I recently sat down and had a beer or two with Bonn resident Stephan Hilbrandt, the current World Champion Beer Sommelier. In September 2017, Stephan won the beer sommelier competition run by the Doemens Academy, Munich that is held every two years. He competed alongside 69 other beer sommeliers from 15 different countries to win the top spot. Participants carry out rigorous off-flavour and beer style detection tests and in the final round they present beers to a panel of experts. I was able to spend an evening chatting with Stephan in a cosy Irish pub and I asked him a few questions about what it means to be a beer sommelier and his involvement in founding the burgeoning home brew club in Bonn. I’ve put together an edited, condensed transcript of our conversation to improve readability.
BP: Hi Stephan, thank you for taking the time to meet and have a chat. So with a few weeks now to reflect upon your victory at the World Championship of Beer Sommeliers, has it sunk it that you are the 2017 champion?
SH: Well, I’m not quite sure that it has sunk in just yet. It’s still pretty hard for me to believe, as I only really entered the competition to gain some experience in the sensory aspect of drinking beer. It has been pretty interesting though because several media outlets and journalists have since contacted me regarding interviews and TV broadcasts etc. It’s all very new to me.
BP: The beer you presented to the jury in the final round at the Championship was Orval. This is a beer many brewers and beer drinkers can get very passionate about. What does this beer mean to you?
SH: Well it’s a beer I can get quite passionate about myself too. We were given a choice of beers to present and I was delighted when I saw Orval was amongst them. It’s an unusual beer, particularly for a Trappist beer. I also love the way this beer develops in the bottle, as I am a huge fan of Brettanoymces character in beer. Earlier this year in Belgium I did a vertical tasting of Orval from 2014-2016, which allowed me to really appreciate this transformation of the beer.
BP: Tell me about your training as a beer sommelier. What does this title mean to you and why did you opt for this course?
SH: I went to the Doemens Academy in Munich in 2015 and did the 2-week beer sommelier course with my brother. It all began when I started to home brew several years ago and I became more interested in the sensory aspect of beer. I could detect off-flavours, like butter and sour, but I didn’t know how to classify these and why some beers tasted like this. I took the sommelier course purely to build on my existing knowledge and to further my hobby. I had no real intention to become professionally active as a beer sommelier but since winning the World Championship of Beer Sommeliers the demand for beer tasting events has increased significantly.
BP: You are involved in the newly founded home brew club in Bonn. What are the goals of the club?
SH: So the main goal is to promote home brewing and craft beer in Bonn. We really want to exchange and publicise knowledge about beer and brewing. I’m really happy that there is currently such huge momentum from our members to build a strong beer community in Bonn. Our other goal is to launch an event in early 2018 but more details about that will be released soon. The home brew club gives us a stronger legal position for things like beer tax and event planning.
BP: Despite this recent momentum, Bonn has generally been pretty slow on the uptake of craft beer. Why is that?
SH: Yeah, that’s true to some extent, but Cologne was not much quicker either when you consider its size. However, this is mainly to do with the existing beer culture in the Rhineland. It is very local and people like to drink Kölsch or Altbier, depending on where they come from. It’s a pretty hard market to break into but Bonn has the benefit that it is home to a very international community. I think the city has huge potential for craft beer.
BP: Bonn now has a new homebrew club, 3 breweries and the World Champion Beer sommelier. Does this mean that Bonn could become the next German beer capital?
SH: I hope so! I would say that Berlin is the current craft beer capital of Germany. This is because small businesses benefit from lower rents, which has encouraged the growth of the local craft beer industry. For craft beer to thrive it also requires creative people living in a creative environment. Despite a growing tech start-up industry, Bonn does not quite have this dynamic, innovative business landscape and rent prices are significantly higher here. This means that entrepreneurs are less confident in taking risks; a high-capital brewery start-up could potentially ruin you. But I’m confident that things are moving in the right direction thanks to Bonn’s international community, the home brew club and local breweries promoting good beer.
Thank you very much Stephan for taking the time to chat and telling me a bit about your story.