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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Craft Beer Education a Two-Way Street

As craft beer strives to take its proper place next to wine and spirits in the restaurant world, it's pretty clear there is a massive knowledge gap. I'll get to some specifics in a moment. What you need to know, if you don't already, is that ignorance relative to craft beer has hindered its acceptance across the board.

There's a nice article about this situation by Andrew Sparhawk on craftbeer.com. That article leans on an article by Garrett Oliver (of Brooklyn Brewery) on foodandwine.com. The basic premise of the two articles is this: restaurateurs are hurting the growth and acceptance of craft beer because they are not training staff on how to present and serve it properly.
So many choices

Below is a short list of the areas in which Oliver says restaurants are epic failures:

Craft beer know-nothings. Servers are likely to know something about wine, but craft beer isn't part of their lexicon. Thus, they are unable to give patrons sound advice in terms of beers and possible food pairings. I've experienced this many times in some of Portland's best restaurants...servers who are clueless about good beer.

Inappropriate or dirty glassware. In case you didn't know, all beers weren't meant to be served in a shaker pint glass. Restaurants often have a bounty of different glass types for wine, but beer is served in whatever they have available. They make this situation worse by using glasses that sometimes aren't "beer clean," which means clean enough so residual detergents don't mess with the beer in the glass.

Good beer served too cold. Craft beer is not meant be served at near-freezing temperatures. Yet that's how many restaurants serve it. This is likely a remnant of the days when shitty macro beer was the only game in town. Crappy beer must be served cold to disguise dreadful flavors. Craft beer demands a different approach, one most establishments haven't quite figured out...although they generally do understand the concept when it comes to wine.
The Hole
These problems, if that's what they are, are the result of ignorance...and not necessarily willful ignorance. As with all things, the cure for ignorance is education and training. That's what Sparhawk suggests and he is exactly right, although I don't think he has the full picture.

Look, the chances of good beer being mistreated in a restaurant scenario are high. But that's not the end of the story. The fact is, good beer is often mistreated by breweries and brewpubs. I see it all the time and it is a marvel to behold. I also see brewers and brewery employees damaging their own brands. A few examples? Why not.

I saw a tasting display at a local grocery store. I walked over and struck up a conversation with the young guy pouring samples. I quickly discovered he had no clue whatsoever about the beers he was pouring or about beer styles in general. I figured he must be a shill for the store or maybe a distributor rookie. Nope. He told me he worked for the brewery. In marketing. Seriously? Ye gods!

On my trip to area pubs, I sometimes go with family or friends. When I do, I usually don't sit at the bar, where beer descriptions are usually pretty good. I don't know how many times I've seen the server come to the table and offer useless, inept descriptions of the house beers. It's instantly clear the person hasn't tasted or been trained or educated on the beers. How bad is that in a brewpub?

I attended a beer release party a few weeks ago. The brewery shall go nameless because they embarrassed themselves through willful idiotic behavior. If you're going to promote and hold a release party, at least take the time to do it right. For starters, don't dress like slobs and spend some time mingling with patrons. You really aren't a rock star! If you want to act like one, save it for the brewery floor.
Fixing the Hole
Obviously, education and training are needed in many areas. The buck has to stop somewhere and my view is breweries and brewpubs must lead the way. I mean, if leaders in the beer industry aren't willing to invest in educating and training their employees, why should restaurants care about making a similar investment? It isn't going to happen.

The Brewers Association, comprised mostly of brewers and industry people, has a good education program. As Sparhawk says in his article, some restaurants now require new employees to pass a basic beer knowledge course on craftbeer.com. Some of those folks may even eventually earn a Cicerone certification, which comes in three levels and essentially verifies expertise in craft beer.

Let's talk about the Cicerone certification. There aren't all that many people walking around with a Cicerone badges of any kind and even even fewer in the top tiers. That's largely because there are written and tasting (top two tiers) tests to pass...and they aren't all that easy. So it makes sense that having a Cicerone certification would be valued in the industry, right? Well, actually...no. 

The reality is a Cicerone certification probably won't help you get an industry job, not in Portland, anyway. How do I know? I know someone who jumped through the hoops to become a Certified Cicerone (second level) a while ago. Looking for work, that person has been flatly told by numerous breweries and pubs that a Cicerone certification means nothing to them. In other words, they really do not value beer education.

Let me end with this: The craft beer industry cannot have it both ways. Appropriate beer education will never be valued outside the industry if it isn't valued within the industry. As long as breweries and pubs undermine their credibility by employing inexpensive, uneducated, often inept staff, craft beer will struggle to take its rightful place next to wine and spirits in the restaurant industry and beyond.

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