Teacher's pint: Beer training schemes

Susanna Forbes

Susanna Forbes

01 June 2017

When it comes to beer and cider, ignorance is not bliss – it’s lost customers, missed sales and dwindling profits. Time to sit up, pay attention and take education seriously, says Susanna Forbes

OK guys, can I have your attention? This term we’ll be covering aspects of chemistry, art, history and domestic science. You’ll need to visit beer festivals on company time, travel to the heartland of Czech beer, and take part in a brew day. Oh yes, and play on apps and watch videos. Does that sound OK? Righto. Let’s get started.’

Sound like a dream? Well forget pencils and paper. This is beer and cider training, 21st-century style.

Admittedly, you’re unlikely to undertake all those ‘assignments’ straight away, but the fast-moving world of beer and the fact cider wants to catch up has got the teachers working hard to keep you, the tapster, ahead of the customers.

But why bother? Well, footfall and turnover, for starters. Recent research carried out for Pioneer Brewing Company, AB InBev’s European Speciality and Craft division, showed that over half of those surveyed felt they had more beer knowledge than those serving them.

In a recent survey, over half of those asked felt they had more beer knowledge than those serving them

Speaking to 1,500 men and women in January 2017, Fly Research threw up some stop-you-in-your-tracks statistics: three-quarters of those questioned would try a new beer if staff knew how to talk about it; a third were drawn to pubs and bars with knowledgeable staff, and, perhaps most interesting of all, a fifth would avoid somewhere where staff were not clued-up.
So what education is out there? How can you and your staff become beer – and cider – savvy? Let’s find out.

Most breweries, pubcos and distributors offer some form of training. This can range from the Cask Marque Award in Beer and Cellar Quality (ABCQ) course (see box on p.56) and straightforward range tastings through to an elaborate array of training modules, such as Greene King’s Beer Genius offering and Matthew Clark’s Academy for Beer.

Some will have a specific focus. For Pilsner Urquell, it’s the tapster. ‘We have a saying in the Czech Republic,’ says the company’s Francois Pienaar, ‘The brewer brews the beer; the tapster makes the beer.’ Hence two members of staff from each Pilsner Urquell tank bar head to Pilsen for two intensive days with beer master Robert Lobovsky.

But we can’t all jet off to Europe at the drop of a hat. So first, let’s sort out the technicalities. The British Institute of Inkeeping’s (BII) ABCQ is the industry-standard qualification ‘to help candidates ensure that their beer is consistently served in an optimum condition’.

Cask Marque runs the majority of courses, training more than 2,000 people a year. Beer Sommelier and Imbibe’s 2017 Educator of the Year, Annabel Smith, is one of a number of leading trainers.
To find out more about beer itself, you’ll need to decide whether you want to take one of the Beer Academy’s courses, join the Cicerone Certification Program, or craft your own agenda.

Established in 2003 and now offering 150 courses a year across 20 locations, the Beer Academy covers the brewing process and puts beer in its historical and regional context. Classes begin with a Foundation course and run all the way through to the Beer Sommelier qualification.

As well as tutored tastings, time is spent exploring food pairings and identifying faults. Master brewer Alex Barlow, the Academy’s director of learning, has recently revamped course content, introducing more information on cellar management and beer presentation.

And more changes are in the pipeline, thanks to CEO Jerry Avis. With extensive experience in higher education as well as the beer industry, Avis has embarked on an ambitious plan to incorporate more of the digital world in the courses, so expect more e-learning in future classes.

Considered a valuable qualification by breweries, pubcos and individuals alike, the Beer Sommelier exam includes blind beer tastings and an oral exam on a theme of the student’s choosing.

Camerons Brewery has four Beer Sommeliers in its Head of Steam bars and pubs. Marketing manager, Yousef Doubooni, speaks of ‘the greater understanding’ that studying for this course confers.
Keen to see beer education evolve further, Barlow is exploring the appetite for one further tier: a Master of Beer.

Cicerone rangers
This approach isn’t for everyone. BrewDog has opted instead for the Cicerone route. ‘We feel Cicerone really encapsulates our mission to make people passionate about great beer through both technical and beer-style knowledge, and flavour detection,’ says BrewDog MD, Gareth Bath. ‘Over 70% of the company are Certified Beer Servers [the first level],’ he continues, explaining that this training runs alongside induction periods focusing on ‘culture, capability and beer knowledge’.

Study guide
ABCQ course with Cask Marque cask-marque.co.ukBeer Professional Education and Training course with Pioneer Brewing Company pioneerbrewingcompany.com The Beer Academy ibd.org.uk/about-us/beer-academyCicerone Certification Program cicerone.orgCider Certification Program with the United States Association of Cider Makers ciderassociation.org/Certification

Annabel Smith BS BeerBelle.co.uk

Gabe Cook, The Ciderologist theciderologist.com

Cider courses at The Beer Academy

As in other well-run pub and bar groups, the value of external courses is amplified with a variety of on-the-job components. Every bar has a Guide Dog – an in-house trainer – and staff are sent to beer festivals ‘to represent‘ them. They are also encouraged to use a pilot kit to learn how to brew themselves.

Beer boot camp
The Cicerone Certification Program has been devised by US beer industry veteran Ray Daniels. Instead of taught courses, comprehensive syllabus guidance is offered, with ‘boot camps’ available in the US for exam prep.

