There are only eight certified beer sommeliers in Canada and all of them are male – save one.
A makeup artist before she became a cicerone, as her profession is called, Mirella Amato admits she's an anomaly.
"Although there are definitely a lot more women in the local beer industry than when I started, beer is still a male-dominated field," she says.
"I am often met with some confusion, but I'm not sure if it's because I'm a woman or because of my work, which is unique and quite specialized."
The concept of a beer sommelier is, in fact, quite new. There are so far only two programs training people to become beer sommeliers, one in Chicago and the other in Toronto, Amato's hometown.
Amato completed her course online, while also reading plenty of beer-related books and spending time with brewers and assisting them with their work. She says the final exam was part written and part oral, the latter requiring both tasting and presenting in front of the testing panel. "It was challenging," she says, addressing, perhaps, those who might think she's living the life of Riley by drinking beer for a living.
Before becoming a certified beer sommelier in 2008, Amato was a beer judge, reaching the national levels in 2010; today, she tours Canada as an ambassadress for brew through her company, Beerology. "The one advantage I do have as a woman is in the context of public tastings because I do break the stereotype that many people have of beer enthusiasts," she says. "Some people find that refreshing, particularly other women also curious about beer. When they see me doing it, beer as a pursuit becomes more inviting."
Amato has studied wine, but she prefers beer, citing more than just taste as a reason. "In my experience, studying wine involves a lot more geography. It's about understanding and identifying traits that result from various grapes, regions, climates and conditions," she says. "With beer, it's a bit more fluid. Brewers have a wide range of ingredients at their disposal, some of which do express a specific terroir. And they can combine them in any way they like. The parameters aren't as clear-cut [as with wine]– there are a lot more variables. We do categorize beers into styles, but that's a relatively recent concept and stylistic interpretations vary."
From the beginning, Amato's goal has been to learn as much as she can about beer "so that I can continue to be a resource to consumers, publicans and breweries as the world of beer evolves."
To that end, Amato takes new courses and seminars every year and travels regularly to different beer-making regions to attend conferences and judge international competitions. "As a result, my job and my competencies are in constant evolution," she says.
Her typical day is only partly awash in suds, though; as a beer sommelier, Amato works mostly with people, training staff in restaurants and drinking establishments to make sure they appreciate beer's complexities and know how to properly serve it, especially how "to communicate its flavours and how to pair it with food."
Recently, Amato started designing beer lists for pubs and restaurants based on their food selection and clientele: "I do consulting for breweries on product development and assisting them with food-pairing initiatives and product descriptions," she explains. "Breweries will also bring me in to host guided tastings that feature their beers either internally for their staff or for the public."
Last fall, Amato led a beer-focused class on how to detect "off-flavours," the often nasty byproduct that can make beer made with chlorinated water and old hops taste and smell like dirty socks.
The course also touched on what happens to imported lagers whose green and brown bottles sit on store shelves under glaring lights for too long: The light makes the beer release a chemical similar to that excreted by a skunk. Not nice.
As a beer educator, Amato also oversees guided beer tastings at beer festivals and pubs as well as at corporate parties and individuals' homes.
"Groups will bring me in for a beer tasting or a beer dinner, during which I'll talk through a series of beers and address their flavour style," she says. "Depending on the group, I might also share some beer history. Sometimes I'll explore a specific theme, such as women in beer or beer history or ingredients and how they impact flavour. The goal in all of my work is to promote beer literacy and appreciation and to encourage people to discover and explore beer and to provide fun, accessible and accurate beer information."
While she shares her love of beer year-round, St. Patrick's Day is, for obvious reasons, her busiest time of all: "I'm usually working, either doing radio segments or conducting a beer tasting," Amato says. "That's fine with me, although I usually prefer going to pubs when [they're]quiet; the last time I was at a pub for St. Paddy's it was quite the opposite."
"I like to linger over pints and be able to hear the conversation at the table," she continues. "So I probably wouldn't go out on St. Patrick's Day if I didn't have to. Unless there was a céilidh – that I would definitely attend."
And no doubt savour a pint or two.
Mirella Amato will be holding her next beer-appreciation class in Toronto on March 22; visit www.beerology.ca for details.