Do you need a hot sauce sommelier?
In a hypercredentialed world, consumers want guides for every taste. The gourmet food business now obliges with 'sommeliers' for just about any product.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Washington Post Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
My training as a honey sommelier at the American Honey Tasting Society culminates with eight wineglasses filled with various honeys, lined up from light to dark. My instructor, Carla Marina Marchese, tells me that when we taste honey, we don't do the ceremonial swirl — the wine expert's ritual — before we sniff. Honey sommeliers smear. "Smear it on the sides of the glass like this," she says, using a tiny plastic spoon. Once the honey is smeared, I can stick my nose in the glass to properly evaluate the aroma, then spoon a dollop onto my tongue.
Marchese is leading me through an abbreviated version of her $595, four-day honey sensory certification course. To be clear, this is a seminar specifically in tasting — not in beekeeping or honey-making. The American Honey Tasting Society exists upstairs from Marchese's Red Bee honey shop, in a beautiful, rustic barn in Weston, Connecticut, heated on this day by a wood-fired stove. We've already covered the Honey Connoisseur Aroma and Tasting Wheel, the Honey Connoisseur Color Guide, and the basics of sensory analysis. The preparatory advice is pretty much the same dogma as for wine: Don't drink coffee. Don't brush your teeth. Don't use hand lotion. Don't wear perfume or cologne.
To illustrate how important the olfactory sense is, Marchese earlier asked me to hold my nose and gave me something granular to put on my tongue. At first, it just felt grainy and sweet. Yet once I unplugged my nose, I experienced a rush of cinnamon flavor. As further practice, we sniffed little vials of typical honey aromas, similar to a kit other sensory experts use. I was proud of myself for identifying scents of mint, peach, and lily. But others stumped me. Nutmeg? Wrong, hazelnut. Tea? No, hay. Truffle? Sorry, mushroom.
Now we work our way through what she calls "single-origin" honeys: a straw-colored, delicate acacia honey from Bulgaria; a surprisingly savory orange blossom honey from Florida; a pleasantly strange, brick-colored honey from Maine blueberry blossoms, with complex aromas of cheese and tomato paste and flavors from dried fruit to umami. "This is not your clover honey from a teddy bear," Marchese says. "That honey in the teddy bear is just sugar water."
Marchese tells me that when she detects a metallic taste in the honey, she knows the beekeeper has likely used rusty equipment. When she tastes too much smoky flavor, she knows the honey came from an inexperienced beekeeper who uses too much smoke because he's afraid of bees. Which is to say Marchese's palate is so finely tuned that she can literally taste the beekeeper's fear in a smear of honey.
In 2000, Marchese left a career as an illustrator and product designer in New York, moved to Connecticut, and took up beekeeping. "This whole world opened up to me," she says. "I started to see honey as a parallel to wine." She worked for a time for a wine distributor and began going to honey festivals, particularly in Italy, where honey is a much bigger deal. She began taking honey courses and eventually moved to the Italian beekeeping institute in Bologna for advanced certification. Four years ago, she became a member of the Italian National Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey — the first American to be accepted.
Expert in the sensory analysis of honey? "For lack of a better word, it's a honey sommelier," she explains. "Of course, right now in the U.S. there are no jobs as a honey sommelier." So she had to create her own.
"People don't understand how complex honey is," she says. "They think honey is just honey. For people who have never done this, it's emotionally and physically draining. We're not used to truly tasting our food and really thinking about it."
Perhaps you are someone who thinks honey is just honey. Or tea is just tea. Or olive oil is just olive oil. Or water is just water. Or a cigar is just a cigar. Or mustard is just mustard. If so, you're likely skeptical of a honey sommelier, a tea sommelier, an olive oil sommelier, a water sommelier, a cigar sommelier, or a mustard sommelier. But over the past several years, there's been a creeping wine-ification in every realm of gourmet endeavor.
Now in our era of hypercredentialism, there's almost no sphere of connoisseurship without a knowledgeable, certified taste expert, someone who's completed serious coursework and passed an exam. A two-day tea sommelier certification course, followed by eight weeks of home study, from the International Tea Masters Association costs $1,475. A six-day olive oil sommelier certification program at the International Culinary Center in New York costs $2,800. A nine-day water sommelier certification program at the Doemens Academy in Germany costs $2,600, travel not included.
Most taste-expert programs are modeled, in some fashion, on the venerable wine sommelier certifications; none have deviated radically from these. The term "sommelier" technically means a "wine waiter" or "wine steward," a restaurant position dating to 18th-century France.
Wine education and the role of the sommelier are so culturally mainstream that it's perhaps inevitable that other gourmet products would seek a similar patina of sophistication. "A sommelier means someone who holds the knowledge, and I'm definitely the one who holds the knowledge of mustard," says Harry Lalousis, a mustard sommelier who works for Maille, a French producer of Dijon mustard. "I don't say that I'm a mustard sommelier for fun. I don't think there's anyone who can ask me a question about mustard that I cannot answer."
