The Thirst For Knowledge: Enthusiasts Take Their Understanding of Beer to New Levels

An Industry and Culture Driven By Education and Experience

Sour beers at Pig Iron Public House in Cranberry, PAWhen you get down to the most binary of levels, beer is liquid. Period. But what makes this liquid magical are people. Brewers innovate daily to produce a quality product. Sales representatives for breweries and wholesalers work tirelessly to get their brand on tap at beer destinations throughout their territories. Bar managers, owners, and purchasers meticulously cultivate a rotation of offerings geared towards satiating the tastes of a diverse clientele. While many people may dig the same style, no two beer palates are identical.

And then, there are the enthusiasts. From the ones who wait in line for hours for the latest release to the ones who analyze each beer they encounter to the laid-back happy hour imbiber, the beer drinking public spoke up and said their beverages choices would no longer be dictated by bikini-clad supermodels and mundane humor. They wanted quality. They wanted flavor. They wanted options. And they were not afraid to pay a little extra for it.

So, boom. Here we are. A beer landscape that looks nothing like it did just a few years back. Breweries and brewpubs popping up day after day. Over 6,000 breweries operating in the United States with plenty more in planning. Each with a different model, approach, and portfolio – but unified by one common denominator: the desire to push this culture forward by delivering excellence in every pint.

And excellence is a must. The market is crowded. Those options people sought? They’ve got ’em. You have to come out of the gates strong lest ye be cast aside for beers from the brewery down the street.

Today’s beer drinker is opinionated. But, at the same time, she is savvy, educated, and into beer on a highly-invested level. Beer enthusiasts have gone beyond just enjoying a drink or two after a long week’s work. Beer is a hobby now. It’s a lifestyle. Some people homebrew. Some trade beers with others to experience new offerings. Some read books by industry professionals to increase their knowledge of their favorite beverage while others engage their bartenders and servers when visiting tasting rooms to learn more about how that brewery brings this magical liquid to life.

Everyone wants to know more. Everyone wants to understand their favorite beverage on a deeper level.

“We look at our consumers a few different ways,” said Meg Evans, Head Brewer at Rock Bottom in Pittsburgh’s Waterfront. “We have our novice consumers who don’t know exactly what they want, but with some guidance from our servers they can find the right fit. We have our aficionados who know what flavors they like and probably some specific brands, but will still need some assistance from our servers. Lastly, we have our experts. These guests ask the big questions. They want to know ingredients, some process details and definitely know what beer they want. With our brand being so recognized, we typically have a wide variety of all types of consumers, but all-in-all we always have guests that ask questions of our staff.”

How Knowledgeable Servers & Bartenders Enhance Your Experience

Today, beer is all about the experience. That goes beyond what’s in the glass. When you visit a taproom, brewpub, or bar, you have an expectation. If you have questions, big or small, the hope is your server is able to answer them accordingly. This raises your comfort level, your appreciation for the venue you’re frequenting, and overall enhances your experience to the point you’ll return in the future.

For servers, you don’t have to know everything about the beer you’re serving. But you have to know something. Presenting your brand’s product in a knowledgeable fashion shows a) you care about your brand, and b) you care about your industry. This benefits everyone and, on a personal level, will lead to increased tips. People buy more + enjoy your candor = higher final bill and more for your hard work!

On the other hand, trying to rush and give an answer just for the sake of giving it so you can move on helps no one and will diminish a guest’s experience and opinion of your brand.

Photo courtesy of Cinderlands Beer Co.

“If you try to BS your way through things when you’re not sure, that can end bad and put you in a worse situation,” explains Emily Schneider, former Bar Manager at Lawrenceville’s Cinderlands Beer Company. “The more you know will make your job that much easier and make your interactions much more natural.”

Emily learned her craft from the ground up, starting at Rock Bottom in Chicago at the age of 21. She later moved on to Solemn Oath Brewery where she learned even more, built quality relationships with consumers, and, as she happily pointed out, “talked about beer for hours.” She became a Certified Server through the Cicerone Certification Program and continued to hone her skill set before heading to Pittsburgh to get the new crew at Cinderlands off to a great start.

“The knowledge people seek has grown a ton,” Emily pointed out. “I always have to be sure to be on my game and know my stuff. This helps people discover new things and steer people toward things they didn’t know they’d like.”

