Thursday, August 12, 2010

Beer Sommelier or Beer Douche? Round 3: The douches have it

Here we go yet again. I came across a recent blog entry on the Washington City Paper from the Beer Director at a Washington, DC beer centric restaurant and beer bar called Birch and Barley/Church Key. For a beer lover, this place is beer paradise offering over 50 beers on draught and cask, as well has 500 bottled beer selections. The Beer Director asks in the blog :

"What's in a Name? Of Beer Directors, Sommeliers, and Cicerones."

Visit to link to the Young and Hungry Section dated 08/10/2010. I have addressed this very issue on two separate occasions on this blog, and in light of this recent article, I believe it needs to be addressed a third time.

As it stands now, his official title at B&B/Churchkey is Beer Director, and he states he is often being referred to or asked if he is a "beer" sommelier. He goes on to state that he sees the title of sommelier which is synonymous with wine, evolving to include beer and spirits. He sites recognition from Food and Wine Magazine that lists him as one of the "best new sommeliers" as giving credence to this. We will have to part ways here. I don't believe that because a trade publication recognized him as a sommelier, it makes him one, or that it is not a misnomer. I don't believe because a trade publication, that no doubt gets advertising dollars from the restaurant/food/beverage business makes those who are not certified necessarily credible. We all know how easy wine and beer writers can be bought and paid for, especially the latter.

He gives credit to the Beer Cicerone Program on one hand, then on the other, does not see that the title is necessary. There are other ways it can be done. Hands on training and experience in the field is where you really lean, and cut your teeth. I can agree with this logic to a point, but ultimately, I would have to disagree, as a sound foundation needs to be in place, and then built upon. His reasoning seems a bit disingenuous as well, seeing that after completion of his undergraduate degree, he went on to pursue a master's degree but beer came a calling. It indicates to me, that he must believe on some level that formal education has some merit. What really undermines his argument and that of the other "beer" sommeliers is the fact that none of them have the certification. If they had the certification, the training, the education, a real sommelier or real cicerone had, and then said "its not worth it."? It might lend a little more credibility to the argument against formal education and experience vs on the job experience alone.

The Beer Director makes some points as to why this title of "beer sommelier" may or may not fit what he does for a living. The Beer Director is responsible for training the staff, making the selections, and working with the chef for beer and food pairings. Sounds like what a wine steward or sommelier does right? He is doing this, but with beer. That is what a cicerone does, and there is a program out there, that educates, trains, and certifies a cicerone, the beer world's equivalent to a sommelier.

The fact that the Cicerone Certification Program has only been in existence since 2007 is a non sequitur in my opinion. I can not understand how anyone who is in the food/beverage business, and wants to be taken seriously when it comes to "beer expertise" including the promotion of craft beer, how to serve it, and match it with food, would not want education, training, and certification from this program. Especially so, when you see the people behind this certification program. It is an earnest effort to put beer on the same level as wine, and specialization matters here. The Beer Director seems to want it both ways. The respect of a sommelier or cicerone who has the formal training and certification vs "doing time in the trenches" IE on the job experiences is good enough.

In the last two cases this blog has addressed, the title of beer sommelier has been self proclaimed. In this case it has not, and I have a lot more respect for this guy because of that. That being said, I will have to say this guy is not a real sommelier. A sommelier is an accredited, trained, wine steward. If you do not have the accreditation, you are not a sommelier in my opinion. You are just a well informed "cork dork" or "beer geek".

I fully understand that sommeliers in fine dining establishments are doing more than training staff, procuring wine, and working with chefs to do food and wine pairings. Beer and spirits are coming more and more into the mix. I get it. That being said, I think it says a lot to be specialized, and I truly believe that if you want to claim the title of a sommelier, or a cicerone for that matter, you should have some sort of formal education and certification.

Working for a beer centric restaurant/beer bar one would think the owners would embrace the title of cicerone here. Is it not craft beer choices and pairing said choices with food their selling point? Is this not what is setting this place apart? Why would you not want your Beer Director to have attended a program that has given him some formal education and certification, like a real sommelier? It would give him a bit more authority and credibility in my opinion. I have read his resume and his beer "credentials". While not lacking, they are a bit dubious at best. He liked to drink craft beer in college? He tried good beer in Germany and Ireland? He worked as a waiter, and then manager at a beer bar, then as the beer director for a restaurant group that is beer centric pizza place and the place he now works? I'm sorry, but being a beer lover for over 20 years, I'm just not in awe of this.

I'm in no way attempting to diminishing what he has done, or the selections he makes for his restaurant/beer bar. Nor am I with his food and beer parings. I've see what he has done, and he is doing great work. What I am suggesting is, if he wants to claim a title, would not the title of cicerone be appropriate for what he does, and give him a little more "teeth" if you will? I just find it too easy for any informed beer geek who gets a job a beer bar and or restaurant to now start calling themselves "beer" sommeliers. The verdict for me? Not as egregious as the other two "beer" sommeliers, but still beer douche. The douches have it.


  1. I have to agree. While experience can certainly be gained in the field, it takes many, many years and includes drinking, experimenting, and reading the tomes of the giants like Jackson. Unless you're a brewer, I can't see why anyone just coming into the craft beer scene would not want education and certification to work pairing beer and food.

  2. I think what really underminds any argument these "beer" sommeliers have against the certified, earned title a real sommelier and a real cicerone have to work for, is *NONE* of them have it. I could see if this guy was a master sommelier or a master cicerone and said, "you know what, the certification, the training, the education is just not necessary." It would make his argument a bit more credible.

    This guy seems to want the "credentials" and respect of someone who has made the effort and got the certification, but does not want to be put though the paces or do the work involved to get the certification for what ever reason. So for me in this case, "rising though the ranks" as a waiter/bartender to manager to beer director to "beer" sommelier just does not cut it for me.

  3. Exactly. I would not call "six years in the field" all that much experience. As you well know doing this well over 20 years, you and I are still learning. I would not scoff at what this guy does, but as stated, I'm just not that impressed. I would be more so if he went and became a master cicerone. Look at the program, you can tell this is no joke, and to earn that title, you better know every aspect about beer. This guy is foolish to NOT want to get this certification. Especially so, as he works at a place that's whole angle in the restaurant business is promoting craft beer and matching beer with high end food, like a real sommelier does with wine.

  4. WOW, he went to Germany and Ireland to drink beer?? WOW!! Well, in addition to those two, I have also had beer in Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Does that give me better experience than him?? At least he is not self-proclaimed, but he should still discourage the use of the sommelier title for himself.
    How about instead of calling them someliers, we call them Massengils?? That would be a good code name.
    Hell, I guess I am a professional motorcycle racer.

  5. Read his "bio":

    It is pretty laughable for anyone who knows anything about craft beer. I'm not impressed. His dad drinking Sam Adams and Saranac? Wow am I getting old. I had my first Sam Adams in the late 80's only about a year or so after the brewery opened. He drank Otter Creek and Long Trail? No Catamount?! Visited the Vermont Pub and Brewery in college? I would hope he visited 3 Needs and Magic Hat as well. Been to all three. Studing in Germany and Ireland "helped cement his passion for international beer styles." Who is writting this horseshit? The bottom line? His "credentials" are all fluff. Go get the certification and then you can start puffing yourself up. Until then, this kid is just a well informed beer geek. Hardly impressive.

  6. Besides, just look at that photo of him. I might ask him how to do my nails, but I certainly won't ask him which beer goes with a cheeseburger.


  7. Not the most masculine looking dude I have ever seen. Beer geeks usually are just that, fucking geeks.