How to Most Effectively Train Servers & Bartenders on Beer

By Fred Crudder, Foodable Industry Expert

There is one simple reason why many people struggle to understand beer: They don’t understand its ingredients. Wine comes from grapes. Everyone knows what grapes are. Beer primarily comes from malted barley and hops, ingredients that are used to make beer — and beer only. There is no crossover where people know malted barley and hops and can easily say, “Oh, those things make beer? I understand those things.” So that is your first task in training servers on beer: Help them understand the ingredients. 

Go Shopping, Make Friends! 

Find your nearest homebrewing supply store (yes, there is at least one in your area). There you will find friendly, enthusiastic people who love what they do.

You will need some whole malted barley, not “extract.” If you really want to do this training right, get a few varieties and colors. Pale, caramel and chocolate should do the trick. Each one­-pound bag should be around $2 and will last you quite a while depending on how many people you are training. 

Next, you need some hops. Get a bag or two of “whole leaf” hops, and ask the homebrew store folks for recommendations on what is fresh and popular these days. Each will be about $3-$4, but will not last more than one training. Don’t be cheap. Get fresh hops every time you train. The hops won’t teach anyone anything about who they are and what they do to beer if they are old and stale. 

Yeast: It Gets the Party Started 

The next step in educating people about beer is to help them understand fermentation. It’s easy. Got alcohol?

Alcohol is created when a microorganism called yeast comes in contact with sugar. Yeast loves sugar. Sugar is yeast food. When these microscopic yeast cells eat sugar, they give off certain effusions, one being alcohol. People give off effusions after they eat too. Some liquid, some solid, some gaseous. Why does the digestive output of yeast eating sugar make a substance that causes our nervous system to make us feel good? I don’t know that, and frankly I don’t care. Beer makes people feel good. Stop asking so many questions.

But here is where your staff can start connecting the dots. Wine is fermented grape juice. Everyone knows that grapes are sweet. Sugar plus yeast equals fermentation, and fermentation equals alcohol, so it is not too hard to understand why there is alcohol in wine. Beer, on the other hand, is a little more complex in this respect, which helps explain why people have difficulty figuring it out on their own. 

The malted barley you bought is a grain. It’s a seed, like corn or wheat or rice. Not sweet, right? Pass around the palest malted barley you bought, and let the class crunch on them. What do they taste? Nutty, bready maybe, and very “wholesome” tasting, kind of like a healthy breakfast cereal, but not sweet. Nope, not yet…

From Carbs to Sugars

Like most grains, malted barley contains a lot of starch. Starch is a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are essentially sugars that don’t taste like sugar, but once your digestive system breaks them down, they show their true colors as sugar. The sugars in malted barley are exposed by steeping it in hot water. In that environment, enzymes in the malted barley act upon the carbs to break them down into basic sugars — sugars that our old friend yeast will eat to make alcohol. 

To help understand this, just think of coffee. How do you get flavor from the hard, dry coffee beans into a cup of rich, delicious brewed coffee? You crush up the beans, steep them with hot water, and make sure the liquids stay separate from the solids. Easy.

Flavor Development

Offer the darker types of malted barley to your class to touch and taste. 

The pale variety that they already tasted: What color beer would you think it makes? Yellow? Gold? Yep. Pretty much. How would that beer taste? Mild? Bready? Toasty? All of the above. 

Now taste the caramel and chocolate malted barley that you bought. Imagine that you added some of these into the mix. Sweet, nutty, caramel and chocolate, even coffee­-like flavors are all there. 

These grains have been roasted in a kiln (like coffee beans) to develop these particular flavors and colors. Mentally mix and match these in varying degrees with the pale variety you tasted earlier, and you get the picture as to how malted barley lays the foundation for color, flavor, sugar content, and so many other things in beer brewing. 

The liquid created by all of this mixing of quantities and colors of malted barley produces a sweet, colorful liquid. If we added yeast and fermented it now, we would get usable beer, if getting buzzed was your only concern. The taste would be pretty one ­dimensional: sweet. 

Kids never tire of sweets. Adults? Well, we enjoy a little sweetness at the end of a meal sometimes, sure. We like a sweet component to some of our foods and beverages, but not overwhelmingly so. A truly satisfying taste comes from a layered, nuanced and balanced flavor. Where then, does the counterbalance to the sweetness of malted barley come from? From hops, those suspicious looking bags you have left from that trip to your local homebrew shop, that’s where. 

Understanding Hops: The “Spices” of Beer

shutterstock_113892787.jpg

The flowers of the hop vine produce an amazing array of flavors and aromas: herbs, citrus, pine, floral, earthy, even tropical fruits. Some people (OK, a lot of people) compare the smell to marijuana. Yes, hops are related to marijuana, but the similarities stop at the look and smell. Do not create a subculture dedicated to the worship of the hop plant. That already exists. They are called “beer geeks.”

The best way to understand hops is to get your hands dirty. Give everyone a decent sized plate and a palmful of those hops you bought. Have the trainees rub the hops vigorously between their hands over the plates (to catch what falls out), then open their palms and jam their noses into them. They will get the most amazing aromas from the oils and resins released by the rubbing, and instantly they will know what hops bring to the table. Their eyes will open wide as they make the connection between the once mysterious flavors of beer, and what is now stuck to their hands and fingers. 

This is the point where I recommend you let the trainees sample beer. One of the most amazing things about beer is the way it brings people together, breaks down social barriers, and opens them up to conversation. All great stuff, unless you are trying to train them. 

Once the sampling begins, the attention spans evaporate, and the chatter begins. For this reason, one which I have witnessed and been victim to repeatedly, I hold the samples until we are close to being done. Plus, it is really just now in the training that the balance of malty sweetness and the counterbalancing contribution of the hops can be fully understood. So now is the right time to taste. 

Sampling

What beers should you be sampling?

Pick a beer that is malty and not too hoppy so that your trainees can taste what the malted barley does. Something like a Vienna Lager style: bready, toasty, mildly sweet and refreshing. Not too bitter at all. Maybe an Amber Ale if that is easier to find: rich malt flavors with some of the sweeter, more caramel notes from moderately roasted malts. 

Go ahead and drop a Brown Ale in there as you like: nutty, chocolate and hints of dark fruit abound. Next, I would drop in a Pale Ale or IPA (or both) to let them taste the hops they smelled earlier in a finished beer.

I want to caution you here on a topic I feel is essential: tailor your training not only to your servers’ needs, but also to your abilities. If you try to sample more than four beers, you will not only obscure your intent to give these people digestible information, you may also start a Q&A that you are not prepared to finish. If you are trying to help servers understand beer basics, then deliver just that. 

Two to three samples will suffice. More in-depth training can be handled at a later date, and a refresher is always a good idea anyway. Lastly, explain to them that the knowledge and appreciation of the intricacies of the beer world are best learned in a glass, not in a class. Want to know more about beer? Drink it. 

Take the Show on the Road 

What better way for a follow­-up than a brewery tour? You have breweries in your area. Have you visited any of them recently? If you carry their beer on a regular basis, they should be more than happy to host your group for a tour and tasting. 

If you don’t carry locally made beer on a regular basis, what are you waiting for? The opportunity to offer fresh beer that actually means something to where you do business is good for everyone involved. Treat these breweries like they matter to your business, and they will reciprocate with open arms. 

Local breweries want your servers to know about and love local beer. By seeing who makes that beer, where they make it, and to feel the passion those folks have for their craft, local brewers can instill knowledge and passion into your server staff. Knowledge is power, but true passion is irresistible. It can make all the difference between a good restaurant and a great one.