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My Beer Year

Gordon and Gem chat to beer sommelier, Lucy Burningham.

Gemma | 26 Sep 2018

Portland-based writer, presenter and beer loving bicyclist, Lucy Burningham has been on a mission to find out more about beer and the people that make it. In the process, she has become a certified beer sommelier. We got the chance to ask her some questions about this and her most recent book, My Beer Year.

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Lucy Burningham


Gem
Let’s start at the beginning. Was there one thing in particular that inspired you to take the Cicerone exam or did a number of factors influence your decision?

Lucy
I was inspired by my own ignorance! As a beer writer, I was acutely aware that I’d learn about, say, a beer style or some other beer-related topic, for a story then I’d move onto the next thing. I treated beer like a generalist. But I noticed that beer was the one thing I wanted to know more about. I truly wanted to deepen my knowledge of beer in a comprehensive and meaningful way, and the Cicerone exam seemed like the perfect way to do just that. Granted, it took me a few years of thinking about it before I actually committed to taking the test.

Gordon
In your book, you write about your beer epiphany or lack of it. With hindsight, I wonder if there we any moments leading up to your studying to be a Certified Cicerone or during your beer year that were epiphonic (is that a word?)?

Lucy
There were so many! I remember the first time I had a Samuel Smith oatmeal stout, which must have been in the late 90s. I was in college, and it was the first dark beer I’d ever tried. I felt very sophisticated drinking a stout, and I’d like to think that even though I wasn’t an experienced beer drinker, I enjoyed the creamy mouthfeel. It was as though I’d entered into a secret society.

Gordon
At BeerBods we’re all about the stories behind the beer and the people that had a hand in brewing it. We believe that beer tastes better when you know what you’re drinking. I wonder what your thoughts are on this. What do you think makes for a good beer story?

Lucy
Oh, I’m right there with you on the stories, which is one of the reasons my first trip to Belgium, which I took as part of my Cicerone studies, was so spectacular. There’s nothing like meeting a brewer and being in the space where a beer is made to really make what you taste in the glass come to life. When I visited Cantillion in Brussels, I felt the life of the old building: the mould growing on the wooden ceiling beams and the undisturbed spider webs in the corner. All those things help give the barrel-aged beers their character. Cantillion beers are so much more special to me now that I’ve been there.

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Gordon
We have to ask what it’s like to be a woman and a beer geek? From the privileged place of being a white, middle-aged, middle class and liberal male I would like to think that the craft beer world is full of easy-going souls who welcome all kinds of diversity. But I am guessing that’s not always the case and I am really interested in your take on this?

Lucy
I will admit it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, I’ve felt very welcomed by the beer community. People answer my questions and have supported me wholeheartedly in my journey to learn more about beer. But there are times when I feel uncomfortable as a woman. Like later in the day at beer festivals, when I can assume I’ll get harassed. I’m always stoked to meet other women in the industry, and I was delighted to share some of their stories in my book. I’m also thrilled when women read my book and take the time to thank me for it. A lot of women love beer and find it refreshing to have a female voice illuminating the drink for them.

Gem
The Cicerone qualification is no walk in the park, during your year of preparation for the exam did you ever find it overwhelming?

Lucy
Yes, many times. The most overwhelming part came in those moments when I’d learn something new, which immediately led me to realize that there was so much I didn’t know. But isn’t that the exciting part about learning new things? There are always untouched horizons. But the pressure of the test loomed. I was so afraid I would put all this time and energy - which included sacrificing things like time with my family - into a test I wouldn’t pass. I kept having to come back to the joy of just learning about (and drinking!) beer.

Gem
What advice would you give to anyone reading this thinking ‘I think I’d like to give this a go’?

Lucy
Go for it! No matter what shape your journey takes, you’ll have a richer and more interesting view of beer by the time you’re done. I learned so much about beer, history, my palate, brewers, hops, humans, bacteria, hangovers, Belgian rental cars, and more.

Gordon
Oregon and in particular the Portland area is renowned for being a great place to live for good beer. What’s a good beer day for you? Where would you go, with who and what would you drink? Also, is there anywhere else in the world that you’d like to live (from a beer perspective)?

Lucy
My dreamy beer day would involve a bicycle (and a helmet). Some years back, I co-authored a book called “Hop in the Saddle: A Guide to Portland’s Beer Scene by Bike.” I picked my favourite beer spots and my co-author, Ellee Thalheimer, a bicycle guidebook author, connected them with the best bike routes in town. So I might pick the cream of the crop and pedal slowly. I’d hit Breakside Brewery, the beer bar Saraveza, Ecliptic, Upright, and Culmination. During this dream day, I’d see Portland friends at each spot and magically they’d all be on bikes. They’d all have time to join the bike parade. By the last stop, we’d have a fleet of my favourite people, happy bike-riding beer drinkers. Somewhere along the way, I’d eat a lot of cheese with whatever beer was in front of me. And maybe stop for lunch at Nong’s Khao Man Gai. Ooh and I’d want to pedal over my favourite bridge in Portland: the Steel Bridge. Every good beer bike tour needs a river crossing.

I’m a traveller by heart, so while I can’t commit to living in a different beer city (I’m quite loyal to this one), I can tell you that I’m so excited to visit more of the great beer cities of the world, starting with London this spring! I’ll be visiting the UK for the very first time in May, and I can’t wait to have a proper pint in a pub (or 100). I’d love to visit Prague and Munich. And I’m definitely due for a San Diego beer tour.

Gem
Finally, what beers are you enjoying drinking at the moment?

Lucy
I can’t stop and won’t stop drinking stouts and porters. I just did a beer and chocolate pairing spot on a local TV show, so I really got to delve in deep with some of my favourite stouts and porters. One of my favourites was a Baltic porter (oh hey huge ABV) brewed with cherries. It had such a perfect hint of cherry pie. So good with a chunk of salty dark chocolate! I’m also always up for a pilsner, a style that goes with any time and any place.

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You can get a copy of Lucy’s latest book, My Beer Year: Adventures with Hop Farmers, Craft Brewers, Chefs, Beer Sommeliers, and Fanatical Drinkers as a Beer Master in Training from any good, ethical tax paying bookstore. Thanks Lucy.


This interview was originally printed in our Spring 2018 journal.

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