American Beer Overkill?
Questioning whether we've gone over the top and around the bend
Yet most of us have had servers who think there are only three beer styles (yellow, black and Blue Moon), who tell us that Duvel is pretty much like Budwesier, and who could not find Portland, Ore., on a map. Let’s go easy on them and remember that most people still drink from the bottle.
The Cicerone program exists, basically, because somebody thought some standards would be useful. The idea is to ensure a high level of knowledge among the folks serving our beer. Because it’s nice when a server knows what a beer tastes like. It’s nice when the draft lines are clean. And these sorts of things go from nice to necessary in an age when beer lists are growing ever longer, ever more eclectic.
American beer sage Ray Daniels, president of the Craft Beer Institute, runs the program, which has approved more than 3,500 people as Certified Beer Servers. Meanwhile, there are, as this magazine goes to press, 182 Certified Cicerones among us, including three Master Cicerones. Note that the word is trademarked, so in theory, you can’t say you’re a Cicerone unless you’ve passed the exams.
When I told Daniels that I thought American beer was getting too fussy, he explained that the Cicerone’s goal is actually the opposite: to make things easier for us drinkers.
“Well, I think that beer should be simple for those who consume it,” Daniels said in an e-mail. “But that’s from one side of the counter. From the back side, the truth is that delivering good beer to consumers is not as easy as people think. It takes work to select, manage and deliver beer so that it tastes as good as it should.”
It strikes me now that Cicerones are not just a symptom of an increasingly elaborate craft beer market; they are, more to the point, a reaction to it. Beer has gotten more complicated, whether we like it or not. Yet many servers are behind the learning curve — and we could really use their help.
“By the way,” Daniels said, “I also think that Cicerones should be guides and not gods. For the most part, they work invisibly to make sure the beer is tasting great and then train the staff to help customers pick a beer with no more fuss than picking an entrée.”
Stubbornly, I allow an image of a mustachioed Cicerone in coattails, one-upping me with beer trivia and name-dropping famous brewers, to dissipate like so much smoke.
As my culture shock and hangover wear off, I’m forced to concede a few points.
One man’s pretentious, highfalutin, trendy taphouse is another man’s local. One gal’s pricey boutique bottle is another gal’s go-to beer. It’s all in the eye of the beerholder, as the cliché goes, and we all have moments when we want to splurge. Meanwhile, there is obviously a market for the upscale, not to mention the rare, the alcoholic, the extreme.
But the market is the market, and I’m a critic by nature. Somebody has to step away from the endless subjectivism of “to each his own.” Somewhere, we must draw a line and say, “Enough of that bullshit. We ought to have more of this.”
On our journey, we enjoyed a few shining examples, each as memorable as that five-course dinner in D.C.
There was the Brewers Union Local 180 in Oakridge, Ore., and imperial pints of bright cask bitter gleaming in the lamplight. Paperbacks, foosball and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Heaven.
There was southern Missouri’s Little Yeoman, a brew shed among cow pastures, where we sat on lawn chairs under picnic tents and drank from stoneware cups. There was the casual Thai Me Up in Jackson Hole, Wyo., with its old movie posters and house-made IPAs designed for the fiery food. There was the Idaho fish house serving stout from the next town over. There was the local pale ale or surprise seasonal in the basement dive, the airport or the ballpark.
Such places are still a bit too scarce for my taste, those moments too few. We ought to demand more.
Meanwhile, as I write this, I get word that a new brewpub is opening in Rolla, Mo., straight up Highway 63 from Little Yeoman. It’s called the Public House, and it has a focus that shouldn’t be so unusual: session beers.
“People will always push the envelope, and I applaud that,” said co-owner Josh Goodridge. “But if everyone is pushing the envelope, after a while I think it loses a little of its luster and people realize they just want to drink a few beers with their friends. …That’s what a session is all about, and it is truly one of life’s greatest pleasures.”
SAVING GRACES: The American crafts that impressed our skeptical author.
“At 4.4% ABV, 21st Amendment Bitter American is full of hoppy quality yet made to be drunk in quantity. Character and drinkability sharing fun in the San Francisco sun.”
“The Kansas City brewery has been getting national attention for its interesting and usually excellent Smokestack Series, but the dry and hoppy Boulevard Pale Ale is a desert island beer for me.”
“Any beer made with salt, chamomile, lemon peel and lavender flowers ought to be undrinkable. But Oregon’s Cascade Spring Gose is tart, refreshing and magnificent. It’s also sessionable, believe it or not, at 4.5% ABV.”
“A big, black balance of mocha sweetness and roasty bitterness that goes down dangerously easy. Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter is a modern American classic from Cleveland.”
Joe Stange is a freelance journalist living in Costa Rica. He co-authored “Around Brussels in 80 Beers” and blogs at ThirstyPilgrim.com.