I don’t talk about my day job much in this space. When I do, I typically mention it in a self-deprecating way — frankly, black humor is how most service industry workers keep themselves from killing customers and each other — or as a stray offhand remark.
At this point, however, my work bears a little more scrutiny, as it’s beginning to look like there’s roughly a 50 percent chance that this is the industry — or one related to it — in which I may spend most of my employed life, typically as a beer expert: planning events, tap takeovers, beer dinners or as a brewery rep. Side note: is Prairie Artisan Ales hiring?
So that’s why I took the leap this past weekend and underwent the Certified Cicerone Exam in Sun Prairie, WI, about a 25-minute drive from Madison. The Cicerone Program was instituted in 2007, essentially as a way to quantify beer expertise in a similar fashion as the sommelier program does with wine.
Cicerones are required to possess not only an encyclopedic knowledge of all beer styles’ (of which there are currently over 100 examples, including sub-styles) historical backgrounds and flavor profiles, but also the fundamentals of food and beer pairing, proper draft line and storage maintenance, the three-tier distribution system and consumer service.
The test is, frankly, a son of a bitch. The last eight months of my life or so have been predominantly geared towards taking and passing the exam, the results of which I won’t know for another 6-8 weeks, and it’s not difficult to see why: it’s a three-hour written portion, a three-part palate test, and a bunch of other things I’m not allowed to talk about. Seriously: I had to sign more documents before taking this thing than when I applied for a Wisconsin driver’s license.
But I’m not here to talk about the test itself. More pertinent, I think, are my reasons for taking it in the first place. I should point out, anyone can take it, as long as you’ve passed the Certified Beer Server exam, which is fairly pedestrian by comparison, and can pony up the semi-hefty registration fee. As such, there was a fairly broad demographic of test-takers among my dozen or so colleagues.
I was one of the younger attendees, but there were people there as old as 40 or 45; I recognized a bartender from a high-end Belgian-themed beer bar I frequent here in Madison; there were three or four brewery and distributor reps that I knew by name; just two days later, I saw another young man in attendance, working in the liquor section at our local Hy-Vee.
I think my motivations, in large part, line up with the other test-takers’. Obviously, we’re all in it for reasons both finances and notoriety; such a certification makes it a lot easier to get a decent job in the industry and, once you get it, you’re tasked with the really cool stuff: a cicerone friend of mine recently did a series of artisanal cheese pairings with a variety of Ommegang beers.
Not only that, but you have to put forth a lot less effort to get people to take you seriously, a convenience I’ve been pursuing most of my adult life.
And truly, I do worry about that. As someone who harbors a mild though knee-jerk distrust of hierarchical power structures, I wonder if, in some small way, I could ever become part of the problem. Though I now greatly respect them after learning what they have to go through, I used to deride the sommelier’s authority. Whether they tried to or not, they seemed, I thought, to carry themselves in a, to be polite, haughty way, wafting about in an air artificially rarified by their own egos.
It scares me a little bit that I think I understand that now. The very best sommeliers, sure, are able to balance their otherworldly knowledge with a well-honed sense of hospitality and customer service; for some, their employment may depend on it. If, however, they act like they know more than us, it’s because they do.
In the restaurant industry, chefs are notoriously finicky and, sometimes, downright verbally abusive, especially in the hell that is a Friday night dinner service. It’s why high-profile coaches and managers are either ornery, dismissive or just plain unengaged when sportswriters challenge them on a decision: it’s their way — our way — of reminding you that you may not know as much as you think.
Obviously, it works both ways. In this kind of setting, both consumer and food/wine/beer/cocktail experts have certain inalienable rights, as well as inherent responsibilities. On the one hand, yes: the customer has final say. Bud Light may taste like baboon piss fermented with twig scrapings, but if that’s what a patron wants to drink, that’s what the patron gets to drink. It’s my responsibility to try and sell something with a little more character, but I never try and push too hard; it’s insulting and, duh, bad for business.
On the other hand, it does, to an extent, fall to a customer to take note of their environment. If you find yourself in a restaurant or bar with more than, say, 15 beers on tap, and you only recognize a couple, try branching out a little. Believe me, there is no greater sense of job satisfaction for the bartender/cicerone/sommelier than the one that comes from introducing a customer to a new favorite drink.
Here’s what I’m pretty sure I’m trying to say: learning how to be successful at something takes a lot out of you. Maintaining that success takes the rest, and it can sometimes be difficult to relate to the world around us outside of that context.
To work, to claw toward perfection, is part of what makes us human — it renders artists, craftsmen, prophets and addicts — and in the process, makes us seem a little less so to each other.