In the 1990s Jennifer Huether was introduced to the pairing of white wine with select foods by a friend and chef in Toronto. It was her aha! moment, soon after which she enrolled in courses at George Brown College. “It was so cool.
I thought, I really love this, what else can I do?” She discovered a sommelier course, which in the 1990s was challenging as a woman interested in wine. The world of wine was steered “by the idea of the old stuffy sommelier, who was male, pretentious, and going to talk down to you.” But Jennifer found the courses, and she excelled.
For Jennifer, the quest became very personal. She was passionate and academically hungry for every designation available to her. She passed her exams through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in the UK. Then, after six more years of study and work, she achieved the level of Master Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Says Jennifer about the idea of the old stuffy sommelier today, “that idea is gone. It’s so gone.”
To date, there are 230 professionals worldwide who have received the title of Master Sommelier since the first Master Sommelier Diploma Exam. There are 147 who have earned the title of Master Sommelier in the Americas, of those just 23 are women. 2015 was a ground-breaking year for women in the program. It was the first year in which more women than men took the advanced exam.
Mirella Amato is Canadian, born and raised in Toronto, and she comes from a performance background. Her passion for beer began as a hobby. “When I first discovered beer...my drinking buddy at the time was very into imports, craft beers, British styles. So, I discovered beer as a beverage which has many styles and flavours. I don’t think this is the average person’s first impression of beer.” Going to university in another city, Amato would be out with friends who would drink the same beer all night by the pitcher.
While it was fun, it always bothered her that other styles of beer weren’t available and that people didn’t know other kinds of beer existed. Amato was excited as she dove into the world of craft beers. She could drive out to a brewery and nine times out of ten the brewer was there, would answer questions, and she could taste beer with the brewer. The local aspect of those experiences shaped her passion.
In those early university days, Amato surmised that one day she could write a book about beer; it didn’t occur to her that her passion for beer could become a career. Amato pursued a career in performance as an international opera singer but in 2006 she drastically switched gears. She came back to Toronto and started seriously pursuing a career around her passion for beer. The timing was perfect. The world was discovering craft beer, and people were curious.
Like Jennifer Huether, Amato found that educating herself was a real challenge. She travelled, had to go to the US and Quebec for courses, there were so few beer-tasting courses at the time. She studied wine tasting classes to hone her palate, and she began connecting with the local home brewing community. Amato became a beer judge, she read books.
She connected with people in the world of beer, whenever and wherever she could. She tried brewing but knew it was not for her. “I like people, the immediacy of human contact and interaction, and the brewing process wasn’t where my interests rested. I was a Beer Geek before I was a professional.” Then in 2010 she heard about the Cicerone Certification Program and she jumped right in.
Today, Jennifer is one of nine Master Sommeliers working with Jackson Family Wines, a family run company that over 30 years has grown to own 50 wineries around the world. Jackson Family Wines started with just one wine, the Kendall Jackson chardonnay in Sonoma. It became the No.1 selling chardonnay in the US and held this title for close to 25 years. A Prestigious Account Manager by day, Jennifer says she continues to pursue her passion for wine with gusto, and that the company is hugely supportive of her work in the world of wine.
Jennifer is constantly involved in tastings, competitions, and teaching restaurateurs and budding sommeliers alike. On any given day, she could be meeting with accounts, a liquor board, hosting a special wine dinner, emceeing charity dinners, or helping somebody study for a tasting exam. Being a Master Sommelier is as much about performance as it is about tasting. “When being examined for designations, or when conducting tastings, because of our nerves we end up in fight or flight mode, which keeps us out of tune with our senses and our connection to the wine. Learning to perform under that pressure, staying connected to the wine and to our knowledge and experience is imperative.”
Mirella Amato is Canada’s first and only Master Cicerone. A Master Cicerone (pronounced ‘sis-uh-rohn’) is the highest professional designation in the art and science of the selection, storage and service of beer. Master Cicerone is the fourth and highest level of the world renowned program based in Chicago. “Brewers are so busy making their beers and getting product out the door. They want a better way to explain beer to people.” This is what being a cicerone is all about. Amato began doing guided tastings and founded Beerology, her company, in 2008. It was imperative to Amato that her customers could trust her level of expertise, so when she heard of the Cicerone Certification Program she jumped right in.
In the beer world, there are brewmasters who understand the process. A Master Cicerone’s expertise lies in style, flavour, choosing glassware, food pairing, and beer cocktails. These are aspects that brewers sometimes delve into but not what they study. Today it is about an exchange of ideas and Amato’s work is to help brewmasters, to train staff at bars and breweries, to specialize and obsess.
Studying biochemical processes and impact on flavour Amato really started Beerology to support local brewers by introducing new people to beer. There is still a huge segment of the population who have not been introduced to craft beer. Amato’s book Beerology: Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy Beer...Even More was published in 2014, and she’s had exactly the response she hoped for, a lot of people who “finally feel like they understand beer”. Beer history is poorly documented and our notion of beer styles is US-centric.
Leveraging her network, fact checking around the world, her book is anchored on the principles of accessibility and brand neutrality. Beerology covers all the different beer styles. With each style she provides a list of four or five beers brewed perfectly to style. Anywhere in North America, you should be able to find at least one of the beers on every list.