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Mirella Amato: Mastering the world of beer

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In the world of craft beer, few names are as recognised as Mirella Amato. A Master Cicerone, a Master BJCP Judge, and a pioneer in beer education, Mirella has dedicated her career to exploring, understanding, and sharing the wonders of beer. Recently awarded the prestigious BJCP Master status after years of dedication, she continues to inspire and educate. In our recent conversation, she shared her journey, the challenges she faced, and her passion for educating others about beer.

Uncovering a passion: it started with craft beer

Mirella's journey into the world of beer began with her early discovery of the craft beer movement. "I discovered craft beer early on, certainly before imports, and in parallel with the golden lagers of the day," she explained. Fascinated by the variety and complexity of flavours, she found it puzzling that others were content with drinking the same beer by the pitcher when so many different options were available.

At that time, craft beer was a niche market. "Some of us were really into it, but the rest of the world basically didn't know or care," she recalled. This passion for diversity in beer led her to want to help more people discover this amazing beverage. As the craft beer movement gained momentum, Mirella saw an opportunity. She founded her company, Beerology, in the same year the Cicerone program was launched. "It happened in parallel, and by then, I was already embedded in the industry—it was a tiny community," she said. 

The path to mastery: Mirella’s Cicerone journey

Those in the industry soon recognised her potential and encouraged her to pursue the Cicerone certification. She took the Certified Beer Server exam online and then travelled to Chicago for the Certified Cicerone exam, which was only available in the US at the time. "The Master Cicerone exam was on my radar because I enjoyed the Certified Cicerone exam. It's a challenging exam. When someone says they passed their Certified Cicerone, it speaks to a certain level of knowledge."

Based on her impressive results, the program suggested she attempt the Master Cicerone exam. "I took it, probably a lot earlier than I would have otherwise if they hadn't suggested it," she admitted. Mirella passed the Master Cicerone exam in 2012, just two years after becoming a Certified Cicerone.

A world beyond brewing

Mirella attempted brewing but was always drawn to beer education. "I spoke to brewers and tried my hand at brewing, but it wasn't for me. I can't make something and then wait a few weeks to see how it turned out—that's really excruciating for me."

Instead, she focused on helping others appreciate the complexity of craft beers. "Brewers often said it would be useful if someone could explain these flavours to people. If all you've been drinking is golden lagers, and suddenly someone puts a pale ale or a stout in front of you without any preparation, it's not going to be received well. But if someone sits down with you and explains that this beer is different, with chocolate notes, coffee notes, or bright grapefruit flavours, and gives you some details about the brewery and its history, it changes the experience." This passion for education extended to training pubs and eventually breweries on the sensory aspects of beer.

Overcoming hurdles

When discussing the challenges she faced on her path to becoming a Master Cicerone, Mirella noted that her journey was somewhat unique compared to others. "This is what I was doing for my work—explaining beers to people, tasting beers, breaking down the flavours of those beers, and explaining them to people in my very geeky way."

In fact, Mirella had to sit for the Master Cicerone exam twice. "You need an 85 to pass. The first time I sat it, like I said, I sat it because I was told I would be a good candidate. I didn't really study very much; the only thing I brushed up on was off-flavour detection. I got an 83," she explained. "So that told me, that a) yes, I was a good candidate for this exam, and b) if I study, I'll probably pass."

One of her main challenges was the draft component of the exam. "One of the components of the exam back then was to walk into a room, and they'd say, 'This faucet isn't pouring properly. Fix it.' Someone in service would know how to do that. I knew in theory, but not practically," she said.

To address this, Mirella spent the next year studying and took a course by Micro Matic on draft systems. "It was super fun—you get to look at draft systems, build them, and take them apart," she recalled. Armed with this new knowledge, she retook the exam and passed. "The exam is gruelling—it's a two-day exam with writing, oral exams, tasting exams, and practical exams. I did not want to do it a third time," she admitted.

Mirella also highlighted that the Cicerone program has evolved since she took the exam. "The program is different now; there is an 'Advanced' step between Certified Cicerone and Master Cicerone. When I took it, I jumped straight from Certified to Master," she explained. Mirella was the fifth person to pass the Master Cicerone exam, and now there are 28. Remarkably, she was also the first person outside the US to pass the exam, adding to the significance of her achievement.

