The problem with Beer Sommeliers

Three cheeses, three meats, three beers, and a hundred different opinions: this was the beer and food pairing segment of Sophie Atherton’s talk on the role of the Beer Sommelier at the 2013 European Beer Bloggers Conference in Edinburgh. Taste is a very subjective matter, but some matches are clearer than others. That certainly came though during the evening dinner hosted by Fyne Ales and Williams Bros, where we enjoyed a traditional Scottish starter of haggis, neeps and tatties alongside Fraoch Heather Ale.

Heather Ale is a beer I’ve had a few times, and one I neither like or dislike. I accept it’s a pleasant beer and I know it wants to be my friend, but it’s just a bit too weird for me to comfortably hang around with. Haggis and I get on famously, but what I didn’t know was that Heather Ale and Haggis are also friends.

So, there I was, enjoying the good company of Haggis, when Heather Ale showed up. However, it was a totally different animal. It was sparking off Haggis, who just got Heather Ale’s weird sense of humour, and even though they had their own witty banter going on they were keen to get me involved. We were having a great time and then, all too quickly, Haggis had to go. Suddenly, Heather Ale became dull and slightly weird again.

The connection between a traditional Scottish dish and a beer based on an old Scottish recipe seems obvious in hindsight but ultimately someone took the time to devise a menu where those two would be presented side by side. This is, in part, the role of the Beer Sommelier – to help us make great beer and food combinations, leading to an improved eating and drinking experience.

Here in the UK, the Beer Academy, part of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, is responsible for accrediting Beer Sommeliers. With more Beer Sommeliers available to advise pubs and restaurants in making delicious food and beer pairings, through educating the chefs and barstaff or actively devising menus, we could enhance what makes Britain great – our pub and beer culture. The problem, however, is that beer needs to be approachable and it must remain in the hands of the many. The term Sommelier doesn’t encourage this. It conjures up images of wine snobs sipping their drinks and prodding hors d’oeuvres with silver cutlery. When beer is such a deep-rooted British institution, why do we turn to the world of wine for help with naming our beer champions?

We need a new term, one that rolls off the tongue more gracefully than Sommelier, something that any pub-goer or barman would be comfortable saying without feeling a bit sheepish about the whole thing. In the States, for example, they have the term Cicerone. The Cicerone Certification Program in America, founded by Ray Daniels, acknowledges that the term Beer Sommelier is inadequate for the rich and complex world of beer, and adopted the old English word. By adopted I mean aggressively trademarked, so it’s unlikely to be a term anyone else can use.

If there was an obvious replacement for Sommelier, this blog post would be redundant, and sadly I’m not smart or egotistical enough to say I have a surefire solution right here and right now. All I can do is start the ball rolling, and see if anything develops:

Beerster: Immediately unpretentious in its simplicity, the term also links back to traditional beer-linked roles such as maltster and Brewster; however, it doesn’t have a brilliant ring to it, and sounds a bit like the dreaded hipster word. 

Beer Ambassador: This has great authority and a touch of class, but it requires the qualifying prefix of “beer” to support it. A single word would carry more credibility.

Beerista: Admittedly not my suggestion (heard at the EBBC conference, though I forget who said it); not too dissimilar from Beerster, but with a more confident sound and veers away from being mistaken for hipster in the process, but it suffers from association with the world of coffee. If we aren’t accepting Beer Sommelier for being too closely linked to the world of wine, how can we justifiably accept Beerista?

What are your thoughts? Are you a Beer Sommelier or Cicerone? Are you a bit embarrassed by your title, or are you hopping mad that I even dare suggest we change it? Perhaps you’re thinking of becoming one; if so, do you like the term, or would you be prouder if you could call yourself something else? Either way, I’m curious to know.

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15 thoughts on “The problem with Beer Sommeliers”

  1. I certainly want to be one.

    I think Beer Ambassador, and for that matter Beer Champion, sound too corporate. I’ve heard and seen them used in company settings, and they sound too much like a marketing exec or PR person.

    Cicerone is the best because it’s a new (well, old) word, and can’t be mistaken for anything else. Like sommelier, the word we choose needs to have no ambiguity or any other possible meaning.

    Beermaster?

    1. Beermaster/Beer Master, perhaps. (Course progression: Beer Apprentice, Beer Journeyman, Beer Master?) Other suggestions put forward today include Certified Beer Geezer (Alex MacArthur’s suggestion), and Certified Craft Wanker (Matt Curtis’ suggestion). So there you go, plenty of scope.

  2. Thanks for such an interesting and insightful piece Craig. A few people came up to me after the session raising similar points about the term and although I sort of agree with them – and you – I think that now we’re using it AND because it’s gaining ground as a qualification that we might just have to run with it. If we change it now it could undo some of what we’ve achieved and reflect badly on the concept of a qualified beer expert too. Don’t you think?

    1. We’re looking at it from the outside, whereas you understand the situation more intimately, being a Beer Sommelier yourself. If it’s too late to apply the brakes then it might help to go faster – the Cicerone website states that anyone can declare themselves a sommelier without any formal qualification. That probably only applies to the US but would beer sommeliers here in the UK benefit from some positive PR, their own guild, website, advertising campaign etc? Apologies if these things exist and I’ve missed them. While the cicerone approach chills me a bit you have to respect they’ve nailed the rhetoric and made it seem an august institution.

      1. Good point about going faster. I believe there are plans afoot that may do just that. Re Cicerones it would be interesting to do a straw poll of average Americans, (if such a person exists!) rather than craft beer fans, to see how many people are aware of the program beyond the beer community although it seems barely a week goes by without me getting a Google alert for beer sommelier that turns out to be an article from the US and usually about Cicerones – which maybe already answers the question.

  3. I do love the idea of being a Certified Craft Wanker though. However I’m not sure it’ll catch on as a serious title. Book a Certified Craft Wanker to run your beer tasting… Certified Craft Wanker Joe Blah de Blah (made up name!) suggests the best beers to match with sausages… See what I mean?!

    1. The hipsters will love it! They go for that sort of irony… In all seriousness, it’s not serious. We have to get some amusement along the way. Thanks for your comments, Sophie; incidentally, that big blue cheese with black cab stout was spot on. I need to do that pairing again.

      1. Oh indeed! I wasn’t being serious either. So glad you liked the cheese and Black Cab stout. I was v.worried how my beer choices were going to be received!

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