Burnt Mill’s head brewer is allergic to beer’s main ingredient, but it hasn’t slowed her down.
Since releasing its first beer in the summer of 2017, Burnt Mill — a small farm brewery in Suffolk — has quickly catapulted itself towards the top of England’s booming beer scene. In particular, the brand’s “Fog” series of IPAs has been incredible, highlighted by Enigma Fog, 6.6-percent ABV IPA with a seemingly never-ending weedy finish that lingers on the back of your tongue until you inevitably take another sip. But as amazed as I was by this delightful beer, what I found out later was even more astounding: Burnt Mill’s Head Brewer Sophie de Ronde has never even tasted it — or most of Burnt Mill’s beers for that matter. She has a severe allergy to barley and wheat.
Though gluten-free has been a hip dietary trend, de Ronde’s medical condition actually has nothing to do with gluten at all. She’s allergic to the grains themselves, something she, unfortunately, developed years into her career as a brewer. “I basically can’t taste anything that’s been made with wheat or barley — which includes beer,” she tells me matter-of-factly for someone who’s built a life around the beverage. And the issue goes beyond tasting: When brewing, she wears a facemask and other protective clothing. “It’s not quite anaphylactic,” de Ronde explains with a knowing laugh, “but I certainly get a scratchy throat. I get swelling in my throat. I get very flush. And then I have other adverse reactions that tend to last about a week.”
So if she can’t taste beer, how does she not only brew beer but brew really good beer? As she explains her process, I notice a similarity with Beethoven who famously continued to compose by, essentially, memory after he lost his hearing. “I’ve been brewing for twelve or so years now, but I discovered that I was allergic about three years ago,” she says. “So I’ve had plenty of experience and time tasting and testing and understanding the ingredients and how they all work together. I’ve got a good background knowledge there, and then it’s been about sharpening up my sense of smell and my detection of certain things with my smell… assessing the beer’s flavor profile just through aroma.”
De Ronde doesn’t do everything alone either, and she’s learned to lean on the brewery’s small team, including her newly hired assistant brewer Zoe Wyeth who she trained to handle much of the physical brewing duties. “Between the four of us, we can diagnose beers,” de Ronde says. “We do sensory training amongst ourselves, so we are basically trying to all get on the same page for tasting and aromas and smells. So what I can smell, I can then translate to someone else, and then what they can taste, I can then translate into any notes.”
Additionally, like some sort of squad of superheroes, different members are singled out for different tasting skills. Wyeth is apparently extremely good at picking up on diacetyl, a buttery-tasting compound that can be a brewing flaw. Meanwhile, owner Charles O’Reilly is enlisted for a wide range of tasting notes, both good and bad, like acetone and alcohol and esters. “It’s who can taste things better or who is more sensitive in certain aspects,” de Ronde tells me when asked who she turns to in different situations. “Everyone has different thresholds to certain aromas and tastes.”
Still, beer is meant to be drunk, and you have to wonder if de Ronde ever just considered throwing in the towel since learning about her allergy. “When I first realized, I questioned whether I should stay in the industry, but I still have a passion for it,” she says. “It still very much excites me.”
In fact, her inability to drink barley and wheat has also led her down a new exciting path: creating beers from alternative grains that she’s not allergic to. Steel Cut is an oat-based pale ale that has become part of Burnt Mill’s regular lineup. “We alternate the hops in it every time we brew it so people who aren’t fortunate enough to be able to drink standard beer can try different hops,” she says. “It’s been the most difficult beer I’ve ever made, so it’s been a good challenge.” She adds that she wants to try more of these kinds of experiments in the future.
For the rest of us, though, Burnt Mill is still making plenty of damn fine standard-style IPAs. “I still love creating products that people are into,” de Ronde tells me. Good news: I still love drinking them.