Mastering the craft: becoming a Master BJCP Judge

Alongside her achievements as a Master Cicerone, as of last month , Mirella Amato is also a Master BJCP Judge. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) focuses on home brewing and judging rather than service. "It's been a long journey starting back in 2008," Mirella shared.

Advancement in the BJCP ranks is based on a combination of written exams, tasting exams, and judging experience. "You need to excel in each component to move up, achieving a 90% grade on both the written and tasting exams, which is quite challenging," she explained. The written exam, designed for homebrewers, includes complex questions like designing a beer recipe, requiring a deep understanding of brewing.

Accumulating judging experience is another crucial component. "At the master level, you need 40 points, with at least twenty from judging," Mirella noted. "I love that very holistic approach to moving forward... really making sure you have every single piece in place and that you’re really growing."

Judging has become a significant part of Mirella's work. "I now judge internationally, which helps me constantly evolve my tasting skills and stay on top of trends because anything that's new and happening will be represented on the table there," she said. Judging also keeps her connected with brewers, educators, and journalists. "Achieving the Master BJCP credential is like a celebration of that community and my contributions to it. Judging is done out of passion and is where I grow the most in my sensory work."

For Mirella, the Master BJCP credential is a testament to her dedication and expertise in the field. "It's more than just a title; it's a recognition of my journey and commitment to the craft beer community," she said with pride .

The future of craft beer

Reflecting on the changes she has observed in the craft beer industry since she started in 2007, Mirella noted the widespread availability of craft beer as the biggest difference. "When I started, it was very niche, like opera or stamp collecting—some people were really into it, and others were vaguely aware," she said. Today, almost all bars have at least one or two flavourful beers, a testament to the industry's growth and mainstream acceptance.

The way breweries serve customers has also changed significantly. "The advent of taprooms has been a game-changer," Mirella explained. "These were illegal in some areas when I began, but now they're a central part of the craft beer experience." Taprooms have allowed breweries to create a direct connection with their customers, offering a space to showcase their products and engage with beer enthusiasts.

Packaging has evolved as well. "We've seen a shift from bottles to predominantly cans," Mirella observed. This change reflects broader industry trends toward more sustainable and practical packaging solutions. Cans are lighter, easier to transport, and better at protecting beer from light and oxygen, which can degrade its quality.

Ingredients and brewing techniques have seen considerable innovation, particularly with breeding programs for new hop varieties and advancements in yeast science. "The ingredients have evolved, with breeding programs creating new hop varieties that bring unique flavours and aromas to beer," Mirella said. "Yeast science has also advanced, with new strains that can enhance certain characteristics in beer."

The variety of beer styles has expanded, with new IPAs constantly emerging. "Styles have also evolved," Mirella noted. "The relentless evolution of IPAs is a prime example. When I started, we had the English IPA, the American IPA, the Double IPA and the Black IPA. Now, there are so many sub-styles, including the hazy IPA, which has become incredibly popular."

There's also a growing interest in non-alcoholic beer. "This is an exciting trend," Mirella said. "Brewers are getting better at creating flavourful non-alcoholic options, which is expanding the market and making beer more accessible to a broader audience."

Despite these changes, one thing remains constant: beer continues to evolve. "Beer remains beer, but within that, there's constant evolution," Mirella concluded. "This continuous innovation keeps the industry exciting and dynamic, always offering something new for both brewers and beer lovers to explore."

Defining excellence: What makes a winning beer?

When it comes to judging beers in major competitions, Mirella Amato applies a rigorous and detailed approach. "Beer competitions are judged to style, similar to dog shows," she explained. "We judge each beer based on the ideal characteristics of its style." This means that every beer is evaluated according to specific guidelines that define what a perfect example of that style should be.

Key qualities Mirella looks for include a lack of faults, balance, and overall pleasure in drinking the beer. "I'm looking for a beer that not only meets the technical standards but also provides a harmonious and enjoyable drinking experience," she said. Balance is crucial; a beer should have the right proportions of its elements, such as malt sweetness and hop bitterness, to create a cohesive flavour profile.

Best of show judging is a more complex task, reserved for higher-ranked judges like Mirella. It involves comparing the top beers from different categories, requiring a nuanced understanding of balance and excellence. "This part of judging requires us to discern subtle differences and qualities that set these top beers apart from others," she noted.

