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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…