Young and Hungry

What’s in a Name? Of Beer Directors, Sommeliers, and Cicerones

Editor's Note: With Tim Carman away on vacation, Young & Hungry invited Greg Engert, the beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes ChurchKey and Birch & Barley, to blog in his absence.

An interesting story: A friend of mine was shopping in a beer store in Minnesota recently, and sought the assistance of the resident beer expert. The conversation led back to D.C., and my friend mentioned Birch & Barley and myself, as well as our commitment to espousing beer’s rightful place at the dining table. This is where things took an unexpected turn.

The discourse did not amount to a celebration of the oft-ignored felicity of food and beer, but rather a semantic dispute over my position title. My friend referred to me as a "beer sommelier" and the store’s steward immediately scoffed at this moniker, decrying it as an indication of some beer-hack laying claim to knowledge that could not be qualified. You see, the store’s beer man is in training as a "cicerone," and he feels that this is the only true title for one who proclaims comprehensive beer perspicacity. Apparently, all others are mere pretenders, and their very titles reveal inherent obtuseness.

I myself have been somewhat at a loss whenever—over the past six years or so—I’ve been petitioned to define my role in two words or less. For most of my career, I’ve been known as the "beer director" for Rustico Restaurant & Bar, then for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes Rustico in Alexandria, as well as Birch & Barley/ChurchKey on 14th Street NW in the District. Primarily, I adopted this designation early on because my position focused primarily on staff education, the development of beer lists, the procuring of the finest and most interesting brews, as well as practicing professional beer storage, cellaring and service. I was always concerned with the confluence of beer and food, and was constantly at work educating myself—and then my staff—on the limitless possibilities for beer pairings, but in a sort of nascent manner. There was—and still is, really—very little to read regarding beer and food matching, and I took it upon myself to test the theories of beer writers while working along side very talented chefs.

Along the way, my breakthrough came when I realized that the most tried and tested—not to mention most thorough—education available for beer and food pairing was actually to be discovered among the countless treatises on food and wine. Wine writers, stewards, directors, and—wait for it—"sommeliers" had been pouring over the subject for years and I realized that by utilizing their lessons by way of comparison, and by constantly tasting beer and food in congress, I would get closer and closer to the actual, rather than merely theoretical and seemingly untested, virtues of beer and food. Wednesday’s post will detail some of these lessons learned.)

Then we opened Birch & Barley, and I was able to not only continue to scrutinize and evaluate presumptive food and beer matches, but also present my findings in the pairing suggestions proffered by the restaurant nightly. It was at this time that guests began asking me if I was a "beer sommelier."

I had admittedly been shying away from this term for two reasons: Until Birch & Barley opened, my job dealt more with the directorship aspect of beer programs (and less with actual table-side service); and I had always regarded the term "sommelier" as both more associated with food and beverage service, and more germane to all things wine.

At this point in my career, my notions were closely aligned with those of the cicerone program (a program of true integrity that I continue to highly admire and respect for all things beer education). The Cicerone Certification Program edifies, tests and accredits beer service professionals and has done so with distinction for many years now. Their mission statement:

The Cicerone Certification Program seeks to ensure that consumers receive the best possible beer and enjoy its flavors to the greatest extent possible. To facilitate this, those who sell and serve beer need to acquire knowledge in five areas:

  • Beer Storage, Sales and Service
  • Beer Styles and Culture
  • Beer Tasting and Flavors
  • Brewing Ingredients and Processes
  • Pairing Beer with Food
  • The first four tenets of their program’s education adhere to the initial concerns of my position as a “beer director,” with the requisite further education on those tenets for my staff. The fifth topic is one with which I have found myself more and more concerned, and one that has become an integral part of my current position (whatever the title). Interestingly, all accounts of what a sommelier’s position includes mirrors these tenets, with wine replacing beer as the object of service. So a sommelier is certainly concerned with food and wine pairing and service, but also with the behind-the-scenes endeavors of education, menu design, product procurement, quality control, and storage. And truth be told, sommeliers have come to also demonstrate proficiency with not just food and wine, but all sorts of match-worthy beverages including spirits and beer.

    The cicerone program admits (kind of) to this broadening of the sommelier’s horizons:

    Twenty or thirty years ago when beer was much simpler, those whose primary expertise was wine could fairly claim to know a great deal about beer. But today the world of beer is just as diverse and complicated as wine. As a result, developing true expertise in beer takes years of focused study and requires constant attention to stay on top of new brands and special beers. While it is certainly possible for someone to be expert in both wine and beer, the only way to prove that is by examination and certification in both fields. Only those with the title "Certified Cicerone" or "Master Cicerone" have demonstrated their expertise in selecting and serving fine beer.

