There’s scarcely anything celebrity about Peter Simpson. It is easy to walk past him on the street, yet, when millions around the world toast their Guinness drink, they do so in honour of his craftsmanship.
The 6-foot tall Irishman, with an unmistakable polish of a gourmet and a broad Irish drawl to boot, is a taste whiz and master brewer at Guinness, one of the world’s largest beer makers.
Beer and food are Simpson’s scene –he worked as a sommelier after leaving college. But no word captures his journey quite like destiny. He discovered his true North aged only 12.
“My father used to drink homemade booze, which he crafted himself using traditional techniques,” he narrates.
Watching the older Simpson perform magic, and lending a hand at times, he had dipped his forefinger into the exciting world of brewery.
A degree in chemical engineering –from Swansea University in Wales –later, Simpson found his natural environment at the legendary St James’s Gate in Dublin, the home of the Irish beverage maker.
“My family, and dad in particular, couldn’t be prouder of me,” he says in a transport of delight.
Simpson is part of an initiative by Diageo that promotes innovation by its pool of talented brewers globally by licensing them to explore new recipes for its breweries.
He was recently in Kenya for the launch of Guinness Smooth, the new addition to Guinness’s repertoire of drinks. Simpson is one the geniuses behind the youngest sibling in the Guinness family.
“Smooth combines great aromas and smoothness as the main properties,” he explains, lapping foam off his glass with practised relish. “It’s a great balance between smooth and bitter attributes. It’s like velvet in the mouth.”
Guinness introduced Smooth in response to the dynamic flavour trends among Kenyan drinkers.
Simpson clocks hours in the laboratory ‘‘crafting and experimenting with different recipes from which we brew new beers in our breweries around the world’’.
‘‘Based on the reception of drinkers at our experimental bars, the beers are either approved for the market or withdrawn,’’ he explains, calling his a job of love and passion.
Being at the helm of flavour at Guinness is an enormous and challenging role, but an exhilarating one nonetheless, Simpson says.
“Creating a beer that delivers a desired outcome comes with immense pressure. You must study it under a flavour profile very keenly to attain this,” he says.
To do this, a sophisticated sense of flavour and flexibility of character are requisite. But even so, predicting what drink appeals to consumers is always a gamble.
“We’re driven by intuition. Whenever we create a brew we have a sense of people’s reactions. We can almost guess if the beer will be polarising, widely accepted or a slow burner,” he notes.
Still, some experiments defy the magicians and backfire.
“Flops are part of the equation,” he confesses, taking a long draught off his glass. “There are times when the experiment goes drastically wrong that we end up brewing something undrinkable. The beer may be too bitter or the elements may not be well balanced out.”
So, what keeps him awake at night? Is it the quest to be imaginative or the pressure to preserve Guinness’s centuries-old identity?
‘‘It’s a slippery balance to maintain, says he. ‘‘That said, we strive to create beers that are bold and characterful without losing our innovativeness.’’
Sitting quietly at a pub to watch patrons drink is Simpson’s indulgence ‘‘after which I stagger home satisfied’’.
If you thought drinking straight from the bottle is stylish, the brew master thinks this ritual is flawed.
So, what other drinking customs do you habitually turn on the head? And just what’s the right beer drinking etiquette?
“You miss the whole experience when you drink from the bottle. Eighty per cent of a beer’s flavour is in its aroma,” he says, noting a good whiff of beer is enough to set taste buds into a rapture.
“Watching people mix beer with other drinks makes my skin crawl,” Simpson jokes, acknowledging the growing fuss with beer cocktails globally.
“I’ve sampled a couple of them and some do work very well,” he notes, arguing that whether to mix a beer with other drinks or not is ultimately the drinkers’ call to make.
Part of his job description is to drink beers from rival brands ‘‘to understand how they’re made and to learn from other brewers’’.
What drinks can’t his palate stand? Vodka and tequila, he says, his brow furrowing.
“I hate their taste. When you mix vodka with another drink, it tastes like what you mixed it with, so what’s the point?”
On his legacy, Simpson sees himself right smack in the middle of Guinness’s own legacy in the next 100 years.
“I hope to keep true to the brand’s DNA and to focus on consumer needs, tastes and preferences,” says Simpson.
His long-term dream? To grow hops in his plot back in Ireland “for use in a special beer that I have in mind”, he says.
Long after he has left St James’s Gate, Simpson wants to be remembered for influencing a change of people’s perception of beer, how and when they enjoy it and to shape the beer culture wherever he visits.