Aussie Exports: Annette May

It's more or less impossible to conceive of a local craft beer industry like the one we have here today if it wasn't for so many Australians spending time in North America. Whether it was backpacking through California or moving to New York for a new job, countless brewery owners and brewers enjoyed epiphany moments while travelling and returned to these shores with bags full of bold IPAs and heads full of dreams. 

Annette May is one of the many Australians to fall for beer while in the US, but rather than coming home to join the beer industry she has remained there, carving out a her own place in America's beer industry.

Indeed, it was more than three decades ago that Annette moved to the States for work. Over the ensuing years, she's moved from working in a bar to becoming a beer rep and beer buyer, all while educating people about beer at the same time.

Today, she lives in Detroit, Michigan, and her role in educating beer industry professionals in America has undoubtedly helped shape the industry, whether through becoming the first female Certified Cicerone, or the number of people she's since helped gain that qualification, as well as the many brewers and bartenders she's taught about beer styles, off-flavours and draught brewing systems. 

On her regular trips back to Australia (she's here now overseeing a Certified Cicerone course in Melbourne if you're reading this close to publication), Annette has also taken time out from visiting family to check out breweries and bars and attend Good Beer Week events. 

Before she boarded the flight for her latest visit Down Under, we invited Annette to be part of our long-running Aussie Exports series


Annette May


What's your role in the beer industry?

Since 2015 I have been a “beer educator” as a job, full-time. I teach and range of different people:  

  • Aspiring brewers in a college-based Brewing Technology Certificate, where I teach two of the seven classes in that program.
  • Aspiring Certified Beer Servers and Certified Cicerones in my role of Regional Instructor for the Cicerone Certification Program, while I also proctor and grade Certified Cicerone exams.
  • Various classes to staff in brewery taprooms, bars and restaurants
  • The general public in an “adult education” program at the same college that has the brewing program
  • The general public in various classes that I run, independently from all the above 

What do I teach? Beer history and culture. Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) beer styles and sensory evaluation techniques. How beer ingredients pertain to beer flavour. Recognising and preventing off-flavours in beer. Everything to do with beer service, including draught system management and balance and line-cleaning. Pairing beer with food. Basic brewing technique. 


When and why was it started, and how does it fit into the beer scene where you are?

I had been running the huge beer department in a huge, well-known liquor store for ten years at that point, as well as doing a lot of teaching on the side. I’d had enough of retail and I was very well-known in the industry and doing enough teaching to warrant me giving it a shot as a full-time educator. 

But not long after I’d begun a plan and formed the business I was contacted to consult on the brewing program I still teach in. So, to be honest, the whole Know Beer! the consultancy has taken a back place since late 2015. 


Stepping back a little, when did you first get into beer in a serious way? 

So, it wasn’t in Australia. I moved to the USA in 1991, with a completely different career on a temporary work visa. Things got a bit complicated, and I had to leave my “real” job and earn a living somehow. So, I started bartending and I’m going to point out that I have never been much of a drinker, and I only started drinking beer when I took on the role of bartender in a serious and very highly regarded multi-tap beer bar in Chicago where I was living at the time. 

I quickly progressed from bartender to bar manager and beer buyer, which was when I really started to learn about beer in 1995. I'd compare where I was working to Beer DeLuxe or the like and being the beer buyer there, you learn a lot, quickly.

We had 26 draught lines, which was a lot back then and we also had cask-conditioned ale, done according to CAMRA standards, which was a big learning curve. In order to understand how to manage this system, I went to Siebel Institute in 2000 and completed their Draught Technician course. I was – of course – the only woman! By this stage I was getting pretty well-known as “that strange Australian woman with all that hair who knows a lot about beer” and people were reaching out to try to employ me. 

 

Annette at a beer event, complete with all that hair.

 

In late 2000 I accepted an offer to be a multi-state rep for a small company based in New York City that was importing really unique beer styles from all around the world, and I worked for them until 2005. We brought in beers that nobody much had heard of back then: Saison, Gueuze, Berliner, Rauchbier, Leipziger Gose, Weizenbock, Kolsch, Altbier, Baltic Porter, Roggenbier, Steinbier, Sahti (the real deal from Finland); the list goes on! Also, sake from Japan (I’m also a Certified Sake Professional).

As well as doing sales I was doing a lot of staff training at the distributor level, and also helping bars to pour highly-carbonated hefeweizen and weizenbock – requiring a lot of draught knowledge and skills. I was installing German flow-control faucets into draught towers before they became a thing here.

I moved to Detroit in 2004 to get married and in 2005 started working in the beer store I mentioned above that was close to home which meant no travel, which I was tired of. At this point the scene was changing a lot, Michigan had a much bigger “craft” industry than Chicago had then, and I started learning about American craft beer, which was huge in Michigan. I also got involved in the local homebrewing scene – I married a homebrewer, which I’m not – and started doing some local judging, and got more involved in the BJCP world.  

In 2008, I became a certified BJCP Judge and also a Certified Cicerone. This was when the Cicerone Certification Program first began, and I was, in fact, the first female Cicerone, which led me to a side career in mentoring women! In early 2017, I became an Advanced Cicerone. 

My epiphany beers were Hefeweisse poured from the bottle, with all the flourish, followed closely by Belgian Dubbel - Chimay Premier - and Guinness!

