The figurehead of The Beer Academy is a passionate advocate for the industry to improve its knowledge of beers. Phil Mellows meets Dr George Philliskirk.
Thirty years in beer and Dr George Philliskirk is still learning things he doesn't know and his enthusiasm for the product bubbles over like a fobbing font. When George was appointed the Beer Academy's first executive director there were a few furrowed brows outside in the inner circle of brewing science. But 12 months on he's made his mark as someone able to communicate the lush complexity of beer to the common drinker.
One of the first things he did was make the Academy's one-day foundation course less technical and more inspirational - surprising, perhaps, for a man with his roots in the laboratory.
George's brewing career began with his PhD research project into "killer yeasts" - probably less exciting than it sounds - but his work on the microscopic psychopaths who go round bumping off friendly brewing strains "got me hooked on brewing", he says. "I was already hooked on beer, of course," he adds.
His first job was in Allied Breweries' maltings and he stuck with the company through its merger with Carlsberg, eventually heading the technical department at the Danish brewer's UK arm. Some-where along the way he also managed Europe's biggest hop farm, completing his top-level expertise in beer's three active ingredients.
He took early retirement at the end of 2003, admirably achieving his lifetime ambition to "do something different when I became 55". This was just the moment the Beer Academy advertised for a figurehead and the job seemed tailor-made for someone with George's experiences. He had chaired the Institute of Brewing's exam board and was an external examiner for Heriot-Watt, the brewing university, so had the educational side of the job covered.
"I've been married to a schoolteacher for 34 years, too, and something's got to have rubbed off," says George. "In all it was a nice fit and a chance for me to keep in touch with an industry where I've made so many friends."
And, as George repeatedly points out, he likes beer. "It's a great subject and it's nice to be in a position to promote it. Our courses start by asking the question 'what is beer'? There is a surprising level of ignorance out there and we need to address that. There are about 2,000 different beers in this country and 60 or 70 styles, depending on how you define a style. So when you start talking to people about what makes beer different there's a good story to tell.
"We start with the raw materials, getting people to chew malt and smell hops. They think brewers just mix chemicals, so it's a revelation for them and it grabs their attention straight away.
"Then we get them to taste it - 13 different beers on the one-day course - and they can see where the finished beer gets its flavours."
George has taught a few courses himself and enjoyed it immensely. "We are getting a rich mix of people, from the industry and among interested consumers. Coors and Carlsberg are sending all their new starters on the course and Interbrew and Wolverhampton & Dudley have also been good at sponsoring their people," he explains.
"Waverley TBS has sent 100 of its wine people along since its merger with The Beer Seller and it's been interesting to get a wine perspective on beer. It's an eye-opener for them to find that beer is more complex than wine."
One important group that has been slow to take up what the Beer Academy has to offer are licensees and their staff, however, which is a shame because they were one of the original targets of Academy training.
"We definitely need to do more with the on-trade," says George. "In the pilot we did with the British Beer & Pub Association last year, putting 200 licensees through Beer Academy courses, 90 per cent of them believed it was relevant to their business.
"We have got to translate that into bums on seats though. It's difficult because there are so many courses people could go on. Pubcos need to be convinced that it's worthwhile and that it will effect their bottom line. We have got to be hard-nosed about it, and we are putting a lot of effort into that at the moment."
Talks are under way with Punch and Enterprise and George is open to the idea of adapting the course to make it more relevant to pubs.
The need for a better understanding of beer in the trade was underlined as George sampled his first of the day in the well-known West End pub where we met. The Timothy Taylor Landlord was OK - but at midday the barman had failed to pull off the beer that had been sitting overnight in the pipe and as a result it had a hazy cast in the glass and was on the warm side.
"The beer has been spoiled for the sake of not throwing away a pint," says George. "Quality at the brewery is better than it's ever been, but it's still our biggest issue behind the bar and in the cellar."
The Beer Academy is developing a three-day intermediate qualification and a series of specialist courses, but for George the focus has to be on getting more people to do the basics. "We want to make the foundation course a must for everyone in the trade. There's no doubt there's a need," he points out.
The Academy has funding for three years, at which point it will review its progress. "We have to ask ourselves whether we have been successful in helping improve beer's image," says George. "So far we have had a lot of good press that has helped us to talk up beer. There has been nothing negative, I think, because it's about educating people to appreciate beer. If you understand it, it helps you appreciate it, and that aids a responsible attitude towards drinking."
It's been a hectic first year for George. The executive director is contracted to work three days a week "but some weeks it feels like seven". He says: "I've learned so much - about matching beer and food and about the sheer range of beers available. It's all very healthy and shows there's a vibrant industry out there. Yet beer is perceived as an inferior product, boring and unsophisticated. That's the challenge. It's a labour of love for me, really. After all, it's the best job in the world."
The Beer Academy's foundation course, which is expected to be accredited by the BII any day, is held at regular intervals in pubs around the country. Cost per delegate is £95. For more information and a list of dates and venues go to www.beeracademy.co.uk or call 01276 417 855.
Education key to high standards
Brewers are increasingly including beer education as part of staff training across their whole organisation. Since the beginning of this year, for instance, all new starters at Coors Brewers have been attending the one-day Beer Academy course during their week-long induction.
"All new employees, whether board members, graduates or secretaries, are invited to take part," says Coors CEO Peter Kendall.
"Our vision is that all Coors employees will be able to act as ambassadors for beer, to be able to tell their customers and friends about the enormous variety of different beer styles that are brewed in the UK, describe how using different brewing raw materials influences beer flavour and demonstrate how to serve beers in tip-top condition."
For the last couple of years Coors has been active in both promoting beer to the public through its Beer Naturally campaign, and educating its own staff to talk up the product. It was also a founder patron of the Beer Academy.
Pictured: Peter Kendall wants all Coors employees to be knowledgeable on beer standards so they can be ambassadors for the product.