Somelliers for beer... wait, what?

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Mark Garrison has a rather odd article in Slate arguing that we need expert advice to order beer in restaurants:
It's a busy night at the D.C. restaurant Birch & Barley, as well as its casual upstairs sister joint, ChurchKey. Greg Engert is guiding me through his beverage list with all the knowledge, talent, and grace one would expect from an award-winning sommelier. With a couple crisp queries, he learned enough to make some intriguing recommendations. He didn't flaunt his knowledge about food and drink, but when I had questions, he gave precise answers about the flavor, aroma, producer, pairing potential, and even the history of the available beverages. Fortunately, there was no attempt at upselling, the odious sin far too many sommeliers commit, a big reason why many diners are suspicious of the entire profession.


There may be agreement in the industry that great beer deserves top-notch service, but there's not yet a consensus on what that means. In fact, there's not even agreement on what to call a well-trained beer server. Engert's job title is beer director, but he doesn't mind being called a beer sommelier. (He has put some thought into this.) Some in the beer community find this term problematic, since "sommelier" is tied to the wine world and may imply a professional certification that doesn't exist.


The program's website states the claim that wine sommeliers might have known enough to choose a good beer for you a few decades ago, but now "the world of beer is just as diverse and complicated as wine. As a result, developing true expertise in beer takes years of focused study and requires constant attention to stay on top of new brands and special beers." So Daniels set out to build a testing and certification program to create a standard level of knowledge and titles that would signify superior beer knowledge to consumers, similar to the way a Court of Master Sommeliers credential does for wine.

Look, I love beer, don't like wine, and am well aware of the lousy beer service one typically gets at restaurants, so I'm generally in favor of anything that improves beer quality. But the main the problem isn't that there's nobody at the restaurant who understands beer. It's that the beer selection at restaurants sucks. To take one recent example, I ate at the Los Altos Grill the other night: they had a page of wines and three beers on tap. This isn't uncommon; in fact it's not uncommon for restaurants to have solid wine lists but only bottled beer, and only a few varieties of bottles at that. The question I have for waiters isn't "what beer do you recommend", but rather "is Peroni really the best beer you have?"

In large part, the culprit here is customer demand: people who eat at high-end restaurants tend to prefer wine to beer, so those restaurants naturally have lousy beer selections. But I suspect that the chemistry of beer has a lot to do with it as well. Wine can last years in the bottle—and many wines are better when aged—but bottled beer has a shelf life measured in months, with draft beer going bad in in a few weeks. So, unlike wine, you can't afford to stock any beer that people don't order fairly frequently, since there's too high a chance it will go bad before someone orders it. I suspect that this is why most restaurants keep such a small beer selection. (Anyone with contacts in the restaurant business should feel free to chime in here.)

The major exception here is restaurants that specialize in beer (Garrison's example of Birch & Barley advertises itself as "a completely unique food and beer experience celebrating a full spectrum of styles, traditions, regions and flavors"). If you're that kind of restaurant you probably get enough volume to keep a large inventory without things getting too stale—though I do wonder what the oldest bottle on their shelves tastes like.

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