    So a "sommelier" can be someone who appreciates and professes the merits of great beer, but not without the proper Cicerone certification? Like I said before, the cicerone program is an excellent way by which one can truly master the ideas of beer in all of its facets, but is it the only way? I know plenty of esteemed wine professionals who have a deep comprehension of beer, and two top-notch restaurants in the District that are primarily associated with dizzying wine programs, CityZen and Proof, feature a fine, if focused, beer list and take pains to pair their brews with the cuisines prepared by their fine chefs. Surely I feel safe trusting their staff with my beer (and wine) when I visit, cicerone or not.

    The Cicerone Certification Program also denies the usage of "sommelier" with regard to beer on the following grounds:

    In the wine world, the word "sommelier" designates those with proven expertise in selecting, acquiring and serving fine wine. Lately some beer servers have adopted the title "beer sommelier" to tie into the credibility of the wine world.

    As I previously mentioned, many wine professionals I know possess—and are constantly striving for further—beer knowledge. While I admit that "sommelier" may tie into the credibility of the wine world, I do not think that those who call themselves "beer sommeliers" do this to conceal their lack of professional qualifications with regard to beer. When I began to be called a "beer sommelier," I saw this all in a different light. By utilizing a term of respect and appreciation, one previously afforded only to the wine expert, diners were indicating a new appraisal of beer. They were recognizing—in their verbiage—that beer deserves the same treatment as wine, and is a viable option for food pairing. When Food & Wine named me one of the best new sommeliers this year (and the first to be recognized among wine sommeliers for my sommelier work with Beer), I felt that this was an important symbolic victory for beer in the same vein.

    While I understand the need to define positions, I feel that it is far more beneficial for beer if it is accepted and championed by the existing culinary world at large, in addition to the world of beer aficionados. If the term of "beer sommelier" seems tethered to wine, then maybe that is a good thing. After all, wine is an amazingly complex and alluring beverage like beer, and one that has been given due respect for years. Extending this same respect to beer and the people who work to showcase its complexity is the highest compliment. The term "cicerone" may just end up insisting on the division of beer and wine just as they are finally coming into a coexistence that serves to heighten all culinary experiences.

    Let’s also remember that "cicerone" is an accreditation program and a business. It certainly behooves them to insist on the merits of becoming a cicerone, just as it does the Court of Master Sommeliers to insist on the virtues of becoming a "master sommelier." Both organizations rightfully note that their sobriquets will encourage a guest to have faith in the graduate’s proficiency. But does that mean that if one has not spent the money, and found the time, to take those courses, one has no right in proclaiming one’s skill? While a term without trademark may be misused by some, the proof of one’s talents lie not in the title, but in the service of the product, be it beer or wine. And these talents can certainly be developed by the aforementioned programs, but not exclusively.

    To deny the aptitude of the non-cicerone beer professional echoes the attitudes that the culinary—and once wine-dominated—world so long directed toward beer. If the establishment has accepted the term of "beer sommelier," perhaps the beer intelligentsia is wise to follow suit. After all, the culinary world is much better off with the nuanced flavors afforded by both beer and wine, to say nothing of the intriguing world of spirits...

    • Art D.

      I think that "Beer Director" is probably the most appropriate term; it makes one stop and consider for a second what the position might mean. It is much more approachable and egalitarian than "sommelier" and conveys the seriousness with which an establishment takes beer. It says that the beer list has been curated and isn't just the first 555 bottles and drafts which were found at random or pushed by a distributor.
      Even if you or one of your peers were to be a certified Cicerone, using that title as the primary descriptor of what you do would be meaningless to about 98% of the population. I have been consuming craft beer since a trip to England in '93 and have never heard the term before today.

    • Red

      The title "beer" sommelier is an absoulte and total joke in my opinion. High jacking the title of a trained and certified wine stewart really makes it a meaningless title when you put "beer" in front of it. What is next, "cheese" sommelier? I think you would make a good cicerone, and as you stated, there is a program out there. I don't buy the argument that no one knows what a cicerone is, so lets just call yourself a "beer" sommelier. You educate the public and let them know exactly what a cicerone is, and what a cicerone does. Enough establishments that are making their money on marketing craft beer should get this concept. I say put away the phony beer "credentials", made up titles, and become a real cicerone, the beer world's answer to a sommelier. The Cicerone Certification Program seems to be a step in the right direction. Being certified by an independant body that appears to be doing this certification to better serve the food/beverage business seems more credible than a silly, self proclaimed title. I think a real sommelier would have a hard time keeping a straight face if you told him or her you were a "beer" sommelier.

