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Every frat house and bar has its self-appointed beer expert. But if you really want to learn what's worth drinking and which brews complement your favorite foods, the go-to guy is Matt Simpson, aka The Beer Sommelier.
Based in Marietta, Ga., the fast-talking Simpson has built a formidable one-man business around his knowledge of beer. He studies different styles. He discerns flavor profiles.
"Just like with wine, it's all about balance," Simpson says. "At the end of the day, this job comes down to knowing beers, knowing beer styles and understanding which combinations of beer and food are going to work best."
Simpson has always been a bit of grain-head. In the late '90s, he started geeking out over craft beers from around the world, collecting bottles the way some hobbyists accumulate stamps or Transformers action figures. Eventually he dabbled in home-brewing, winning several medals in competitions for recipes like his signature barrel-aged imperial stout. In 2002 he co-founded TheBeerCellar.com, a (now largely abandoned) zine geared toward collectors and other beer nuts (pun intended).
In 2007, after burning out on years of broadcast journalism and video production (including a stint at Food Network), Simpson decided to turn his pastime into a career. He completed the Beer Judge Certification Program, and after launching his company, The Beer Sommelier, he began hosting dinner parties for wealthy private citizens. He also worked special dinners at local restaurants, building menus around a particular brew. In late 2009, he hit the big time: Consulting firm Ernst & Young flew him to New York to host its annual sales event.
Simpson continues to operate all lines of business, growing and shrinking them as the market dictates and funding them with his own cash. His marketing efforts do include a website, but since the domain name thebeersommelier.com was already taken, Simpson's site lives at thebeerexpert.com. He's also active in social networking, teaching beer-tasting classes and writing columns for restaurant, hospitality and beer publications.
Simpson has become a regular on the beer festival circuit; at April's Classic City Brew Fest in Atlanta, people flocked to him to make sense of the variety of beers and beer styles on the market. "Everyone at these events has questions, and he's a great resource," festival director Owen Ogletree says.
Recently, Simpson moved into the mobile space, partnering with craft beer website RateBeer to launch The Beer Expert app for Android phones. The $2.99 app offers information on more than 300,000 beers from around the world.
Though turning a hobby into work can, at times, dull a person's passion for the topic of choice, Simpson still enjoys exploring a world's worth of beers. Privately, he admits that sours and lambics--beers he describes with adjectives such as "horse blanket," "goat" and "feet"--are his favorites. But when speaking to a crowd, his answer to "Which is your favorite?" is always "The one in front of me now."
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor in Healdsburg, Calif. He is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur, and has covered startups and entrepreneurship for The New York Times, TIME and CIO. He also covers a variety of other topics, including travel, parenting, education and -- seriously -- gambling. He can be found on his personal website, Whalehead.com.