 


What is it about the drink and the community that surrounds it that you find appealing?

Beer is for everyone! It’s affordable, for the most part. A six-pack of beer gives one the most value for the least amount of money – and I don’t necessarily mean the alcohol content either.

No matter what flavours you enjoy, you’ll find it in a beer! With BJCP citing about 120 styles, there’s something for everyone. It’s also brilliant with food!

Beer brings people together! Visualise a German or German-style biergarden, with people who were previously strangers to one another all sharing the same table, sharing their stories and enjoying their beers! The community is awesome, in general.

Brewers reach out to each other a lot – for guidance, and borrowing equipment or supplies from one another. They collaborate on brewing beers too, this is such a great showcase of how the community works together!


Do you stay up-to-date with how the industry is evolving in Australia?

I do! We have this awesome thing called “the internet” that allows me to see what you’re all doing there and there are people like The Crafty Pint that send me email newsletters! And I talk to beer people I know there too. I get back every few years, and always take time out from my family obligations to head to various beer places. 

My family think I’m just a drunk – none of them drink AT ALL, let alone beer.


How does the beer scene in Australia compare to the US?

It’s much the same, really. For a while, Australia was lagging behind the US a bit but not anymore. In fact, it’s a bit TOO much like the scene here, which for me is way too many hazies, pastry stouts and fruity, gloopy, lactose and vanilla-infused sour beers. Sorry!


And what can you tell us about the local scene in and around Detroit? It's not a city that crops up on our radar over here!

Michigan, as a state, has about 400 craft breweries. Well, 399 now, as Bell’s is no longer considered a “craft” brewery according to the BA’s definition... 

This is somewhat reflected in Detroit too, though mile for mile the actual city falls behind the rest of Michigan and other cities in the actual number of breweries but luckily, not the *quality*. 

Luckily, for me anyway, many are reverting to more classic styles, like German or Czech pilsners, Czech Tmave, bitters, kolsch, Cali common, witbier, saison and the like. Our favourite local brewery just started a cask ale program, hooray! Another has a “Lukr” or “side-pull” faucet that are becoming a big thing in the USA for their Czech Pils and their mild.

Of course, there are still too many – my opinion only as the Old Woman Yells At Clouds – hazies and smoothie IPAs, beers with too high ABVs, pastry stouts, and vanilla-lactose-fruited-kettle-soured beers.

 

Annette, repping the college she teaches at during a trade show.

If anyone comes to visit your part of the States, what are the must-try beers and must-visit bars and breweries?

Bell's of course! It’s on the west side of the state. A fresh pint of Two Hearted Ale will make you weep tears of joy, and their Expedition Imperial Stout is a joy to behold. If you’re heading to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you must go to Barrel & Beam in Marquette – the ever-smiling Nick does barrel-aged sour beers to perfection.

In Ann Arbor, go to Grizzly Peak BC for excellent beer-flavoured beer, and cask-conditioned English-style IPA pulled through a beer engine. Or, if you like hazies/milkshake/fruitbombed IPA or hazies/milkshake/fruitbombed sour beers, HOMES is a must. It’s also the birthplace of “Smooj”, a thick, gloopy, fruity seltzer in a lot of different flavours that is WILDLY popular. 

In metro Detroit, Urbanrest Brewing is a must, for perfect beer that's both traditional and creative and kombucha, as well as excellent glassware and service. The owner and head brewer Zach is an Advanced Cicerone, and it shows. Way out in Brighton, Becker Brewing’s owner and head brewer Matt does an amazing job with Scandinavian, German and British historical beer styles. I wish we lived closer!

And in Detroit proper, try Batch Brewing (yep, we’ve got one too!), Brewery Faisan and Collect Bar for an amazing selection of difficult to get beers. Another place to stop by if you’re in the city is 8 degrees Plato, a beer store with a small but interesting selection on draught. Lastly, if you go in a year or so’s time, go to Full Measure Brewing in the Eastern Market area. That’s our place! We’re working on a brewery right now.

Tip of the iceberg of course! With 400 breweries in the state, the list is endless!


What about other beer-related highlights you've experienced in the US or on your travels?

I have to say that I have not ever seen better than GBW in Melbourne. Honestly, it would be hard to beat! 

One highlight of my “beer life” is attending conferences, like the American Homebrewers Association’s HomebrewCon, or The Brewers Association’s Craft Brewers Conference that I presented at this year – Go ahead, pick my brains about “Dispensing Nitro Beer”!

I’ve recently become involved in another Brewers Association program, their Mentorship Program, which seeks to diversify our industry. I’m a mentor in that program in the areas of Tasting & Serving. It’s such a great program, and it so warms my heart to know that I might be helping those that may not have had the opportunities that some of us take for granted! I was recently awarded their “Mentor of the Year” award too, such an honour! 

Keeping with this theme, I’ve been involved with Pink Boots Society here, and am also the Scholarship Director for a smaller not-for-profit here in Michigan that educates and gives scholarship to women in the fermented beverage industries. I was a founding member and have been on their executive board for years. In our seven years of existence, we’ve awarded educational scholarship opportunities with a total value of $22,000! Very proud of this! 


You can check out other Aussie Exports features here. Know an Australian working in the beer industry elsewhere? Let us know.

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