It was at Solemn Oath that Emily not only built her appreciating and understanding of the service industry, but also met her husband Paul. Paul is the head brewer at Cinderlands and his thirst for beer knowledge began with homebrewing in 2010. He went on to become a Certified Server in 2011 and finally a Certified Cicerone in 2014. When his journey began, he was a high school teacher – a background that helped him launch the Business of Craft Beer Program at the College of Dupage outside of Chicago. This program provides education for professionals so they can enter the beer industry with their best foot forward. He’s also taught classes to prepare students for the Cicerone exams and a dozen of his pupils have received their certification.

Paul’s philosophy speaks strongly to education, knowledge, and experience, keeping him intensely connected with the beer drinker of today and instantly building a fantastic reputation for Cinderlands.

“The brewing process is not complete until the customer finishes their beer,” Paul stated. “It starts with raw ingredients in the field and ends with an empty glass.”

Breweries leading the charge in today’s craft beer renaissance are equipped with quality beer, a welcoming atmosphere, and a clear understanding that guests frequent their establishment because they want to walk way with something other than a buzz. With social mediums at everyone’s disposal, a beer drinker’s experience can make or break the reputation of said establishment. Approaching operations with this thought in mind, brewers and management are taking the time to properly educate their staff so their interactions represent the brand and the beer appropriately.

“When I was preparing to do an updated server training class, I went through the entire beer training that is given to our servers,” Meg Evans explained. “I was honestly impressed. It built a lot of confidence in that our servers are given a great foundation of beer knowledge before they hit the floor. I utilized some of the course material in my training class to really round out their skill. I focused primarily on understanding our brewhouse, the process and ingredients, proper glassware, and food pairing. I plan to expand upon these classes with detailed ingredient classes, as well as offer the two original classes again to any newbies or anyone interested in a refresher.”

Paul has taken a similar approach at Cinderlands.

“Our staff is always invited to work in the brewery to learn more,” Paul said. “Our people working here, this is their livelihood. So it should matter to them that they’re knowledgeable. Customers take beer very seriously. They put a lot of time, effort, and money into enjoying beer. So the more they (the customer) know, the better. If our staff can’t keep up, that creates a big problem.”

The great thing about education is that it never ends. I’ve been working in this industry in numerous capacities for over four years and can confidently express that I learn something new every day. You, as a beer drinker, can most likely relate. Meg informed me that every Monday, she posts a sheet at Rock Bottom that delivers information to servers on what beers are coming out for the week, beers that are about to kick, and beers that are available on the current menu – all with descriptions so servers can deliver a knowledgeable experience for their guests.

“We focus heavily on ‘beer stories’ at Rock Bottom,” Meg stated. “We want our servers to find a connection with every guest. That might be through offering background on a beer, suggesting a beer that will pair with their meal, or really just talking about what the server loves about a particular beer. I also make sure to include any details that might help the servers present the beer better. That might include verbiage or history of that particular beer or style.”

“If customers are enjoying beer, I want to be a resource for them,” Paul said. “We have a positive atmosphere at Cinderlands. Our staff likes working here and learning about new beers.”

Another Way to Elevate Your Beer Dogma

Many professional brewers working on state-of-the-art equipment that cost thousands of dollars to acquire got their start in a garage or a kitchen brewing with oversized kettles and fermenting in carboys. Everyone starts somewhere and thousands of men and women have proven you can go pro if you devote yourself and continue to learn as you go. You, too, can go the homebrew route should you choose. There are plenty of homebrew clubs in the Pittsburgh region overflowing with talented brewers, some of whom have been awarded for their efforts at numerous competitions. Check out T.R.A.S.H., T.R.U.B., and B.A.S.H. if you want to learn more about taking this path.

If you just want to know more about the liquid you love, there are ways to make that happen, too. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP if you’re into brevity) is a program that got its start in 1985 and is designed to ‘certify and rank beer judges through an examination and monitoring process, sanction competitions, and provide educational resources for current and future judges.’ Per their website, the purpose of BJCP is to:

  • Encourage knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the world’s diverse beer, mead, and cider styles
  • Promote, recognize, and advance beer, mead, and cider tasting, evaluation, and communication skills
  • Develop standardized tools, methods, and processes for the structured evaluation, ranking and feedback of beer, mead, and cider

Here in Pittsburgh, Chris Staub, a veteran homebrewer and member of both the aforementioned T.R.A.S.H. and T.R.U.B. homebrew clubs, started a study group that convenes every 2-3 weeks to experience different beers and off-flavors, gain insight from each group member’s perspective, and, ultimately, get prepared for the BJCP Tasting Exam that Chris is hosting in July of 2018. In order to become a Certified BJCP Judge, you must first pass an online entrance exam that covers beer styles and off-flavors. Once passed, you have one year to take and pass a Tasting Exam that consists of the adequate evaluation of six unknown beer styles.