    • Heff

      Not to mention, how insufferably pedantic is the derivation of the term cicerone? Titles in general are bologna. You can go online and get a certificate that says you are an ordained minister in fifteen minutes. A chiropractor can legal use the same title as an actual medical doctor. Didn't we boot the monarchy so each citizen could achieve and be judged by their merits, and not by their title?

      I'd take Greg against any cicerone with a certificate because I have seen him in action, and that is infinitely more valuable.

    • Greg Engert

      I think you have missed my gist on a number of levels.
      First of all, the entire point of my post is how meaningless titles really end up being. Let's take "Sommelier" for example. There are many wine people who have been referred to as "Sommelier" that have not in fact completed the accreditation to be called that. Major magazines, critics and food writers have done this because at the end of the day they are concerned with recognizing great work in the food and beverage industry (using a term easily grasped by the public), not with drawing attention a wine professional's education history. At the end of the day, it seems that it is the experience a food and beverage professional offers that is what is appreciated, not whether or not they have paid the money and taken the courses to "earn" that title (and the title is often attached to them, not self-imposed). By your logic, unless one has "earned" the title in this way, then one shouldn't make a peep until the title has been awarded. Why is the opinion of an accreditation business more important than the collective opinion of the informed public and educated food and beverage professionals?

      Also, I am not championing the title of Beer Sommelier, I just think it is a good indication to the guest of a new take on the Wine Sommelier; i.e. bringing the same care and knowledge to beer that wine professionals have brought to wine for years. If you read my post carefully, what I am actually encouraging is to stop the tendency to splinter the beverage community, and make the idea of beer and food approachable. I'd prefer it if Sommeliers became knowledgeable about beer, wine, spirits, and also food (even cheese)! I look at Sommelier as an expanding title that can welcome other beverages to the table. In this way, beer continues to gain its culinary respect.

      And I am not encouraging self-imposed titles! My point is that titles are imposed from others--as in the Food & Wine instance from my post--and that this occurs on account of one's work. If someone just calls themselves something, then it is up to others to measure their work against the title.

      And no matter what, Sommelier will refer to one concerned with beverage and food pairing. So a Sommelier must be very informed about food, including cheese, but first and foremost with beverages. So the notion of a "cheese" Sommelier misses the mark. But no matter what the title is, there are plenty of wines, spirits, and certainly beers that pair excellently with cheese...

    • Heff

      Those of us who have worked in the industry are familiar with the eternal struggle between the front and back of the house. As the restaurant scene evolves, and beverage becomes more important across categories (wine, beer, spirits), and decor/ambiance becomes more of a factor, the future has to be a more team approach. We are living in an age when all of the knowledge is so accessible, you no longer need to attend culinary school to write a unique recipe.

      I believe we will start to see, as Greg hints at above, restaurants with creative teams instead of single professionals occupying single titles.

    • Berkitron

      "By utilizing a term of respect and appreciation, one previously afforded only to the wine expert, diners were indicating a new appraisal of beer."

      There's the rub. This should be about the use of language to popularize long overdue mainstream respect for serious prandial beer drinking. As Greg's Food&Wine award so rightly recognizes, beer deserves a spot at the table. I just don't see "Cicerone" creating that zeitgeist, but everyone instinctively knows what 'beer sommelier' means, and hopefully it will intrigue them, make them think about beer on a gourmet level, and try their first beer pairings. That is a revolution Greg, and other beer sommeliers, can lead better with a comprehensible and intriguing title.

    • Red

      "I think you have missed my gist on a number of levels.
      First of all, the entire point of my post is how meaningless titles really end up being."

      I believe some titles do have meaning. I'm not sure I would visit a doctor who is not an M.D. Or want to get on a plane where the pilot did not graduate from flight school. I believe a real sommelier has earned that title, so it is not meaningless for a real sommelier who has bothered to get the certification as well as practical experience in the trade.

      "Let’s take “Sommelier” for example. There are many wine people who have been referred to as “Sommelier” that have not in fact completed the accreditation to be called that."

      If they are not acceditated they should not be using a title they have not earned. They are not sommeliers, period. If someone states they are a sommelier, I'm assuming they are a trained, certified, wine stewart. I'm being lied to if they are not. I don't think michelin star restaurants are using sommeliers who are not accedited. Those restaurants that do? I'm sure they pay accordingly.

      "Major magazines, critics and food writers have done this because at the end of the day they are concerned with recognizing great work in the food and beverage industry (using a term easily grasped by the public), not with drawing attention a wine professional’s education history."