While we talk, Lalousis gives me a thumbnail history of mustard that stretches back to the Romans, with Dijon mustard being created by 14th-century monks in Burgundy. "These were the same monks who designated the grand cru and premier cru vineyards for Burgundy wines that are still used today," he says. He tells me that in 18th-century France, it was believed one must eat pungent mustard with meat to keep from falling ill. Maille established itself as the royal mustard because it didn't make courtiers sweat as they ate it. "They all wore makeup and didn't want it to come off in front of the king," he says.
Lalousis had been managing Maille's retail boutique in London when he was tapped for his expertise. "My boss told me, ‘I think you've got a calling. You've got a love for mustard.'" He was sent to the factory in Dijon for six months of training and learned "everything there was to know about mustard." As far as Lalousis is aware, he's the only mustard sommelier in the world. That's not to say, however, that he is the first mustard sommelier in history. "We had a mustard sommelier in 1747 when we opened a store in Paris," he says. At that time in Paris, Dijon mustard was not well known. "Our founder wanted people to know how to use Dijon mustard. He wanted to show people that it was an ingredient and not just a condiment."
Wine professionals, unsurprisingly, bristle at the way in which the word "sommelier" has been co-opted by other industries. "‘Sommelier' is now a widely abused term," said David Wrigley, international development manager of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a London-based accreditation organization. Still, Wrigley allowed, diplomatically, that in the wider connoisseurship of food and drink "all education is good as long as it comes from a good source and is of good quality."
What about a honey sommelier or a cigar sommelier or a mustard sommelier? I asked. "Well, I'm sure they're very important to those producers," he said, with a smirk. "Anyone who makes a product with any degree of care wants its end users to understand the level of quality. And also why it's more expensive."
That is certainly true — and that's why "education" becomes a slippery term in the world of taste. The sommelier's job is to monetize the educated palate. In wine, that might mean persuading someone to upgrade from a bottle that's $30 on a list to one that's $50. The cheese sommelier might try to sell a customer on a more expensive artisan, aged Gouda rather than the basic Gouda in red wax. For the honey sommelier, it may be about persuading someone to upgrade a $4 honey in a 12-ounce plastic bear to a buckwheat honey that's $12 for four ounces. For the mustard sommelier, it's about explaining why you'd want to pay for real Dijon mustard and not the cheap imitations you find in the supermarket.
I realize just how widely "sommelier" has been thrown around when I visit a hot sauce sommelier at a hot sauce boutique called Heatonist in, perhaps predictably, Brooklyn. I don't know what a hot sauce sommelier is supposed to look like, but Noah Chaimberg, with fiery red hair and a red beard, seems to fill the bill. I meet him at the tasting bar of Heatonist, where we sample a dozen or so of the more than 100 hot sauces he stocks. Chaimberg says he's likely tasted 200 hot sauces for every one on his shelves. Apparently lots of people have jumped into the "craft hot sauce movement," and he receives at least a dozen new products each day. "It's a lot like craft beer was in the 1980s," he says. "People start tinkering at home. Then they end up selling at farmers markets and fancy food shows, and hoping to quit their day jobs."
Chaimberg slides on black latex gloves and takes out what looks like a giant eye dropper. He puts a droplet of a green sauce, made from organic serrano peppers by a company called Small Axe Peppers in the Bronx, on a cardboard tasting spoon and offers it to me. "How's the heat on that?" Chaimberg asks. "On a scale of 1 to 10." I tell him it's about a 4 for me. "I'd use this one on Mexican food," he says. "Or eggs."
After that, we move hotter. A yellow one from Scotch bonnet peppers that's about a 6, a delicious Barbados-style pepper sauce made with mustard and having a molasses-like taste, a barbecue-style sauce from San Antonio made with ancho and morita peppers, a spicy peanut butter made from a traditional Haitian recipe, and a floral, fruity habanero sauce from Japan made with Citra hops and a bit of mango. After a half-dozen sauces, my palate becomes pretty fatigued. "If you push yourself past your comfort level, your brain's not going to care about the taste," Chaimberg says.
Hot sauce connoisseurship has changed over the past decade. "Hot sauce used to be a macho thing," he says. "Fifteen, 20 years ago, I call that the Insanity Era. There was this arms race." Now, he sees more people willing to spend more money than they would on a basic bottle of Tabasco. "When people get that education, they feel more confident investing in better hot sauce," he says. "It's just like with wine. Someone's not going to buy a $200 bottle without some education."
I wonder if Chaimberg ever plans to offer a certificate program to train future hot sauce sommeliers. He says customers have asked. "But we don't want it to be like that. I think hot sauce is an industry that has a culture that's a little more rock 'n' roll. They just like to have fun."
"But a hot sauce sommelier's opinion means more than others', right?" I ask. "Yes," he says with a smile. "And I like it that way."