“In order to pass the Tasting Exam, it is common for the person hosting the exam to form a study group where people can sit down with classic examples listed in the guidelines or other examples, including homebrewed versions, in order to gain a good understanding of what the style should entail as well as common flaws that can and will occur,” Chris explained. “The group will also get an Off-Flavor Kit that has liquid spikes that are put into beer to learn about different flavor components such as diacetyl, acetaldehyde, etc.

“The group is commonly filled out with people who are going to be taking the upcoming exam, people looking to take the exam in the future, and people who just want to increase their knowledge of beer in general. There are always people that are looking to participate. This current group has 51 members on the Facebook site. As for the actual meetings, we generally have between 7-12 people.”

Chris loves beer and has become an accomplished homebrewer. Full-time, he’s an independent physical therapist who treats patients in their homes. He studied for his profession at Duquesne University and his time on The Bluff was spent drinking, like many college kids, mass-produced lagers and the occasional Yuengling. It was after college Chris stumbled upon Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and his taste for beer changed forever. Homebrewing was not too far behind.

“About 10 years ago, a friend was talking about brewing beer at home,” Chris recalled. “I had never really known much about brewing or even that you could make drinkable beer at home. So we bought a couple kits and made what, at the time, we thought was good beer (looking back I shudder just a little). The beer was actually just drinkable enough that I started reading and learning more on my own. I had no idea there was such a thing as a homebrew club so I was really self-taught using books, BYO magazine and Brewing Network podcasts. Eventually, I moved to brewing all grain and began to entering, stewarding and eventually judging in competitions.”

According to Chris, the primary goal for the group is for its members to pass the upcoming Tasting Exam and become Certified Judges. Next, they hope to begin preparing the next group of potential judges for their certifications. As beer competitions continue to increase, a need for judges does as well. As Chris puts it, “there will always be a constant need to replenish the ranks.” In other words, there’s plenty of room for everyone to learn, grow, and experience beer on a higher level.

“If we can help increase the knowledge of beer among the public, then everyone involved, homebrewers and commercial breweries alike, will benefit,” Chris stated. “I think the response has been very good. Several people have passed the online Entrance Exam, including myself since the start of the group. The feedback the participants are able to provide on practice score sheets has improved as well. We take the practice score sheets and provide them to the homebrewer who provided the beer for the session. We also have the score sheets evaluated by some certified judges for their feedback on how we all can improve.”

To learn more about BJCP, click here. To learn more about Chris’ study group and attend a class, click here to join the Facebook group today!

In Conclusion…

So what have we learned today? We’ve learned that beer is not just a liquid. It’s transcended what happens inside the glass and has impacted enthusiasts in numerous ways. We are living in a brave new world where information is available at the tap of an app or, even better, by asking a question of the person representing the brand. We have the ability and freedom to experience beer on multiple levels, all of which can lead for a deeper appreciation and enjoyment of this delicious nectar.

“We are so lucky to be in this time and place,” Chris said. “The entire world has been changed by the rise of craft beer. Traditional brewing regions like England and Germany are now starting to experiment with using American hops and brewing techniques. At the same time, American brewers continue to refine the techniques that served other parts of the world for centuries. I love being in Pittsburgh and experiencing the growth and maturation of our own beer culture. In the past few years, we have seen so many new breweries open, the quality skyrocket, and even been on the forefront of some breaking trends. I absolutely can’t wait to see where this goes!”

“I fell in love with beer because of the culture, Meg concluded. “It’s social, passionate and always engaging. As our servers have learned more, I’ve seen them open their eyes to what I saw 10+ years ago. I feel this creates more engaged consumers.”

The beer world is constantly changing, constantly evolving, and constantly delivering innovation in its purest form. Beer can be found pretty much anywhere. But the appreciation and attention to detail destinations put into their approach to beer is something that’s becoming equally, if not more, important as this industry continues to move into the future. You have the ability to experience a liquid that has shaped an entire culture. Get out there and have a beer!















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