      What is the point of a chef going to a culinary arts school then? Apprenticeships, degrees, certifications all mean nothing? Formal education counts for nothing?

      "At the end of the day, it seems that it is the experience a food and beverage professional offers that is what is appreciated, not whether or not they have paid the money and taken the courses to “earn” that title (and the title is often attached to them, not self-imposed)."

      I disagree. Again, you get what you pay for. If I am pushing high end product, I want trained, certified professionals. I don't want a "jack of all trades, master of none." Especially so if I want a fine dining experience. I TRUST a real sommelier with formal education and experience vs a "do it yourselfer."

      "By your logic, unless one has “earned” the title in this way, then one shouldn’t make a peep until the title has been awarded."

      Exactly. Don't call yourself a lawyer unless you passed the bar. Hell, I want my plumber to have done a 5 year apprenticeship, have a license and be certified. I'm willing to pay for quality work and craftsmanship. I expect my sommelier to be educated as well experienced.

      "Why is the opinion of an accreditation business more important than the collective opinion of the informed public and educated food and beverage professionals?"

      Why trust writers and critics more so than educators? Why not have the education as well as the experience? Why do we bother going to college and getting advanced degrees? I just can't agree here, the title "beer" sommelier is comical to me. We will have to agree to disagree. Keep up the good work. I'll pay Church Key and B&B a visit when you are a Master Cicerone.

    • Red Smells

      Dear Red,

      I feel sorry for you. You clearly have worked very hard at something for which you have received no acclaim. Or, you HAVE earned a title that nobody respects. Maybe you are young, and you have a hard road ahead of you. Maybe you are old and did not learn from the hard road behind you, but seeing life in such stark black and white is a recipe for heartbreak.

      Red Smells

      PS. What did you do for beer pairing expertise before 2007 (the laughably recent year that the cicerone title was invented)? I'm guessing you weren't yet old enough to legally drink at a restaurant.

    • Red

      Veteran is a title no one respects? I've earned that one for sure, so forgive me if your juvenile assumptions really don't cut that deep. Clearly you are young and have not lived enough life to have an opinion that matters. I might stink, but not as much as the silly, phony title, "beer" sommelier. It is a moot point anyway. Some clown has already trade marked the "title":

      Too funny. FYI: I been drinking "craft" beer since the early 1980's. I'm going to guess you were still in grammer school at the time. So "been there done that" while you were still watching Power Rangers. So now you are a well informed "beer geek." Wow. Quite an accomplishment in life. Grow up kid.

    • Red Smells

      Well, you've finally revealed your hidden agenda Red. Only a military man could care so much about titles.

    • Red

      Hidden agenda? Are you serious? The only point I am making is, some titles do have meaning, and formal education as well as experience in the field *should* count for something. Church Key/B&B needs to pony up the cash and let Greg get the "title", it matters to some patrons. I have no doubt Greg is doing good work, but in my opinion he is a well informed beer geek, not a "beer" sommelier. Frankly, it is insulting to a real sommelier who actually bothered to get the education and cetification. Why would anyone in the food/beverage industry be against having some sort of formal training and certification that appears to be doing so to educate and promote craft beer? Or do you really believe Cicerone Certification Program is just a money grab? Ray Daniels is doing this just to cash in? I don't agree with that.

    • Jon Tee

      This is in an interesting article and debate - here is my take on it...
      First of all I am a craft beer fanatic that is also a Certified Sommelier (with the Court of Master Sommeliers) I have also trained with the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) to the advanced level and am mid way through my Professional WSET Diploma (2 year part time course) The difference between wany "qualifications" are if you are certified by a responable organization. In Wine the CMS or the ISG [International Sommelier Guild] are great and seen as the benchmarks to get your certified sommelier status.

      For the world of beer, professionals are relatively new, and a 'Beer director' is fine as a job title for any given company - this is not Certification, but a job - just like wine director. This beer or wine director may or may not have external certification - now that can be added to the info on this person.

      Cicerone can't be THE name used because it is owned by a company and so can't be used by any other certification program, and rightly so. They have a right to protect their own trademark and the quality of their program. A generic un-certified 'Beer Sommelier' is the same as the many un-certified Sommeliers out there. Some are good others not so much. A Certified Beer Sommelier is a different thing, and there a number of organizations around the world that can certify you - one of which is the Cicerone- but this should not be the only term used as it is basically an American company and the term is relativey unknown in most of the rest of the world.

    • Seeking Legal Christian Ordination

      I was wondering the source of the obvious Vegas references in the movie? It appears the writers and director are not from Vegas so i'm wondering why they have "Clark County Police" which is Las Vegas's county and "Binions" beer which is a famous downtown Vegas casino.