The term beer “sommelier” is something of a loaded term in the restaurant and bar world, as the title has often met with some resistance in the wine world. Many professionals prefer more accessible titles such as wine director or even wine guy. So for the even more relaxed arena of the beer on-premise, the description can seem pretentious.
However educating staff and increasing training, in any part of the drinks sector, is usually good for the bottom line. So progressive operators are committing to a wide range of new types of beer training and programs. “If someone comes into my restaurant and is used to having a wine sommelier, it’s easier for them to understand what to expect when they hear I’m a beer sommelier,” says Greg Engert, beer sommelier at New American restaurant Birch & Barley and its upstairs lounge Church Key in Washington, D.C.
The mission to up the ante on beer training on-premise has been aided by a fairly new formal certification program, called the Cicerone, which offers three levels of training for beer professionals. Ray Daniels, director of the Chicago-based Cicerone program, says that the program is a structured way of educating professionals. “Beer sommelier or manager would be the generic term and Certified Cicerone or Master Cicerone refers to those completing the certification process,” he notes. The bulk of the coursework is done online.
Consumers are the really drivers of the trend. “When you go to a bar or restaurant, often the person ordering the beer knows more than the person serving the beer,” says Samuel Merritt, a Certified Cicerone who runs Civilization of Beer, a West New York, New Jersey-based training program and consultancy that prepares students for the Cicerone exams. Operators “are now spending money on beer education and changing their knowledge about beer.”
Most operators agree that the training is good for the industry overall. So whether they are called beer sommeliers, beer directors or Cicerones, chains and independents are investing in a wide range of training for their staff and say it is helping to increase the bottom line.
In 2004, when Engert decided to trade his English studies for the beer trade, there weren’t any training programs to guide him along. “I read every single beer book I could find,” he remembers. “I learned about flavor, style and culture.”
Admittedly, there was a lot lacking in terms of information about how beer service and beer goes with food. “So I started reading wine books and talking to wine directors and sommeliers,” he says. “Taking the lessons I learned from the wine people, I came up with my own idea of how beer and food interacted.”
After building his own foundation, Engert created a 150-page manual for the staff of Birch & Barley and Church Key that provides a comprehensive view of the finer points of beer service. “The training manual focuses on what is important for my staff—to understand flavors, styles, glassware, pouring techniques and temperature. [It also allows them] to understand why these things are important.” Staff members take classes and do assigned reading on the topic.
The training program focuses on more than just beer, but beer is a big part of it, considering the enormous list of more than 500 brews ($5 to $13 a glass) offered at Engert’s two bars. Beer accounts for 75 to 80 percent of total beverage sales at both operations.
He definitely attributes his success to a growing interest in beers from consumers, which has increased as more craft breweries started popping up. “The good thing about beer is that you can make it year-round and make different styles,” he explains. “Every time someone comes into our restaurant, there are new beers.”
The focus on beer has definitely paid off, as people flock to both Church Key and Birch & Barley to experiment with different beers. And they offer four-ounce pours to encourage this experimentation and feature a tasting menu that pairs each course with a particular brew ($55 for the tasting, $22 for the beer pairing). “Our bar and restaurants are salons for international beer investigation,” he boasts.
Daniels launched the Cicerone program in 2007 for a variety of reasons. “I was tired of going into restaurants and bars and seeing beer served poorly. Often times the beer was flat and lifeless, in other cases glasses were filthy and in the worst cases, the beer had obvious objectionable off-flavors like vinegar or extreme oxidation. In many cases the servers and management didn’t even understand that beer could develop off-flavors much less that they were responsible when it did.”
The program’s three levels are Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone and Master Cicerone. It “is designed to start broad for anyone who handles beer,” explains Daniels, who notes that the program has seen great growth in the past year. “In the last 12 months, we’ve essentially tripled the number of people who are certified at all levels.”
There are currently three Master Cicerones, 102 Certified Cicerones and 3,500 certified beer servers. Samuel Merritt is hoping to become Master Cicerone number four. He notes that his students for the basic course are a mix of individuals and corporate chain professionals.
“There are many ways to ruin beer on-premise. If you are not presenting beer in the best condition possible, how can you expect to do a good business with it?” he asks. He adds that having Certified Cicerones on staff will help to improve beer quality and if the beer tastes better, people will buy more of it. The certification also covers brand and style selection and pairings of beers with foods. “People who really know beer know better how to present it and how to represent it. All of that leads to more beer sales,” says Daniels.
