I live in the north of England, in Yorkshire. My mum doesn’t drink at all—she’s teetotal—but my dad’s a great beer fan. This sounds a bit strange, but I was actually conceived in Tadcaster, which is a big brewing town in Yorkshire. Whenever I go back to Tadcaster now, I love that smell of beer brewing. People either love that smell or hate it, but for me it’s really homely. I love the smell of the malt and the mash tuns going—it smells bready.
When I was 20, I got a license to run my first pub. I was very lucky in that I had a good teacher who was very passionate about real ale, and a perfectionist about his beer. He knew instinctively whether things were right in the cellar. He made sure from the first day I took that every pint I served over the bar was fantastic quality. It was down to him—he taught me everything I knew about beer: how it’s made, how to look after it properly, and how to serve it properly.
I’d only just learnt to drive at the time, and he gave me a little red van. It gave me the opportunity to find these little breweries all over the country and buy just a nine gallon cask directly from them: then take it home to the pub, rack it up, look after it and serve it to customers.
We had a beer book at the end of the bar. If any customers had tried a beer somewhere that they’d really enjoyed, I encouraged them to write it down. Then, when I was next in that part of the country, I could go and collect it. It encouraged customers to come in, because you could say to, say, John who sat at the end of the bar, “I’m going to go and pick up a cask of that beer that you like.”
I left after ten years and went to work for Guinness, but in the back of my mind, I knew one day I wanted to go back to real ales and looking after beer. It was actually a friend at Guinness who e-mailed me, “I’ve just found your perfect job.” It was as a national account manager for Cask Marque, an independent service that assess the quality of beer.
My initial brief was to liaise with breweries all over the country. That gave me so many so many opportunities. All the while I’d been running a pub, I’d heard about the Theakston family from Yorkshire and the Fuller family from London. Within six months I’d met all these people—they were my biggest heroes.
After a few months, I thought, we have 39 men working as inspectors for our company who taste beer all day every day. I don’t see how I can have credibility in my job if I’m not trained the way they are. I went for training at the Brewing Research Institute in Surrey, and qualified to inspect beer in pubs, myself.
When I was running a pub, I had one mentor; with Cask Marque, I have 39, nearly all of them ex-brewers. Between them, they’ve got over 900 years experience. I’m the youngest, and the only woman. It’s like having 39 dads, to be honest.
When I’m inspecting, I walk into a pub unannounced and introduce myself, and regardless who’s behind the bar, ask them to pour me a pint of every one of the cask ales. The first thing I do is test it for temperature. Then I make sure the beer is bright and clear. I make sure there are no off aromas, and finally take a sip of the beer—I don’t want to be picking up any acetic flavors, butterscotch flavors, or sour apple flavors. With the training I’ve had, I can detect fresh beer in the first mouthful.
If I walk into a pub on a Monday afternoon and that pub has ten different beers on, alarm bells start ringing in my head. I think they can’t possibly be serving every one of these beers in optimum condition at the quietest part of the week. I would rather see three excellently kegged fast-selling beer than ten slow-selling ones.
In a great pub, the beer’s the important thing, but really it’s all about the atmosphere. At my local, it’s being able to walk in on my own and be perfectly comfortable, or take my parents or my friends and for them to enjoy it as well. In the end, it’s the people who make the pub.
Annabel Smith is the only woman among the 40 beer inspectors for the independent company Cask Marque. As told to Julie Bradford.