Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Exclusive Interview: Matt Simpson the Beer Sommelier

This past week I had the singular pleasure of interviewing the man dubbed the Beer Sommelier. Even casual craft beer drinkers are likely familiar with the man, better known to his friends simply as Matt. Check out a recent clip from NBC's TODAY show, he's there. Turn the dial to NPR, he's there, too. Casually flip open the latest issue of Hooters Magazine, and, in between the busty beauties, you'll find him offering up the latest beer talk. He's what Justin Bieber is to young teenage girls, we beer folks just can't seem to get enough of the Beer Sommelier.

Matt and me, we go way back. Why, back then we were just a couple of plucky young beer aficionados working our way through the exhaustive beer courses in preparation for taking the BJCP exam. I fondly recall those days. Now, he's an internationally recognized beer expert, and I'm a guy quietly drinking beers with his girlfriend's cat.

The Beer Sommelier, who has been cellaring beer for many years, will pull a carefully chilled IPA from an adjacent, heat-shielded cellar designed solely to house his collection of hop-based brews. Whether the occasion calls for a hearty barrel-aged barleywine or a fiercely robust imperial stout, there are limitless options to be found within in his truly inspiring stockpile.

Positioned nearly three stories underground in the Cobb County countryside, the beer cellar of Matt Simpson is something to see to believe. Upon arriving, I was given a standard waiver to sign and issued a pass, which was to remain affixed to my shirt at all times. "We don't want a repeat of the Christopher Gadgebrook incident," he said in a solemnly, almost penitent tone.

With a quick 3/4 twist of the nearby wall sconce, a secret passage was revealed, and with the grinding of unseen mechanical wheels and a painfully loud hiss of steam, the door opened. "Enter, if you dare." I don't recall Matt ever having such a penchant for melodrama. I was informed the mood-setting fog machine was temporarily out of order. That's fine, as they make me cough endlessly. We walked down a flight of stairs, then another, and another, where we finally arrived at a door kept safe by a variety of security measures. After checking to ensure I wasn't watching too closely, he entered the multi-digit code and the door to the cellar slowly slid open.
Meemo navigating one of the many bottle-lined passageways of the Beer Sommelier's cellar.

What goes into planning a beer cellar?

"First, you need sufficient space. Second, it needs to be climate controlled, relatively speaking, or at least in a stable, cool, dry, dark area of your home. After you have the actual space, you need to think about shelving. I got mine relatively inexpensively from IKEA. You know, they're pretty as well, but they don't need to be pretty. Then, you'll need a lock and key to protect it from all the people who are going to want to steal your amazing stash."

What is the oldest beer in your vast collection?

"The oldest beer, officially, by vintage, would be the 1986 J.W. Lees Harvest Ale. I currently have two bottles. I also have a 1988 Hurlimann Samichlaus Brown."

What would you consider your greatest acquisition?

"I really couldn't say, Commander Suds, since the word "great" is so subjective. What does "great" mean, by one's preference, monetary value, or rarity? [heavy sigh] I have a few very cool bottles I'm waiting to sample, such as a Southampton Double Ice Bock, a big jeroboam of Roots Epic Ale, various barrel-aged AleSmith beers, or the Stone Vertical Epic 02.02.02."

When did you decide to take on the mantle of The Beer Sommelier?

"I did a lot of other things, I had an actual career in television broadcasting and high-end video production. I once interviewed Henry Kissinger. I've produced and directed, and was, for a time, an associate producer for Food Network.

It was all wonderful work, when I could get it. After 9/11, the advertising dollars simply went right out the window, so they let two of us go. So, I just sort of gave up after that, I'd had it, I'd was so tired of constantly looking for work. I took those cultivated skills into some other things, and I hated those other things so desperately that I decided to start my own business doing something I really love, and that's when I created the Beer Sommelier. That was around 2006 or 2007, so around four years ago."

Is it hard being The Beer Sommelier?

"Every business is hard. Owning a business is really hard. It needs constant attention, every aspect about the business needs constant attention. As things get slow, you need to figure out new ways to steam revenue. You need to think of new ways to constantly to keep what you're doing fresh and in the public eye, creating public awareness, and coming up with new concepts if the old ones aren't working.

So, yeah, it's really hard. As monetary times get tighter in the country, services like mine, which most would consider a novelty, are the first to go out the window. When I find that my event hosting services aren't doing as well, because people aren't paying good money to have fun educational events, I need to concentrate on other gainful avenues like writing, business consultation, or peripheral services such as Beer 101 classes, homebrewing classes, and creating the Beer Expert app, which helps to bring the business along. The rest is just getting your name out there. You can be the best at what you do, but if no one knows you exist then there's really no point."

How do you keep up to date with your beer knowledge?

"I was going to say "pretty much everything is online these day" but that's not necessarily true. I do get a lot of my knowledge from surfing RateBeer each day. I'll see what the new trends are, what the prevailing attitudes towards the beer industry are, and what the new craft beers hitting the market are. I subscribe to just about every beer list throughout the country. I also receive many of today's better beer magazines and read those, such as Beer Connoisseur and All About Beer. I attend whenever there's a BJCP refresher course or special event, for instance, Owen Ogletree recently hosted an extremely informative cask ale seminar. Not only did we learn an incredible amount all about cask ales from Atlanta's own cask master, the guy really knows his stuff, but we had a great time, too."

What is your guilty beer pleasure? What're you greedily sippin' on when nobody else is around?

"I like a really good malt liquor. Seriously. I know people think that's an oxymoron, good malt liquor, but they're out there, and I think the one's that are well-rounded and a little on the rich and sweet side while still having a good kick and taste of good ole American corn. It's all about going into it with the right attitude. I believe every beer serves a purpose and there are no bad beers, except the one's that are truly flawed by infections, diacetyl, acetaldyhyde, etc. You know, the one's with some real sanitation issues. Otherwise, there's a time and a place for every beer."

What is your favorite brewery today?

"I'm going to preface this by saying that everyone should, "think global, drink local". Go with your local breweries for many reasons: They promote small business and keep money within your own town. The beer doesn't take nearly as long to get to its final destination, so it stays nice and fresh, and it's greener, with less of a loss of fuel for shipping. That said, I really love Lagunitas, and I've loved Lagunitas for over a decade now. They've managed to create consistently incredible craft beers while maintaining a really reasonable price point. They don't make a bad beer. So, if I had to choose one American brewery, I would say Lagunitas. Locally, here in Atlanta, I enjoy Jailhouse, as well as Terrapin and Sweetwater, especially Sweetwater for their Dank Tank one-off beers that are usually really tasty, high-gravity, and also relatively inexpensive. There are a lot of good up-and-coming breweries as well, such as Cigar City and Pretty Things."

Will you give us your Li'l Smokies recipe?


The very idea that I asked this question was met with scorn, and then, I was promptly shown the door.

You may very well be amazed by the size of Matt Simpson's beer cellar and all the things to see and do and drink. It's widely suggested to allow a full two days to see the entirety of the beer storage facilities. Remember to wear comfortable shoes ideal for walking and bring layers appropriate to ward off the cool cellar temperatures. Thankfully, parking is free to guests, with regular shuttles to and from the residence.

All requests to tour the beer cellar must be approved solely by Matt Simpson. A copy of your request will be returned with an approval or reason for denial. It typically takes 5 business days to process a tour request.

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