“It adds value almost immediately—restaurants can offer more than just liquid and food,” he explains of the certification. “One of the main outcomes of professional certification is that people can immediately make more money on the draft beer they serve. Waste is a big issue and once you learn how to take care of your draft, you will waste less beer,” he says.
Jimmy Carbone, owner of Jimmy’s No. 43 in Manhattan, is a certified beer server and offers Merritt’s program to his employees, though he doesn’t require it. “We’ve given people the opportunity to take the class for no charge,” he says, noting that three people have been certified and one is interested in continuing her Cicerone education.
While Carbone didn’t see an immediate uptick in sales after taking the program, he did note that the staff who had taken it had more ease and professionalism when talking to customers about craft beer. In general since offering the Cicerone to employees, sales have increased 20-percent in one year. He noted that beer sales are about 50-percent of their gross sales.
When Carbone opened Jimmy’s five years ago, he was interested in the local brewing movement he saw unfolding so he made the investment to update his draft system. He is also part a small group of independently owned beer bars who promote quality craft beer through the “Good Beer Seal,” which represents a commitment to beer knowledge and a focus on education. “Taking the class has made me feel more confident in my beer choices,” says Carbone, who already considered himself something of an expert.
Jimmy’s No. 43 offers 12 draft beers, priced from $6 to $12, which rotate frequently, often daily. “We actually have some top-of-the-line things going on in our place,” he says, noting that they have a giant keg room and have made an effort to not purchase from distributors who don’t have refrigeration, especially in the summer. “Since we get a lot of craft beer, we may only get two kegs of a certain beer, so there is always something new being turned over,” he notes.
And consumers are responding positively. Jimmy’s hosts beer tastings and beer dinners to foster education. A recent tasting for Valentine’s Day paired six beers with six different chocolates. Additionally, the beer-friendly menu will sometimes feature a specific beer paired with a new item, though it is more of a hand sell.
Consumer beer knowledge is much more sophisticated than five years ago, says Carbone. “People know what an IPA is and we are seeing a lot of small breweries popping up,” he notes. “Being the beer experts, we get to pass that knowledge to our customers.”
His dedication to training is increasing, as he plans to require a few key members of his bar staff take the first level Cicerone training. “I think the education is good,” he says. “In the past there wasn’t that professionalism for beer, so it’s good to have more knowledge there.”
Beer training is also a big focus at Buffalo Wild Wings for 2011, says Patrick Kirk, marketing and brand manager for the more than 650-restaurant Minneapolis-based chain. “The Cicerone program is a bit too big for our chain, so we are coming up with our own program for servers and bartenders,” he explains. “To do it successfully, we have to speak to our team members in our own words—we are a different concept than most.”
The training will borrow from a lot of different sources and will focus on the intricacies of the draft system, product knowledge and the history of beer and brewing process. “The expectation is that we aren’t going to have our members speak like they would at a high-end steakhouse, but they should have the same beer knowledge.”
The impetus for the training is two-fold: “We want to sell the most draft beer than any restaurant chain in the country and we take pride in being known as a destination for beer.” The chain carries anywhere form 24 to 30 draft, in two draft sizes, a pint and a tall, and prices vary depending on the market but range from $3 for domestics up to $7 for a super premium import or craft. The operation also carries about 30 different bottled beers.
Beer is popular at the chain, so the new training will be a good fit. “We see an opportunity to educate the masses to new beers. Our guests are starting to have an affinity toward regional beers and we want to get better at that.”
Kirk is hoping to get the training up and running on the heels on what he sees a new beer explosion. “In a couple of years, if not sooner, we will see a Renaissance for draft beer, which is the closest way to drink beer in the way the brewer intended,” he says. “Having a resident subject matter expert will be key to this movement. This person can help make suggestions based on what guests are eating or their tastes,” says Kirk.
The bottom line: Beer is finding a place for itself at the table —and those with proper training are leaping ahead to increase their bottom lines.
Engert says it well: “The split about what to call someone is outside of the point. You want to operate a wonderful restaurant and bar program that offers fantastically flavored food enhanced by beer, wine and spirits.”