Beer culture is changing. Although excess is still a large part of our beer drinking norms, drinkers are beginning to realize that beer should taste good. The realization that beer is more than cold fizzy alcoholic bubbles is profound to those used to consuming generic light lager, which is promoted as cold and smooth. In general I believe people always prefer what tastes best, but pricing, brand preference, and just wanting to fit in with your fellow drinkers tends to get in the way. Before mass marketing sunk its teeth into the beer industry, consumers let their taste buds decide what beer was best. The craft beer movement is changing beer culture to be more about taste than quantities of cold smooth beer.
The culture built around drinking beer has been developed through stories, traditions and rituals passed on from one drinker to the next. Keeping to its working-class roots, formal beer study has largely remained outside of the classroom. Instead of chalkboards and textbooks, beer education takes place in pubs, brew houses, and increasingly so, our homes – which now happen to be tethered to the internet.
Some of the beer communities’ most respected cultural educators are self taught experts. Individuals such as Michael Jackson (the beer hunter, not the pop star) and Charlie Papazian. Both have made immeasurable contributions to the better beer movement and have little by way of formal beer training. They taught via television, books and other means. Their message, teaching people about how good beer can be, spread virally through the beer community. The work of Jackson and Papazian has heavily influenced the movement for a standardized beer education system.
Beer is often compared to wine, but positioned as a less sophisticated option. It is true that beer culture is informal, but beer is no less sophisticated than wine in its flavour profile and food pairing options. The inclusive, low-key nature of beer culture remains engrained in today’s modern food culture, but the average beer drinker is far more educated than 100 years ago. Craft beer culture and the individuals that make up the beer community have evolved to a point where a more in depth study of beer culture is possible, beneficial and enjoyable. While the wine community is working hard to de-stigmatize wine as formal and sophisticated, the beer community is attempting the exact opposite.
Formal academic beer education is in its infancy. There are a number of universities and colleges that have been offering brewing degrees, diplomas and certificates for a number of years, but these studies are based on the sciences, focusing more on how to make beer than how to drink beer. The study of beer culture is a study of the arts.
Leading the charge in a formalized study of beer culture is the Cicerone Certification Program. Although not yet a standard offering at universities and culinary institutes, the Cicerone Certification Program is very much changing how we learn about beer, and ultimately how we drink beer.
The Cicerone program was started by Ray Daniels, a beer geek and academic. With the goal of never being served bad beer, Ray, an instructor at the Siebel Institute of Technology, started the Cicerone Certification Program to help educate, regulate and standardize the beer service industry. And so far it appears to be working. Certified Cicerones are popping up in every major food city across North America, helping improve the quality of beer service while educating consumers and businesses about the better beer alternative.
The Cicerone Certification Program offers three levels of certification: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone. I recently passed the online test to become a Certified Beer Server, which means I am a certified beer geek, and I have the papers to prove it. It also means I have $74.00 less to spend on beer than I did one week ago.
Beer geeks with a solid knowledge of beer who possess basic Google skills should be able to pass the beer server exam with only minimal study time. The second level, Certified Cicerone, is much more challenging, involving a tasting component and requiring proof of industry experience. The third level, Master Cicerone, is more challenging still. Only five individuals have achieved this degree of beer excellence.
Beer culture changed when individuals said no more to bland beer. No longer will marketers control what we drink, nor will they dictate how beer should taste. With this cultural shift has come a vast array of new education options. Pubs, brew houses and our homes remain the lifeblood of beer culture. Programs like the Cicerone Certification Program are replacing the current marketing centric beer education system (or lack thereof) with a standardized system to educate passionate consumers and members of beer trade.
If you want to learn a bit more about the Cicerone Certification Program, or beer in general, cicerone.org is a great starting point. For those in Vancouver wanting to dive in a littler deeper, Chester Carey, a Vancouver based Cicerone, offers an 8 week beer education program at the Pacific Culinary Institute. The eight week program is designed to give students the knowledge to pass the Certified Cicerone Exam. One of these days I will sign up and hopefully attain Cicerone Certification.