Sunday, July 20, 2008

Beer Snobbery or It's About Time?

Being a generally "Blue Collar" guy, I have always had a bit of a schizophrenic association with my "tastes". What I mean by "tastes" are the sensory qualifications and quantifications that result in what I like (e.g., I enjoy this type of food for this reason or, I like this type of beer/wine because of this taste or other factor). There is no doubt that some items taste better or provide better examples of what makes them "good" than other examples. For instance, there are few people who have trouble deciding between a good filet mignon or a round steak. These are two very different cuts of meat. Leaving aside the price, who would take the latter over the former? The same applies to any other discriminatory exercise.

Over the years I have determined that my tastes run to the expensive. By that I mean I enjoy the best of all experiences and they are usually the more expensive of each variety of "experience". I like good bourbon, good cheeses, good food and good beer. One of the reasons that I am a homebrewer is that I can make good beer that would otherwise cost me a fortune! This elitist attitude runs counter to my upbringing and my generally populist attitude to what most people would regard as "snobbery".

Which brings me to discuss a new wrinkle on beer snobbery: the Cicerone. This program is the brainchild of Ray Daniels, well-known beer writer and former Executive Director of the American Homebrewers Association. Ray has been a leader in the craft brewing revolution in America and, like many of the people who love great beer and want to see it properly appreciated, saw a great divide between the way people think and talk about wine/food pairings and the way they don't think and talk about beer/food pairings. Ray thought-correctly, I believe-that beer should hold as high a place on this food-pairing issue as wine, if not higher. After all, there are many, many more flavor combination possibilities to beer than could possibly be wrung from wine. The culmination of Ray's ruminations and discussion of this topic is his Cicerone program.

A Cicerone, then, is the beer equivalent of a sommelier. A sommelier, or wine steward, is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, commonly working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all aspects of wine service. A Cicerone, then does the same job with beer. Is such a profession necessary? Well, just ask yourself if you have ever wanted a more knowledgeable waitperson when trying to decide on an appropriate beer at a restaurant. How many times have you asked a waitperson if they have any craft beers, and they offer you Heineken or Beck's? Ask for something specific and you get an answer like, "Oh, we have some of the dark, heavy stuff like Guinness but I really don't like dark beer..." Obviously many waitresses and waiters know very little about beer, which can be frustrating at times. But does that necessitate a highfalutin idea such as the Cicerone?

On the one hand, I would actually pay a bit more for my food and beer, and tip a bit more for my service, if the server had the knowledge and experience guaranteed by the Cicerone program. It would be a welcome relief from the normal, "Sam Adams is our most popular import"-type waiter. On the other hand, beer is the common man's beverage. The very idea of sniffing a beer and worrying about whether it would go well with a nice smoked Gouda seems a bit snooty, doesn't it? We don't need no stinkin' Cicerones!

Finally, there is another angle that makes me a bit apprehensive about the program. The money angle. Ray Daniels has trademarked the term Cicerone (at least as it applies to a beer server) and is selling certifications. Now, this is a free country and free markets rule-believe me I love the entrepreneurial spirit, here. But, there's a little something self-serving about inventing a term for a beer sommelier, using your beer author status and standing to promote it, and then cashing in on it as a profession. Am I off base, here?

I took Ray's sample test and scored 8 of ten (got confused over Scottish/Scotch Ales, yaargh!). If the test is representative of the certification process, I would probably pass without studying at all. Does that make it an elite program? Probably not. Does the certification mean that your server at the pub/restaurant is much more knowledgeable than most? Almost certainly.

I guess the beer world is open to all new twists and certainly beer servers could use more education. In the end, I am of two minds on this subject. How about you?


camojack said...

I see nothing wrong with being guided in one's beer choices by someone with experience in the field. It certainly makes sense to me...

Beerme said...

I don't necessarily disagree...I would certainly appreciate better educated servers most of the time!

Brian said...

I'm in the same boat. There is just something wrong with the title that throws me...maybe it's my love of being a "beer geek" and not so much a "beer snob"..this feels "beer snobbish" to me..

But then again Ray is one of the experts on even a broader scale than just the U.S. and I will be taking some courses from him at Siebel in the coming year so maybe I'll get a different perspective then.

Until then I'm voting on it being beer snobery with a hint of necessity :)


Oh and by the way-great blog, glad I found it. Will be sure to check back frequently!

Beerme said...


Yeah, it just grates at the anti-elitist in me!

Welcome to the blog and I have blogrolled yours, here. Excellent work and certainly more prolific than this humble offering!

I have been slowly switching this blog to a beer-only blog, while my more political offerings are going into A Republic, If YOu Can Keep It.
Sort of a separation of beer and state, if you will...

Brian said...

Cool, I'll be sure to add your link to mine as well. Cheers!

You know I actually started my blog by doing beer only and had some decent readership off of it, seems the more offerings you have in a site the less mass appeal it has..which would seem backwards but I guess on blogs folks want to know exactly what news they are checking back for ya know?

Hows that for going off topic!

Velky Al said...

I am very lucky that my local pub has very knowledgeable staff, a fact I have mentioned a couple of times in my blog. However I don't think it is necessary to have a professional certificate for beer waiters. I am thinking here about the context of a pub selling micro-brew beers, surely it is the job of management (in any company) to ensure that the staff know the products available and have a proper understanding of them? By investing in the knowledge of your staff, you add to the value of your company. A pub where you can ask questions about the beer without being treated like an idiot or being brushed off with crap is the kind of pub I like.

Beerme said...

Velky Al,

It certainly is the job of management to ensure that their servers are knowledgeable for the sake of their customers. Unfortunately very many pubs and brewpubs-and far too many restaurants-have waitstaff that can't answer even the simplest of beer-related questions.

In a perfect world, those establishments would fail and be bought out by better management, eh?

Velky Al said...

Indeed, it is a central part of the business plan I am working on at the moment for when myself and Mrs Velkyal (a lovely South Carolinian) move over next year.

Beerme said...

Well then! Best of luck in that endeavor and please, allow me to be one of your earliest customers. I promise not to blow froth at the waitress, even if the pint is short!

Velky Al said...

Sure, but I promise you there will never be a short pint (assuming of course that we are talking about the same thing - a proper Imperial pint of 568ml). Where the beer calls for it, mainly with the pilsner I plan to make, there will be a crowning glory of head, on top of said pint.

Beerme said...

I love blogging!
Not only do I have a new beer loving friend but because of this blog, I am now friends with a budding brewpub owner!


I'll be watching your site for info on the new place, and sending prayers and well-wishes for your success!