Hail the world's top beer and ale in Shrewsbury beer cafe
Perusing the huge line-up of bottles at his small creperie and beer cafe in Shrewsbury, Mat Hocking waxes lyrical about his love of Lichtenhainer.
"It's a very old German style that practically became extinct in the 80s. Modern craft brewers such as Cloudwater have resurrected it and their Lapsang Lichtenhainer, infused with Mongolian campfire teas, is a great example."
Lichtenhainer, by the way, is a specialist smoky sour beer which originates from a little-known village in Saxony. But when it comes to having an encyclopaedic knowledge about exotic and obscure styles of beer, the 34-year-old is truly in a league of his own. Last year he became only the 99th accredited beer sommelier in the world, and this is not a title given out lightly.
During a rigorous two-hour assessment at the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in London, his knowledge about Lichtenhainer, Grodziskie and pretty much every style of beer was rigorously put to the test. He was questioned about his knowledge of food pairings, hop varieties and beer history, and had to correctly identify and describe 15 beer styles in a blind tasting.
"They threw in a couple to catch me out but if you apply the process of elimination there could only be one answer."
His knowledge of all things beer has put him in high demand. Last year he launched Shrewsbury Beer Club, which holds monthly beer tastings in the town, and he has been asked to look after special guests at the Campaign for Real Ale's Great British Beer Festival at London's Olympia in August.
"It's a real honour. GBBF is one of the biggest beer festivals in Europe, probably second only to Oktoberfest in Munich," he says.
"It's a new initiative they're trialling as part of their re-branding. They've asked sommeliers to look after the corporate guests, answer any questions, talk them through the beers and suggest pairings with their food."
At any one time Mat will have 100 different beers in the refrigerator at Chez Sophie, which he runs with his French partner, Sophie Carron.
"We don't chill them too much but we also keep some in the cellar for people who prefer them to be served at a higher temperature," he says.
In addition to preparing their inventive coffees and shakes, Mat is often making recommendations as to which beers will go best with the food.
"People like to come in here to have a beer with their crepe, or even waffle, so I will try to help them choose something that will be a good match with what they're eating," he says.
For somebody who is so knowledgeable and discerning about his beer, it is surprising that he was comparatively late into discovering the joys of beer.
"When I was growing up in Shrewsbury I was not really into beer, which is strange in a town with such a good real ale tradition," he says.
"I just considered it to be boring, brown twiggy ale, or nondescript lager, so I always used to drink cider."
It was only after leaving university and travelling around Europe as a tour manager in the music industry he discovered his taste for beer.
"I went to Belgium where I tried Duvel and it just blew me away," he says.
"It was an 8.5 per cent beer, really hoppy, but it had a nice sweetness to it. Then I went to Berlin, where I tried fresh Weissbier and that again blew my mind. I didn't realise that beer could be so flavoursome.
"In my early 20s, as I toured more, I realised every region of every country had its own beer heritage.
"I'd research the towns and cities I was going to and search out the styles I couldn't get in the UK. Locals would be surprised I knew about their treasured Sahti or Rauchbier."
Mat also points out there are many excellent British beers, saying the industry has come on in leaps and bounds over the past two decades.
He says this revival is in no small part down to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which he says saved the British beer industry during the 1970s.
Last month CAMRA, which is celebrating its 45th anniversary, invited its 177,000 members to take part in a consultation about the future of the organisation, asking whether it needed a change of focus, or indeed a change of name.
Mat says this is an excellent opportunity for beer fans and while being full of admiration for what CAMRA has done in the past, he believes the organisation does need to consider what its future role is to be, particularly recognising the growing importance of keg, bottled and canned beers, as well as cask ales.
"I think the consultation is a very good idea. It will hopefully allow it to decide on what it's role is to be in 2016," he says.
"In the 70s, it played a very pivotal role in protecting our British beer heritage. If it wasn't for CAMRA things would've turned out very differently. There are so many new breweries producing fantastic beer now. In fact, as of last month, there were more breweries per head than any other country.
"But I feel it's been slow in adapting to technological developments and brewing innovation. It's become too focused in promoting traditional cask ales while turning a blind eye to new keg-oriented brewers such as Chorlton and Wild Beer Co, who experiment with things such as wild yeasts that change the character over the beer over time."
Mat says Shropshire is well and truly flying the flag for British beer, singling out Salopian Brewing Co, based in Hadnall, near Shrewsbury, for particular praise.
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