Are beer certification programs making beer culture more like wine?
by Danya Henninger
Anyone can call themselves a beer sommelier. Thing is, not many people do. Two main reasons, and they’re somewhat at odds. First, even the most dedicated beer geeks don’t want to come off as snooty, a connotation long attached to the French term for wine steward. Second, certified beer experts now have their own, separate title: Cicerone.
The Cicerone Certification Program was founded in 2008 by longtime beer writer Ray Daniels, as a way to help save the burgeoning craft beer industry from its own popularity. Around 2005 or 2006, consumer interest in new and different beers was rising rapidly, and bars around the country began installing more taps and growing the number of labels on their beer lists. But simply having lots of beer in the house didn’t guarantee those establishments knew what to do with it.
“All the time, I would go into bars that looked promising and be very disappointed,” Daniels remembers. “Too many people didn’t know what they were serving.” He describes a common realization spreading among breweries and beer organizations that “there was a lot of bad beer out there.”
Local spirits and beer writer Lew Bryson has the same memory. “A decade ago, you would go into a brewpub and ask your waiter or waitress what was good on tap, and they would have no idea. They’d say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t even drink beer.’ I heard that so many times. It’s like, why are you even working in a brewpub, then? It was enough to make you want to tear your hair out,” Bryson says, adding, “I give Ray a shitload of credit for changing that.”
Determined to help avoid another “shakeout”—a term used to describe the industry dip in the late 1990s when nearly 200 American craft breweries and brewpubs went out of business (in part due to quality control issues)—Daniels set about creating a syllabus of everything a beer server should know, and forming an organization to spread the knowledge.
“It wasn’t like it was some genius idea,” Daniels admits, noting that many in the industry had been discussing creating a certification for beer experts, and that, obviously, there was already a parallel program for those in the wine industry. But as a former editor of brewing technology magazines and author and publisher of several beer and brewing books, he had a good grasp on the body of information, and the contacts to help spread the word.
About That Word
After Daniels had pared down the curriculum from an ultimate guide to the bare basics of what a competent server should know about describing and serving beer, he had to come up with a name for his program.
“It was a somewhat tortured journey,” he remembers, “and there were some truly awful names I considered along the way.” Industry friends told Daniels they were adamantly against anything derivative of a term already used in the wine world. The word also had to be something unique, so the title could be protected—reserved only for people who had passed the exam. (The word Realtor has a similar certification trademark.)
After considering and then passing over several German words—“I didn’t want to give that lager culture ownership,” he explains—Daniels came across “cicerone” in a thesaurus and liked it immediately.
A Latin word that means “guide,” it was original enough to protect and fell right in line with a mantra he wanted to imbue in the program: that professionals with the certification should be considered “guides, not gods.”
“It was only months later that I realized ‘Cicerone’ and ‘sommelier’ actually sound very similar,” Daniels says. Both words start with sibilants (the soft “es” sound), have the same number of syllables and are foreign-sounding.
“The only thing I don’t like about the program is the name,” says Philadelphia beer writer Don Russell, adding, “but it’s definitely better than ‘beer sommelier.’ Sommelier is a very snobby word. It’s a wine term.” In a 2006 Daily News column, Russell suggested “cellerman” as a designation for servers literate in the then-new trend of pairing beer with food. Under his very-everyman moniker, Joe Sixpack, he wrote:
The restaurant cellarman (or cellarwoman, of course) would be a well-versed expert who could tap a keg and select the perfect lager for that blanquette de veau. He or she would research and order new beers, oversee the coolers, maintain and update the bottle list and glassware, consult with the kitchen on food pairings, write the beer menu, train the servers and suggest appropriate bottles to patrons.
While Russell remains adamant in the belief that beer needs to stay accessible to everyone, he is supportive of the Cicerone certification, especially because it’s not directed toward the general public—it’s a program for professionals in the industry. “There’s a thin line between being knowledgeable and snobby, but you definitely don’t want clueless people serving beer.”
Though the first level of Cicerone certification is called “Certified Beer Server,” the test is becoming more and more popular, not necessarily among bartenders—many of whom, from anecdotal evidence, have never even heard of the program—but with people who work for wholesalers and distributors. It does make a lot of sense for salespeople to learn to talk intelligently about the beers they’re selling.
“Ten or fifteen years ago, when a new restaurant opened, distributors would show up and say, ‘OK, so we’ll do Bud and Bud Light and what other tap do you want?’” Russell recalls, noting that back then it would take a committed beer geek bar owner to request—or plead for—something different. He contrasts that with what happens today: “Now, the salesman comes in and says something like, ‘We just got this unbelievable new Berliner weisse that your customers are going to love!’ And they have the words to describe it convincingly and they make the sale.” That happening is positive for everyone involved, from the brewery to the bar to the drinker.
Yards Brewing co-founder Tom Kehoe agrees. “I love having wholesalers who know how to describe and sell the beers we make. Instead of just telling the bar owner, ‘Well, it’s an English-style beer and it’s from a good company and you should buy it,’ the salesperson can make a better case for unique brews,” he says.
Kehoe has also been considering having some of the Yards tasting room bartenders take the test to become Cicerone Certified Beer Servers. “It stinks when you have a customer that sits down across the bar and knows more about beer than you,” he says, explaining that while the servers know Yards brews inside out, they could benefit from being better able to compare house ales with other styles or brands of beer currently on the market. “You don’t want to put yourself out there as an expert and then discover the person sitting across from
you is more knowledgeable than you are.”
