Beer Sommeliers: Why Beer Deserves the Same Kind of Expertise as Wine

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Dec. 21 2011 1:38 PM

Beer Me, Sommelier

Why beer deserves the same kind of expertise as wine.

(Continued from Page 1)

The industry has responded positively. A growing number of brewers, bartenders, and servers have signed up and tested to earn the ascending titles of Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone.

There are thousands qualified at the lowest level, who must pass a detailed multiple-choice test of beer styles, service, storage, and science. (Try to answer some sample test questions here.) Then they’re eligible to try the test for Certified Cicerone designation. Here the exam includes tougher short-answer and essay questions, and naturally, taste tests. There are 300 Certified Cicerones and counting. Less than half of those who take that exam pass. Those who make it can attempt the toughest test, and so far only three people have ever passed the Master Cicerone exam. (The elite three are Rich Higgins, brewmaster at San Francisco’s Social Kitchen & Brewery, Dave Kahle, a Chicago beer consultant and judge, and Andrew Van Til, who works for a Michigan beer distributor. You can find Cicerones in your area online.)

The capitalized names make it all sound awfully precious and formal, but Daniels says that’s not what he’s going for. “The intent of this program is to improve the quality of beer available to consumers in every respect, without changing the accessibility of it,” he explains. “We want Cicerones to be guides, not gods.” The Cicerone program is well respected by many beer professionals, but has a weakness in its singular focus on beer. This approach is enough for beer establishments, but a server working in a restaurant with good beer and wine should be knowledgeable enough to offer smart selections from both.

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This is especially important for expanding the audience for excellent beer. If a server is to steer a beer skeptic away from wine to a surprising new experience, that server needs a strong grasp of wine to make the case. I remain grateful to the Roman waiter who pointed my wife and me away from the wine list toward a special bottle from Italy’s excellent brewer Baladin. The beer was a far better match than wine for our spicy dishes, raising the dinner from good to fantastic.

There are new signs all the time of beer’s increasing quality and culinary esteem. With the recent publication of the weighty Oxford Companion to Beer, it finally gets the same encyclopedic treatment Oxford has long afforded wine. A restaurant festooned with Michelin stars now looks outmoded if it doesn’t have substantial beer selections on its wine list. And even average bars and restaurants without a craft beer focus will typically offer at least a couple interesting beers. But all this is of little use to drinkers if the beer isn’t carefully stored, chosen, and served.

Like great wine, great beer deserves well-trained people who can build a strong collection of barrels and bottles, and know how pair them well. Many restaurants and bars have a long way to go, but the example of people like Engert and Daniels points the way to an auspicious future. A well-chosen and expertly-paired beer can be a revelation, so it’s time for more establishments to get their people in the revealing business.

Mark Garrison is a reporter for the public radio program Marketplace. Follow him on Twitter @GarrisonMark.

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