Thursday, December 16, 2010

Innocence Lost.

I'm cynical. When I hear that someone is a "beer sommelier" or Cicerone my gut reaction is to think it's lot of puffery. It's a chance for someone to add a fancy label to themselves and lord it over us. It's only beer, after all. Let's not complicate things.

Then I have an experience like Tammy Tuck had recently, which is sadly common. You can read her account in the Washington City Paper (thanks to Lew Bryson for the link). In a classic Adam's Morgan dive called the Asylum,* a bartender told her that Kasteel Tripel was "'like Budwesier times ten,' 'not so sweet like other Belgian beers,' and 'just like a lager.'"

By the way, if you've ever had the misfortune to try Kasteel Tripel,** all three of those things are dead wrong. It's nothing like Budweiser, although the alcohol taste might be like Budweiser times three. It's one the sweetest, most cloying Belgian ales on the market (although that cough syrup called Kasteel Kriek might offer a run for its money). And it's not just like a lager, although it happens to be pale in color.

Tuck then goes to another place called BarCode, where she is told that Goose Island Sofie--a Belgian-style oak-aged pale--is just like Yeungling. Yikes.

I like to say I'm not a fussy drinker, and then I have an experience like that. Or I hear about someone else's. They demonstrate the growing pains of craft beer in America. More flavorful beers are working their way into more places--normal places, unpretentious places, and we should be grateful for that--but the staff have a certain learning curve. Beer is more complicated then it used to be, like it or not. But drinking it should not be.

So: More Certified Beer Servers, please. More Cicerones would be nice too.

Oh wait, now there are more. Word is out that there are two more Master Cicerones in the world, for a total of three. One of them is Rich Higgins of San Francisco's Social Kitchen and Brewery. The other new one is Dave Kahle of Chicago. Plus there are more than 170 regular-flavor Cicerones and 2,500 or so Certified Beer Servers.

Ray Daniels told me that Cicerones should be "guides and not Gods. For the most part they work invisibly to make sure the beer is tasting great and then train the staff to help customers pick a beer with no more fuss than picking an entrée."

Less fuss is good. I'd settle for servers who know what the beers taste like. And bartenders who keep their draft lines clean.

CORRECTED to fix my confusion of Sofie with Matilda and to ADD the name of Dave Kahle as a new Master Cicerone.

*We used to go to the Asylum on Sundays for a ridiculous special. I think it started at 4 p.m. with 25-cent drafts for an hour. Every hour the price went up by 50 cents. For years the beer in question was Shiner Bock, then later switched to Miller High Life. Quality was not our concern.

**If you've ever wondered why I talk mostly about a handful of Belgian breweries and ignore the rest, it's because I rarely have nice things to say. Yet I still think Belgium offers the greatest, most interesting beers in the world. That just shows how good the really good ones are. Meanwhile Kasteel Tripel--sweet, spiked and spiced--in my view represents the worst of Belgian ale. If you like the stuff, well, I hope we can still be friends.


  1. That reminds me of being sat in the Porterhouse in Dublin and overhearing an old fella moaning about the bar staff (they bought his whiskey and water ready mixed rather than a whiskey and jug of water). He was lamenting that in the old days being a barman was a respected profession rather than something you did whilst at college or in-between "proper" jobs.

    Do you ever get the feeling that all these "new" things and fancy titles are just re-inventing the wheel?

    I would call cicerones simply, properly trained bar staff - but then, I am an old fashioned sod.

  2. I find it hard to stay mad at Kasteel when there's an adorable little house at the base of the glass. Look at the wittle windows! Awww!

  3. No, you're right. Properly trained bar staff are all we need.

    But to play devil's advocate, the problem is that there are few standards when it comes to said training. That's the idea behind a certification program. Even nicer for us that it's a certification program focused on the service of beer.

    Maybe we need a whiskey-and-water certification program as well.

  4. Very good points. I am a Certified Cicerone, and I hear people I work with making boneheaded descriptions of the beers we sell, which is kinda heartbreaking, since we do the best we can to bring an excellent selection to our customers.

    To answer your question, Dave Kahle out of Chicago was the other new Master Cicerone.

    And I hate to be a stickler, but Matilda is Goose Island's homage to Orval, while Sofie is a Belgian-style pale aged in neutralized Chardonnay oak.

  5. Thanks Bob. I'll have to correct my post because Matilda is indeed the messy homage I was thinking of. Yet I'm pretty sure Sofie is still very unlike Yeungling.