wait, what? No? Not that last one? Huh. Well, that might change soon, my pint-lifting, suds-sipping friends.  

With craft beer production on a slow but steady rise in the United States (according to the latest stats by the Brewers Association, retail craft-beer dollar sales rose 12% in the U.S. last year—not too shabby) and our collective interest in drinking it exploding like a vigorously shaken can, a beer sommelier just might be coming to a restaurant near you.

So what is this barrel-of-fun-sounding profession all about? We caught up with Hayley Jensen, Beer Sommelier for Daniel Boulud’s boudin-busting hot-spot DBGB on the Bowery in New York City and got her to give us the low-down on the hi-life.

AZ:  The idea of a beer sommelier is pretty new, isn’t it? Why do you think there’s a need for it now?

HJ: It is new, and I think it’s mainly that people started to see craft beer around, and it just started gaining popularity. Even at a local grocery or deli, there are more small production craft beers available and people are into trying them. To have someone in my postion around to give you hand, I think that it’s a resource that people didn’t know they needed. Sometimes even when I’m introducing myself people are kind of, like… unsure about it. But then they realize really quickly that it’s something really helpful when you’re trying to navigate this new world of craft beer.

AZ: Get any funny reactions?

HJ: Honestly, the thing that I hear the most is people being like, “Wow! What a cool job!” People are usually really excited and supportive, and maybe shocked that the position even exists.

AZ: I hear you brew as well. Were you always this into beer?

HJ: I never, ever, ever drank beer. My family doesn’t drink beer. And so after college in Chicago when I moved to New York, I was applying for a job as a waitress at a place that had a really good beer list, and they were like, “Do you like beer? Do you drink beer?” and I was like, “Uh, yeah! I love it!” I mean, I wanted to get the job! But once I started and was tasting really good beer, I was totally hooked.

AZ: What’s the best part of the job, or is that sort of obvious?

HJ: Tasting all the new stuff, because there are so many new breweries opening and so many more producing more beer that they can distribute nationwide, so I get to taste a lot of different beers. There are always new things coming out and that’s definitely my favorite part – getting to try all the new stuff. Beer can still surprise me. There are so many! And just when I think I’ve tasted it all, something just blows me away. That’s the most exciting part.

Photo © B. Milne.

AZ: DBGB has a pretty serious charcuterie and sausage menu. And then there’s the fact that it’s owned by one of the best chefs in the country, Daniel Boulud, so you’ve really had to put some serious thought into pairing. What’s the most versatile beer for food?

HJ: My favorite go-to style is the Belgian Saison. It’s very food friendly and complex. It’s a little tart, a little funky. It goes well with rich dishes, but it can be nice with fish or chicken as well, and it can handle spicy food. If I could only have one beer, it would be a Saison; that’s my favorite style.

AZ: Is there a most difficult?

HJ: I find some people are unwilling to try really dark, strong beers. People have a bit of fear about it. I hear that often: “Oh, I don’t want anything too dark or strong!” Those beers seem to make people apprehensive. But they’re not hard to work with.

AZ: Why is beer pairing different than working with wine—or is it not different at all?

“Beer can still surprise me…just when I think I’ve tasted it all, something just blows me away.”

HJ: I think definitely a lot of the same rules apply as far as acidity and body. I definitely use the same rules for both, because I do wine pairings, too. I think there are more options with beer, though. I feel like there’s a lot of variation between something that’s light and crisp to something that’s full, rich, dark and sweet, and then you have the hops giving you some bitterness and taking you in a different direction completely. I just feel like I have a lot more choices and options to play with when I work with beer.

AZ: Does alcohol play a role? Meaning, the highest level of alcohol you might find in a beer is still going to be about equal to the lowest alcohol level you’ll find in wine.

HJ: Yeah, well, you can definitely drink more beer! I think that that’s a fact, but it’s a little misleading because what you’re really dealing with is weight and texture: The full-bodied, high-alcohol beers drink a lot like a full-bodied, higher-alcohol wine.

AZ: What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when pairing beer and food?

HJ: Be open minded. Allow yourself to experiment. Don’t look for something that you had before, even if you liked it. I find that sometimes when I’m trying to do a pairing, the customer will say, oh, but I had this one beer this one time and it was great! But just because you enjoyed it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for the situation. And sometimes people are disappointed when they ask for a beer that I don’t have or don’t know about and they’ll say, oh, but that’s my favorite! I mean, you can have lots of favorites.

Written by Amy Zavatto

Amy Zavatto, Toque's East Coast editor, is a food, wine, spirits and travel writer for books and magazines.

5 Comments

  1. Amy Zavatto says:

    RT @ToqueMag: Rise of the #Beer Sommelier: A Pint's Worth with #HaleyJensen http://bit.ly/eThXKI

  2. Erika Kotite says:

    Beer sommelier Haley Jensen discusses what has to be one of the best jobs around. New on Toque http://tinyurl.com/4tksw2h

  3. RT @etkotite: Beer sommelier Haley Jensen discusses what has to be one of the best jobs around. New on Toque http://tinyurl.com/4tksw2h

  4. I love the title beer sommelier. It’s about time with all these wonderful craft beers.

  5. […] at Daniel Boulud’s casual downtown outpost of his empire?  Their beer sommelier recommends a Belgian Saison as one of the most versatile pairings.  299 Bowery at Houston #gallery-1 { margin: auto; } […]

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