Her Highness of Hops, Melissa Cole


Melissa Cole

Melissa Cole

Considered one of the leading beer and food experts, Melissa Cole is an award-winning author, penning the 2012 bestselling Let Me Tell You About Beer (Pavilion) and a world-traveled international beer judge. Her most recent book, The Little Book of Craft Beer (Hardie Grant Books), features her assessment of the world’s greatest brews, including four from the Bay Area. A tried-and-true evangelist, she was willing to share her gospel with ABV magazine while in the US, serving as a judge at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival. Following are highlights from her Q&A with us. 

The craft beer scene in the U.S.:
I think the US has the beer scene just right; the problem is, as industry people and observers, we often fail to see it because we’re right in the middle of all the on-going angst that dogs any industry! 

The main thing is that there is so much choice around the place now, local breweries providing local jobs and great beer for their communities, often also being keenly involved in them too.

But stylistically the United States is creating unbelievably interesting and exciting beers but, the most important thing for the evolution of the marketplace, is that they are taking on that sector of ‘sessionability’ and I think that will be a defining feature of beer’s future.

Also, let’s not forget that the country’s resurgence as a beer nation inspired the rest of the world to wake up and smell the wort — that’s something to be proud of.

Definition of a perfect IPA:
The most perfect IPA is the one I’m enjoying with friends. I’ve had amazing pints of Ballast Point Sculpin whilst laughing with mates in San Diego; I’ve had Pliny the Elder with buddies in Denver, sitting under blankets and heaters outside in 30 degree weather; supped one with a gaggle of judges in the sunshine at 2nd Story in Philadelphia and enjoyed Odell IPA at the brewery with Doug [Odell, founder] — all of these were perfect at the time but all those beers do share something in common, balance.What do you have in your fridge? What’s your go-to on a hot summer night?

Hot summer nights are for sitting outside pubs by the river for me, but if I am home then a really good quality lager, a session IPA, a Berliner weisse, or a gose are always my hot weather go-tos.

The importance of neighborhood breweries:
Neighborhood breweries, as I alluded to earlier, are absolutely vital — they provide a pivot around which parts of the community can revolve. They are, by necessity of size and budget, often very manual and this creates jobs, as do the tap rooms and festivals, and business for food trucks, and so on and so on. This is often overlooked when people talk about just the beer — which also has to be good; nothing worse than being in a neighborhood with a bad local brewery. I’ve stayed at a few places that broke my heart along those lines.

Where craft beer is headed:
The big boys are coming, and coming hard. They’ve made some really smart purchases and I have only seen a drop in quality in one of the breweries that had a high-profile price tag, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the others over the next 10 years. 

My gut and experience says that the big companies with a serious stock market presence won’t be able to resist slashing costs by cutting corners and quality — it’s what they do, it’s their business imperative. Whilst it might not be now, or in three years time, it will happen and the worst thing is that they’ll want the biggest overhead to go first... and that’s always people.

What’s pushing the industry forward:
I think that the move back to lagers and lighter beers — where there’s nowhere to hide faults, no massive hop bill to smother shortcomings, and no big dark malt flavors to cover up mistakes — that’s the real test of a brewer’s skill.

Thoughts on U.K.S Brew Dog brewery
They gave the UK brewing industry a boot up the bum, and they invest in training their staff well in their retail outlets.

Last time you had a beer that gave you a Holy sh*t! moment:
I had a number at the recent Beavertown Extravaganza (held in London): Burning Sky Cuvée 13 was one of those beers where you just stop talking and breath in its elegance, same with Wild Beer’s barrel-aged Ninkasi. Mikkeller San Diego’s fruited coffee Berliner Raspberry Blush just scrambled my brain because it was so wrong but so right, same with Garage Project’s Wabi Sabi’s — it tasted like it had a 3.5% ABV and was actually more Iike 7.5%; Lost & Grounded’s Running with Sceptres, Lervig’s Cucumber Lager and Bagby Beer’s Sweet Ride Kolsch were all blessed clean reliefs between bonkers beers, and a whole can of Beavertown Neck Oil at the end was just perfect. I could go on just about the beers at that festival over one weekend.

How a brewer can grab her attention next time melissa cole judge’s your beer:
Brew clean, that’s the starting point for any judging. It’s a slightly depressing way to have to approach beer but we are always looking for the faults first, then flavor balance and then drinkability. 

Even with extreme beers, if the phrase, “It’s nice but I wouldn’t want more than a mouthful,” comes from more than two judges on the table, it’s unlikely to advance to medals.

Pointers: if you’re entering a specific style category, brew to style and don’t try and cheat the judges; it just pisses us off when we get an IPA in the pale ale category, for example.

Second, if you are entering a category where a description is requested … give the damn description! You’ve spent all that money on making the beer, possibly putting it in barrel, having it sit around wasting space and capital, paid the money to enter it, but you can’t take one minute to type one sentence like: “Barrel-aged with Brett on apricots and rosemary,” or whatever the hell it is? 

You may notice the last one really annoys me...

Three things most breweries and tap rooms get wrong
Training, training, training — if you don’t train your staff you won’t keep them, they won’t be good ambassadors, and they won’t care, and that will transmit to your customers.

If I am standing in a tap room and asking about a beer on the list and the staff can’t tell me, it’s not their fault, it’s the owner’s — that’s where the buck stops.

Do the top 100 beers featured in her book still stand?
Yes and no! The no because I’ve tried another 100 amazing beers since then but the yes is that these things are never perfect, they are subjective and there are some stunning world classics in there that never go out of style!

Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA: best song to listen to while enjoying a pint?
The Eagles’ “Take It Easy.”That’s what you should do with that fabulous but dangerous beer!

Melissa Cole just released her newest book, The Little Book of Craft Beer – A Guide to Over 100 of the World's Finest Brews.

Click to buy it now and help support ABV in the process!


Everard Strong