Industry experts have noted that the emerging craft beer movement has recently hit an all-time high, with craft beer sales booming in the market. With a “sky’s the limit” mentality, the craft beer scene is always one for experimentation and has recently begun taking some cues from its so-called "rival": wine.
Foodable’s in-house sommelier Courtney Walsh and certified cicerone Fred Crudder present their own unique perspectives on some of the ways in which the wine and beer movements have grown increasingly intertwined.
The Rise of the Cicerone
Courtney Walsh: Responsible for ensuring the care and service of wine in restaurants, the history of the sommelier dates back to arguably the 1300s. Recently, the current “rockstar somm culture” has elevated sommeliers to a somewhat celebrity status rivaling the adoration given to celebrity chefs less than a decade ago.
Similarly, as the craft beer culture has grown, more and more restaurants are realizing the need to not just focus their beverage programs on wine (and cocktails), but also include specialty beers that can pair with their cuisine. Hence the role of the cicerone, a title and educational program modeled after the Sommelier certification that focuses on ensuring proper beer service.
The position is still relatively new, and while there has yet to be an overwhelming rush for restaurants to employ cicerones to work the floor much like there has been with sommeliers, many beverage directors, and even some sommeliers, are looking to acquire the title to better serve their customers. Many guests are still hesitant to think of beer as a classic option for food pairings (despite the beverage’s long history), but when executed correctly, they are just as complex and pleasing as wine.
Fred Crudder: In the wine world, everyone has heard about the sommelier. But as beer gained respectability and fandom bordered on hysteria, a program was finally launched in 2008 to create that same type of position for beer. The Cicerone Certification Program has three levels: certified beer server, certified cicerone, and master cicerone.
These levels vary widely, so it is worth noting the differences if their certification is related to potential employment. Passing the Certified Beer Server test is done online and should be a cinch for industry types and serious beer lovers. Certified Cicerone is a far more complex test taken in person that can take up to four hours. There are less than 2,000 certified cicerones worldwide. Master Cicerone is incredibly complex, with the test spanning multiple days. There are ten worldwide. From Chicago, west to San Francisco, there is one.
A large part of cicerone training is beer and food pairing. Like a sommelier, a Certified or Master Cicerone will be able to help more novice beer lovers match up their food with the perfect beer choice. The incredibly diverse flavors in beer make it an ideal beverage with just about any food, but the right pairing can be transcendent. You first match the strength of the flavors: rich food, rich beer; delicate food, delicate beer. Then you look for complementary flavors: dark, roasted malts, for example, love grilled foods. Occasionally you look for contrasting flavors: a sweet, creamy dessert with a sour fruit beer is just plain out of sight.
CW: The new wine-inspired brews that incorporate a number of winemaking styles, and sometimes even wine itself, are incredibly fun options and represent a level of experimentation that can only come from the craft beer world.
These crossover styles, such as Biere de Champagne, or beers made in the Champenoise method, beers brewed with wine grapes (or oftentimes even wine itself) as well as beers aged in wine barrels, are the creative inventions of brewers looking to experiment with a number of styles and flavor profiles. By incorporating wine elements directly into their brews, brewers are not just able to work with a variety of flavors, but also appeal to an entirely new market all together.
FC: One thing we know about American craft beer is that its creativity knows no limits. The brewers and consumers share an enthusiasm for experimentation that is mutually beneficial for both sides: brewers get to push the boundaries of their art, and their voracious audience greets these creations with open arms. Any artist would relish such willing recipients as the brewers of today have with the beer lovers here in America.
This symbiosis gave birth to not just the brewing of sour beers in America, but to the actual use of wine barrels, grapes, and wine in beer making. Brewers looking to add nuances to beers that could not be attained by traditional ingredients and methods started thinking “outside the brew kettle." It was a natural progression, really, since using liquor barrels, raw wood, fruit, herbs, spices, and souring agents have been used in brewing for centuries. The question is not why the brewers started experimenting in the realm of wine, but rather, “What’s next?”
A Return to Sanity (and Sobriety)
CW: Just as the wine world went through (and is arguably still going through) the “Era of the Parker Wines” in which big, oaky, fruit bomb wines dominated the market, the craft beer world is going through a similar “Bigger is Better” phase in which overly hopped, high ABV beers are the current darlings of the craft beer scene. Yet the pendulum swings both ways, and in both wine and beer markets, there has finally been a movement towards restraint and subtlety.
In the domestic wine market, the movement is often accredited to sommelier Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch, of Hirsch Vineyards, who were both behind the In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) tastings that showcase a range of more elegant, restrained styles of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from California. While there were many winemakers around the world producing wines in this style long before the IPOB tastings were initiated, the tastings’ great success demonstrated that both the wine industry and consumers alike were finally ready to move into a new direction with wine, valuing food-friendly wines above extraction and scores.
Beer, too, is seeing a reaction against the aggressive and often exaggerated flavors present in many popular bottlings with many brewers looking to return to more traditional, classic styles of brewing as well as a renewed consumer interest in lighter bodied, more subtle style beers.
FC: The proliferation of brewing creativity, like any period of wild experimentation can, created a monster. Actually, a lot of monsters. And the crowd went wild. The “extreme beer” craze as it is often called reached its peak a few years ago. Exactly when depends on who you ask. The fact is, extreme beers have not gone away, won’t go away, and more importantly, shouldn’t go away. It is the mania surrounding them that has finally subsided.
Extreme beers are decadent treats, special occasion beers, and the cause for much bragging rights. Like any movement with such intensity, there has been a backlash by both brewers and beer lovers. Once it was well-established that brewers could push the envelope harder and farther than ever before, a return to a sense of calm seems to have arrived.
The term “session beer” showed up in the U.S., having previously lived its entire life in England. A session beer is one that you can enjoy a lot of during an extended “session’ at the pub (translation: about four hours or more). But never content to just imitate the beers from the Old World, these American brewers set out to make things like Session IPA. Now you can find a hop lover’s dream at a sessionable 4.5% ABV, as opposed to 7% or higher.
Other styles that are resurgent never actually went away, they just fell out of fashion with the new guard. Many craft breweries, famous for their dynamic and edgy beers, started to make old standards like Pilsner. The brewers themselves were ready to drink a nice, crisp, well made Pilsner to quench their thirst after a long day.
At first the beer drinkers were perplexed by this trend, but then they too realized that sometimes a beer is beautiful for its simplicity. And any brewer will tell you, it is the delicate beers that are the hardest to make. It took the beer lovers a little while to come around, but now everything that was old is new again. Imagine that.