The Rise of the Beer Sommelier

By Doug Bleggi

In high-end restaurants, a sommelier is absolutely crucial. For years however, the attention to beer in such establishments has usually been overlooked. With the rise of craft beer in the past five years though, the need for a “beer sommelier” may be becoming a necessity as well as Eater points out in Vintage America, a thoughtful column.

At David Lynch’s forthcoming San Francisco restaurant St. Vincent, there is a head beer director, Sayre Piotrkowski, whose title is that of a cicerone — the beer equivalent of a sommelier. Ten years ago, the idea of such a job was laughable, with most restaurants merely tacking on a few domestic brews at the tail end of a menu and calling it a day as the emphasis was on wine. What is becoming more apparent in recent years is that beer can undergo a similarly precise process and achieve a richness that deserves premium drinkers’ collective respect.

With this new interest comes a question about the “wine-ificiation” of beer. For some, the wine drinker is a pretentious drinker, a person that beer enthusiasts don’t want to associate with — beer after all does have a more casual reputation. It still can benefit from careful selecting and pairing which is exactly what a cicerone is set to do, a selection process that differs greatly from what a sommelier would chose. At St. Vincent’s for instance, it’s important to have both a cicerone and a sommelier as both should be looking to achieve wholly separate outcomes. “I can spot a beer list made by a sommelier from a mile away,” Piotrkowski tells Eater. “It’s full of vinous beers that focus on fermentation flavors because sommeliers are hard-wired to say ‘that doesn’t smell natural or from the earth, fuck that.'”

Taking this into account, there is clearly a lot of work and expert knowledge that goes into being a cicerone, so much so that it’s unlikely it will pass like the fad some detractors have pegged it as. The concept of beer programs may just be the beginning of a new era in cocktail culture, and cicerone the latest profession.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/gamal.hennessy Gamal Hennessy

    Interesting. I have two follow up questions: Are there courses and certification programs for becoming a cicerone in the same way someone can train to be a sommelier? If so, where are they? If not, do you think they will be developed in the near future?

    Thanks for the article.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ACUCK74RMPOKIGBPALTBMKRZKY Joe K

       Gamal, check out http://www.cicerone.org.  There are three levels of certification in the Cicerone program.