Arguably the equivalent of the Beer Sommelier badge, the second tier, the Certified Cicerone qualification, is particularly respected. Since the exams were introduced in the UK in 2013, the UK boasts just over 100 of the globe’s 2,700 Certified Cicerones.

As with Cicerone’s other key markets, Daniels plans to introduce a specific UK syllabus in the next year, with more focus on cask ale and local dispense systems, as well as UK regulations.

So how do these two qualifications compare? Jonny Tyson, Pioneer’s beer-knowledge and education manager, has both under his belt. While the Certified Cicerone delves deeper into beer styles and draught systems, he says, the Beer Sommelier has more blind tastings, with an oral exam at the close, which for him focused on justifying a variety of food and beer pairings. ‘Both were a challenge,’ Tyson admits.

The knowledge and education manager is one of the driving forces behind Pioneer’s Beer Professional Education and Training course.

Recently introduced in the UK, this two-tier course targets the trade as well as interested consumers. Based on the Cicerone system, with ‘add-on elements for the UK market’, the aim is ‘to elevate beer without focusing solely on our brands,’ says Tyson. ‘The aim is to sell more high-end beer. Instead of a pint of lager, why not a Belgian beer or a craft lager?’

‘While it’s nice to send staff away on courses, it can be costly,’ says Smith. The other option is to pick up the phone to a growing number of training consultants – many of them Beer Sommeliers – and devise a bespoke course. ‘We can offer special one-to-one training over an hour or three hours,’ she explains.

Get your technical skills sorted before heading down the beer-styles route

Annabel Smith BS

But where to start? ‘Assess what people know. Ask questions as simple as “What is lager?”.’ In other words, get your technical skills sorted before heading down the beer styles route. ‘Things such as how the beer is behaving in the cellar and the bar. Is the glassware correct?’

Or do it yourself. Hayley Connor is people and development manager at Brewhouse & Kitchen, the 17-strong brewpub group. Paving the way to Beerology, the group’s customary beer training, new recruits undergo 10 initial training shifts, including one brewery experience day. ‘It brings an appreciation of the art and science of brewing,’ says Connor. The next training level includes Raising The Game, aimed at engaging with the consumer, helping them make their choice and not feel overwhelmed.

Train not strain
‘If we can’t make it fun in the drinks industry…’

… So says Lee Woolley, the gregarious head of learning and development at the Stonegate Pub Company. A perennial award-winner for its approach to training – famously, 5% of its staff are on apprentice schemes – Stonegate’s most recent BII National Innovation in Training Award was for a scheme that ‘pushed the boundaries of technology to improve training accessibility and engagement’.

AToP (Albert’s Theory of Progression) plays a key part. Cheekily named after Albert Einstein, this includes Albert’s App – a a training tool that contains vital information such as drinks specs and allergen info, together with ‘how to…’ videos on topics such as cellar management and cocktail creation and pint-pouring.
With 6,000 downloads over the past 18 months, stats show that approaches like this are helping
to cut staff churn.

‘You want to empower your staff to analyse the flavours,’ says Ed Hughes, Beer Sommelier with Sharp’s Brewery. He recommends serving beer in brandy balloons during training sessions.

‘It’s a Jedi mind trick. People swirl a brandy balloon without you asking them. Make the sessions fun,’ he continues. ‘Interactive events will build a memory, which will last that much longer if they have enjoyed it. Do it in stages. Put in a quiz to cover off the “dry” elements.’

People power
‘It’s all about the people,’ says Emma Sharpe, drink quality training manager at Mitchells & Butlers. And she should know. She’s got 40,000 of them across 1,700 sites. ‘The difficulty [in the pubs] is the frequency of beer changes. The skill is being able to talk about them.’

Sharpe has an online ‘bar bible’ for all staff. ‘I asked producers to contribute with snappy videos. Something people can watch on the way home,’ she says. ‘A story about where the beer or cider
is from. That is what they remember rather than the tasting notes.’

On the cider front, Westons has supplied Sharpe with cider content, including videos and a flavour wheel.For Innis & Gunn, beer training isn’t a ‘one-off lesson’. ‘Every shift begins with a briefing, which includes a sampling session of any new and rotational products,’ shares marketing executive Michael Mackenzie.

The big apple
If things are already lively in beer, cider is poised to pounce. The Beer Academy is to change its name to The Beer & Cider Academy this autumn. A selection of courses mirroring the Academy’s beer syllabus is being designed as we speak, under the leadership of The Ciderologist, Gabe Cook. Topics will include an introduction to the history of cider, the process of cider making, the different apple varieties, plus tasting and sensory training. ‘

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the United States Association of Cider Makers has just launched its Cider Certification Program, designed to be akin to the aforementioned Cicerone beer programme. The first level is available online, with level two currently under development.

Back in Blighty, what’s available in terms of training now? While Cook has done some work with the likes of Mother Kelly’s, the best approach, as a general rule, is to ask your supplier.

Thatchers, as an example, invites its trade customers to Myrtle Farm, where it runs courses in Stan’s Barn, an atmospheric log cabin overlooking the orchards. As well as one-to-one training and tastings, two indispensible hand-outs underscore two of Thatchers’ passions. The first is Thatchers’ periodic table of apples, and the second is a recently created guide to pairing cider with food, written by drinks writer and broadcaster Susy Atkins.

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