That’s one reason Kehoe enjoys escaping didacticism entirely by anonymously kicking back to enjoy a beer. “When I sit down at a bar, I never start out saying, ‘Hi, I’m Tom from Yards.’ And I’ll probably end up discussing beer anyway, without ever telling the other person who I am, just two drinkers talking about what we like. Beer is a great conversation starter.”
“No other person can really tell you whether you’re going to like a beer, expert or not,” says Curt Decker, proprietor of Center City’s Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant. “It’s about your own palate, your own likes and dislikes. Beer is very personal.”
“I used to make fun of certification and ‘beer experts,’ a lot,” he continues, “like, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re here now, so you can tell me whether or not I like this beer.’”
However, education about beer is meaningful for those who serve it, he allows. As a brewpub owner, Decker knows all about the importance of being familiar with off-flavors, and along with what kind of glassware to use and proper care and presentation, he considers these things basics, things everyone in the industry should know.
“I just don’t want beer to be exclusive or snooty because of that,” Decker says. “One of the great things about beer is that everyone could always join the party. With wine, there’s this perception of exclusivity.”
Whether or not someone with a Cicerone certification comes off as pompous depends on the person, says Pat Fahey, content manager at the Cicerone organization. “We certify people based on their knowledge base, not on their personality,” he points out. “If someone wants to get fancy about it, there’s not much we can do. But most of the people I’ve met do it for passion! They’re just passionate about beer.”
Fahey can count himself in that category —he’s one of only seven people in the world to have passed the highest level of the test and carry the title Master Cicerone®. “It’s not like we have this super secret club where we all hang out and laugh about other beer drinkers,” he says, “When we do see each other, it’s more, ‘Drink anything good lately?’”
The exploding proliferation of beer styles and brewers’ fascination with new ingredients are evidence that the craft beer market is getting more complex, whether drinkers want it to or not.
“It’s gotten to the point where if you’re someone who doesn’t know a lot about beer and you walk into a serious craft beer bar, and, for some reason—maybe they’re busy—the servers decide not to be helpful, you could be totally lost,” Cicerone’s Fahey maintains.
Does that really happen? Maybe.
“I’ve had moments when I look at a beer list for a bit and then just give up and go for a Sierra Nevada,” says Lew Bryson, a man who has been drinking beer outside the mainstream since 1981. Even bartenders who do have beer knowledge often say things that are not all that helpful, he points out. Calling a beer ‘crisp’ or ‘malty’ might not mean much for someone who’s unfamiliar with the regular range of textures and flavors in brew.
Selling a novice beer drinker on the nuances of sours or double IPAs is not necessarily the answer to the continued growth of craft beer, however.
“Craft beer geeks are continually missing the forest because we’re stuck with our arms wrapped around this beautiful freaking artisanal tree,” counters Bryson, noting that even when people move beyond Budweiser, “most of them are just going to want something that’s good with a burger.”
Raising the Bar
Jesse Cornell is a bar manager at Center City restaurant Sbraga, and a lover of beer. He’s not Cicerone certified, but has heard of the program and says he’s in favor of anything that increases beer knowledge. Recently, he added a $55 bottle of beer to the beverage list at the high-end New American dining room —the Nebraska Brewing Melange A Trois.
Almost no one orders the Belgian blonde ale unless Cornell suggests it, but once he describes it, he has many takers. “I tell diners not to think of in terms of how many 12-oz. cans they could buy with that money, but to consider it an inexpensive alternative to the wines on our list,” he explains. “Why should we let people look down on beer?”
“If beer is turning into wine, that’s a great thing!” asserts Mark Edelson, co-founder of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurants. As director of brewing operations for the Delaware-based company’s 10 locations (with more on the way), Edelson has been deeply involved in craft brewing for more than 15 years. He has watched, with no small bit of envy, the way the U.S. wine industry has self-branded as something worth getting snooty about.
In the 1960s, American-made wine was synonymous with inexpensive jugs of Carlo Rossi. Then, as Napa Valley vineyards matured and winemakers gained skill, their wine improved. But changing the lingering low-brow perception took more than just a good product.
“Over the past 30 years, the American wine industry pulled one of the greatest marketing stunts ever, and more power to them,” Edelson declares, pointing out that not only are people now willing to pay upwards of $70 for a 750-ml bottle, they look forward to it.
“Beer has been its own worst enemy for the past hundred years,” he says.
Of the People
Beer is the beverage of moderation. It’s the beverage of the people. But along with that comes the expectation that beer is cheap. If the craft beer industry wants to continue to grow, it needs new ground to annex, and high-end beer is a huge potential market, in terms of both volume and revenue.
If large-format beer bottles start retailing at price points above $25, that doesn’t mean inexpensive beer will disappear. You can still buy a $6 bottle of American merlot at the liquor store, after all.
Where does that leave certified beer experts? To their own devices. It’s up to them as individuals—and each one of us who love beer—to find middle ground. Educate without scolding. Be open to others’ interpretations of taste and flavor. Serve in proper glasses when appropriate, but don’t harp if someone wants to chug from the bottle. Good beer is for everyone. Let’s spread the good word. a