Beer Me, Sommelier
Why beer deserves the same kind of expertise as wine.
Photograph by Mario Pusic/Thinkstock.
It’s a busy night at the D.C. restaurant Birch & Barley, as well as its casual upstairs sister joint, ChurchKey. Greg Engert is guiding me through his beverage list with all the knowledge, talent, and grace one would expect from an award-winning sommelier. With a couple crisp queries, he learned enough to make some intriguing recommendations. He didn’t flaunt his knowledge about food and drink, but when I had questions, he gave precise answers about the flavor, aroma, producer, pairing potential, and even the history of the available beverages. Fortunately, there was no attempt at upselling, the odious sin far too many sommeliers commit, a big reason why many diners are suspicious of the entire profession.
The drink he led me to was a perfect choice in that it was not only delicious, but also previously unknown to me. In one recommendation, he delivered the basic services I want from a sommelier: excellent advice and teaching without pedantry. And in my glass? Not wine, but rather an Arcobraeu Zwicklbier, an unfiltered lager from southern Germany.
Engert knows wine, but he specializes in beer. He’s a leading light of a new generation of beer professionals that are working to raise the art and science of selecting and serving beer to the level of wine service. Engert and his peers are rapidly gaining notice from the fine dining establishment. Last year, he was the first ever beer professional to make Food & Wine’s list of top sommeliers. For craft beer to continue growing and improving, there will need to be many more like him.
Well, maybe not quite like him, since he’s got an inimitable manner. He left a Georgetown graduate literature program to dive into the beer world full-time, and he approaches it partly as a humanities professor might, if such professors were young, unpretentious, boundlessly energetic, fast-talking, and decked out in quietly stylish clothes. Get him going and out come elaborate, colorful tales about the evolution and history of a particular beer. It’s beer as narrative, and he’s an entertaining, passionate storyteller. Engert also displays a scientist’s pride as he shows off the elaborate system of climate control and piping, custom-built to guarantee every drop is served through clean lines at the temperature appropriate for each style.
Engert is a character one rarely finds in the wine landscape. One of the joys of good beer is that it’s far more accessible than the sometimes elitist and expensive wine world. Before I explored the new movement in beer service, I was a bit worried that it might be taking the beverage in the direction of wine’s worst excesses. But I don’t worry about that any longer. The people who are working on upgrading service knowledge do want beer to be as respected as fine wine and spirits are. But they are also deeply committed to preserving the affordability and unpretentiousness that set beer apart and to celebrating the breathtaking range of flavors and styles that make it special.
There may be agreement in the industry that great beer deserves top-notch service, but there’s not yet a consensus on what that means. In fact, there’s not even agreement on what to call a well-trained beer server. Engert’s job title is beer director, but he doesn’t mind being called a beer sommelier. (He has put some thought into this.) Some in the beer community find this term problematic, since "sommelier" is tied to the wine world and may imply a professional certification that doesn’t exist.
No one is working harder to coin a new title, and certification, than beer author and educator Ray Daniels. His ideal beer server is called a Cicerone (sis-uh-ROHN), a term he trademarked for the beer training program he started in 2007. The name comes from the word that can mean guide or mentor.
The program’s website states the claim that wine sommeliers might have known enough to choose a good beer for you a few decades ago, but now “the world of beer is just as diverse and complicated as wine. As a result, developing true expertise in beer takes years of focused study and requires constant attention to stay on top of new brands and special beers.” So Daniels set out to build a testing and certification program to create a standard level of knowledge and titles that would signify superior beer knowledge to consumers, similar to the way a Court of Master Sommeliers credential does for wine.
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.
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.