Is this the greatest job in the world? A day in the life of a professional beer taster
Steve Bruntlett has a job many of us would envy – he is a professional beer taster, or ‘beer quality technician’. But is the work all it’s cracked up to be?
Like many men, Steve Bruntlett loves beer. His preference is for cask ales, but says he will try “anything that is put in front of me,” up to and including cider and lager. When he stops in at his local for a pint, he will rarely leave before drinking three.
Unlike many men, though, he has made a career out of drinking beer. For the best part of 20 years Bruntlett has worked for Marston’s Brewery, travelling to the pubs where their beers are served to check that bar staff are pulling the perfect pint. “I would rather they weren’t serving them at all than doing it badly,” the 39-year-old says as he drives his BMW between jobs. “I’m sounding a bit evangelical now but one bad pint is all it takes to put someone off for life.”
Bruntlett’s official job title is “beer quality technician” – one of a team of 31 employed by the brewery – and it is in this capacity that he oversees some 250 pubs across the Midlands. A typical visit will see him fixing a problem in the cellar before putting an ale or two to the "CAT" test, to check for clarity, aroma and taste.
At the Gate Inn in Tamworth, Staffordshire, Bruntlett pours a half pint of Pedigree. He concentrates on the first pull, as this is what gives the beer its head; get it wrong and there will either be no froth at all, or more than the ideal 10mm of white at the top of the glass. He removes the glass carefully from under the pump to avoid “frogs’ eyes,” the speckled foam which appears on a badly-pulled ale and which, for him, can ruin a pint.
Then he takes his beer thermometer from his breast pocket to check the drink is between the recommended temperatures of 11 and 13 degrees centigrade. Satisfied with the 11.2 degrees on his monitor, Bruntlett lifts the glass up to the light. “You should be able to see your fingerprint through the glass, even with a dark ale, when you get it against daylight,” he says. Finally, he sniffs and sips. This Pedigree has passed the test.
One of the less enjoyable aspects of the job is telling landlords that they will have to stop serving the brewery’s ales, because they are not being stored or served properly. “It can be a bit of an awkward conversation - most people accept it though.” And the role of a beer quality technician involves more than just taste-testing, though he understands this is the part people tend to fixate on. “I have my phone on me 24 hours a day in case I get a call out. It can be anything from the cooler breaking down – which can be very serious, because if the cellar gets too warm, everything’s unusable – to carbon dioxide coming out of one of the pipes.”
As if on cue, Bruntlett gets a call to the Globe Inn, another Tamworth pub where the owners fear they may have a gas leak from one of their kegs. Twenty minutes in a damp cellar solves the problem, and the beer quality technician has time to check another half pint of Pedigree on his way out.
“There are a lot of things people don’t think about,” says Bruntlett, who was given the job after a couple of years installing beer pipes, straight from school. “I can obviously only sip the beer because I’m driving between jobs. It’s not easy to switch off, either. Because all the managers know me, they’ll come up to me when I’m in a pub with my family and ask if I can quickly come and check a cask. I always do, though.
"It’s probably a bit sad to say that beer’s your passion, but it is – it’s more than a job, it’s a way of life.”
The role also requires out-of-hours research, with each guest beer produced by the brewery having to be sampled at home. If he doesn’t know how it’s supposed to taste how, Bruntlett asks, can he tell if the pubs are serving it properly?
“When I tell people what I do, they’ll laugh and say, ‘Yeah and I’m an astronaut,’ or ‘I’m a Premier League footballer’.” His wife, a primary school teacher, takes a similar view of the job. But for this father-of-three, the role has a serious purpose. According to the latest figures, UK pubs are closing at a rate of 31 a week, and for Bruntlett is it only perfectly-served cask ale which can reverse this trend. “The pub’s part of our culture, isn’t it, it’s what we’ve been brought up with. Ale’s the unique point of difference; you can’t get a properly-pulled cask ale anywhere else.”
So what next for the man who already has the job so many would fantasise about? “Eventually I’d like to open a pub,” he says. “I’ve worked with beer all my life and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”