Judging beer is not a solitary activity. "Judging is never done alone—it's a conversation with a table of judges," Mirella emphasised. This collaborative process is where she finds the most educational and rewarding experiences. Discussing the beers with other judges allows for shared insights and perspectives, enriching the overall evaluation process. This interaction also fosters a sense of community and continuous learning among beer experts.

Shaping the future: Mirella’s role in beer education

In addition to her numerous accomplishments, Mirella contributes significantly as a senior business development manager for WSET. She emphasised the critical importance of education in the craft beer industry, noting that as craft beers become more widespread, education is the next vital step.

"Education is crucial. I've been working in beer education for over 15 years, and I find that baseline knowledge among the general public is not where it should be," she said. Mirella believes that just as people are comfortable enough with wine to choose between red or white when pairing it with food, they should have a similar comfort with beer. This will help drinkers move beyond their comfort zones and explore different styles.

Mirella is particularly enthusiastic about the WSET Level 1 and Level 2 Awards in Beer. "The Level 1 course is very approachable and provides useful information for anyone interested in or working in beer," she explained. The course simplifies complex concepts, making them easily digestible for beginners.

Level 2 builds on the foundation laid by Level 1, offering more in-depth knowledge. These courses are not only beneficial for newcomers but also for experienced tasters looking to improve their skills. "These courses are great for tasting and calibration, helping even experienced tasters improve their skills," Mirella noted. The structured educational background provided by these courses is essential for beer professionals, equipping them with the confidence and understanding necessary to work effectively in the industry.

Through her work with WSET, Mirella continues to elevate the standard of beer education, ensuring that both novices and seasoned professionals have the tools they need to appreciate and excel in the world of craft beer.

A person holding the WSET Level 2 Award in Beer textbook, with a row of glasses in the background

Words of wisdom: Mirella’s advice for aspiring beer experts

For those starting a career in the craft beer industry, Mirella encourages keeping an open mind. "There are many jobs in the beer industry beyond brewing. Whatever your skill set or passion, there's a place for you," she noted. Mirella advises aspiring beer professionals to educate themselves, build connections, and engage with the community. "The community piece is very important in beer," she emphasised.

To deepen understanding, Mirella highlights the importance of community. "Courses and books are great, but you'll learn much more by tasting with others," she explained. Whether judging competitions or tasting with friends, sharing notes and learning together significantly enhances tasting skills. "Taste acuity improves best in a group setting," she added “this is why it’s so great that our classes include many tastings led by educators”.

Despite her years of expertise, Mirella’s passion for beer remains strong. "Beer is always changing, both in terms of new innovations and historical discoveries. This constant evolution keeps me engaged," she shared. The unpredictability of sensory work, influenced by mood, diet, and other factors, continues to keep her intrigued. "This variability keeps things fresh and exciting for me," she concluded.

The next wave: Trends and the future of craft beer

Looking ahead, Mirella Amato highlights the push towards diversity as the most exciting trend in the craft beer industry. "This includes diversity among those working in beer which then influences styles and the ingredients being used," she explained. She is hopeful that this will lead to a greater variety of beer styles globally, enriching the industry.

Beer education will be crucial in keeping pace with these trends. "Education will help shape these trends by informing drinkers and raising the median quality of beer," Mirella said. As consumers become more knowledgeable, they will demand higher quality and more variety. This, in turn, will encourage brewers to innovate and engage in meaningful conversations about their craft, driving the industry forward and fostering a richer, more diverse beer culture.

Honour in Belgium and beyond: Mirella's knighthood and book

Being inducted into the Belgian Brewers' Guild as an Honorary Knight of the Brewer's Paddle was a significant honour for Mirella. "This induction is not something you can work towards; they have to choose you," she explained. The recognition was particularly meaningful because Belgium is a key region in the world of brewing, making this acknowledgment by the Belgian Brewers' Guild especially significant to her.

Mirella's award-winning book , Beerology: Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy Beer Even More, has been widely praised. "My book was a natural evolution of my work," she said. Her goal was to make beer education accessible to beginners by focusing on what's in the glass rather than how it's made. Designed to be read from start to finish or used as a reference, Beerology has been translated into multiple languages and continues to help people better understand and enjoy beer.

This blog post was written by Josh Beamish, Digital Marketing Manager at WSET. A devoted fan of Californian Pinot Noir and Italian Nebbiolo, Josh's holidays often revolve around wine regions. When not sipping wine, he enjoys craft beer or a well-made Negroni.