Beer Buzz: Everyones’s An Expert

Cicerone certification is increasing beer knowledge both on- and off-premise.

Sarah Johnson, the director of food and beverage at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, is a certified Cicerone and encourages the venue’s servers to become certified beer experts.
Sarah Johnson, the director of food and beverage at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, is a certified Cicerone and encourages the venue’s servers to become certified beer experts.

Nick Bondi, bar manager at the two-unit Chicago restaurant concept Jerry’s Sandwiches, acknowledges that competition among bars and restaurants to woo beer lovers has intensified. “We want to be one of the best beer destinations in Chicago and even the country,” Bondi says. “But having the right brews on tap isn’t enough anymore.”

Jerry’s, which specializes in North American craft beer, requires all its servers and bartenders to pass the first level of the Cicerone Certification Program (CCP) and become certified beer servers. Bondi explains that upon being hired, staff members have three months to pass the exam, which comprises a 60-question multiple choice test that’s administered online. A certified Cicerone, Bondi teaches a two-hour class on proper beer serving and storage. Draft beers at Jerry’s are generally priced from $2.50 a 6-ounce pour to $9 a 12-ounce pour, while bottles range from $5.50 to $9.

The 12-unit Eureka restaurant chain, meanwhile, requires that all employees be certified beer servers. “That’s our ethos,” says co-owner Paul Frederick. Eureka serves craft beer exclusively and has units in California and Washington, with plans to expand into Texas. To date, more than 400 employees systemwide have passed the test. The venues offer about 40 different brews on tap, priced at $5 to $14 for pours of 16 ounces or less, and 20 to 30 bottled beers, priced from $12 to $70.

“Many companies have seen the value in requiring that their servers get certified,” CCP founder Ray Daniels says. The program, he notes, is “suitable for frontline waitstaff, cashiers and even hostesses.” CCP offers group discounts, so large and multiunit venues have been increasingly taking advantage. “With craft beer growing so rapidly, beer is not as simple as it used to be,” Daniels says, noting that the server training enhances the experience for the customer. As of this past spring, CCP had certified more than 37,000 beer servers.

Many other bars and restaurants, meanwhile, don’t require their servers be CCP certified, but they encourage it. The Publican in Chicago—where beer accounts for 60 percent of beverage sales—is one such venue. According to beer and wine coordinator Rebekah Graham, management has encouraged staff members to be knowledgeable in beer service since The Publican opened six years ago. “It’s gone beyond servers and the front of house,” Graham says, estimating that 75 percent of the restaurant’s 50 employees have passed the beer server test, including food runners, hostesses and kitchen staff. The venue offers 12 draft beers ($5 to $9 a 10-ounce to 16-ounce pour) and more than 50 bottles ($6 to $55 a 750-ml. bottle of Goose Island Madame Rose). A four-hour training program and frequent beer tastings help prepare staff for the test. Indeed, parent company One Off Hospitality Group has been so pleased with the results that the training for certified beer servers has been expanded to sister concepts.

“Beer lovers from around the world are commenting on the improvement in both the beer selection and service,” says Sarah Johnson, a certified Cicerone and the director of food and beverage at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, which also encourages servers to become CCP certified. Training for the test began in May, and the goal is to have 250 CCP-certified beer servers at the MGM-owned property by the end of the year. The venue offers an eight-hour course to prepare staff members for the exam, along with additional beer training, and the company covers the cost of the test. About 180 beers are available at Mandalay Bay, generally priced from $6 to $60.

Commitment to beer server certification is not just an on-premise trend. Since April 2013, Total Wine & More has required nearly all service personnel to be CCP beer servers, according to Rob Hill, new programs manager of customer experience at the 104-unit retail chain. Under the mandate, Total Wine provides training and pays for the exam, with the goal of certifying 1,000 staff members. Staff response has been enthusiastic, and at press time, Hill expected to reach the goal by August. “We’ve discovered a burst of enthusiasm among our employees about beer,” he notes. Total Wine offers 2,500 different beers, priced from 99 cents a bottle to $200 a 24-ounce bottle of Samuel Adams Utopias.

Retailers and bar operators who require or encourage staff to become certified beer servers say the cost and time involved are worthy investments. “Having beer knowledge at hand makes a customer more trusting and comfortable when making beer selections,” The Publican’s Graham explains, noting that trust helps bring customers back. “The training is a great way for servers to form relationships with guests, and it also helps the bottom line.”