Samuel Merritt, president of Civilization of Beer, is a certified beer expert, and I reached him after the Winter 2011 Fancy Food Show, where he spoke, to find out how restaurants can educate their staffs on serving beer and, in turn, boost their bottom lines.

Is beer training modeled after wine training? How does it differ?

My beer training is based on a traditional learning platform that you would use for any other subject: a combination of lecture, quizzes, testing, demonstration, review and experience. It is not based on what a wine trainer would do but what any good trainer would do.

In general, the smaller the group the better, but I think ideally [there are] 12 to 15 people in the class. This way you get a dynamic with lots of shared experiences. I’ve taught groups of three and groups of 200-plus, but it’s tough to answer questions and keep the attention of a group that size.

We involve tasting at almost every class we do. If it’s a full day of training, we leave the tasting for the last two hours or so. If it’s half a day, same rule applies. Beer makes people want to talk to each other so depending on the group and how well they know each other, it can be a challenge to hold everyone’s attention after even a few samples. The recurring nightmare I have with beer training is a room full of people mingling and drinking beer and having a great time while I’m still in the front of the room trying to teach.

Also, we try to feed everyone before sampling, and we limit sample sizes to 3 or 4 ounces. We don’t spit beer out when we taste it like those uncivilized wine drinkers, so you really have to watch the amounts people are drinking. Ideally, we don’t want to have more than eight or 10 beers sampled at once because palate fatigue sets in, but if we only have one meeting with a group, we’ll do more. If we are tasting several styles, we taste the more delicate and clean-flavored beers before the more intense beers. This way no beer overshadows the one before it.

Why is it important for culinary professionals to know about beer ingredients and brewing styles? Have you trained at any big-name restaurants?

Specialty beer is a quickly growing segment of adult alcoholic beverages, and margins are higher than mass-market beers. The better a retailer is at explaining their offerings, whether it is wine, beer or spirits, the more likely a drinker will pay more and have a satisfying experience.

Been chasing Emeril for a year without success! I did a nice program with Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke Barbecue last year, and we certified 19 of its servers on the first level of Cicerone. Also, most of the better beer bars and restaurants in New York have sent people to the training: Blind Tiger Ale House, Pony Bar, the Gate, Waterfront Ale House, etc. Most of my work is with distributors and the breweries themselves. Distributor clients include the L. Knife Companies, Ben E. Keith in Texas, Union Beer Wholesalers, Phoenix-Beehive/Lobo, Kohler, Peerless and Hunterdon in New Jersey and a few smaller ones around the country. Breweries that have used Civilization of Beer to train sales staff include Brooklyn Brewery, Guinness, Lagunitas Brewing Co., Schmaltz Brewing Co. and others.

What opportunities are there for restaurants that train their staff on their beer menu?

Higher confidence by the staff when talking to customers and repeatable best practices with proper service make higher profits more attainable.

What are the challenges of beer training?

We are often dealing with groups with highly differentiated skill sets. So you have some people in a group who have made their own beer sitting next to people in class who couldn’t tell you the first thing about what it’s made of. This is tough.

When I have a group that has novices and experts in it, I try to engage the experts to help me teach the novices. There are usually people who know a lot about one part of beer, for example they’ve brewed at home, but then know very little about other aspects like proper bottle service. So we fill in the places they don’t know and engage them enough to keep them interested and focused.

What is a recent memorable restaurant experience that included beer?

I remember every experience with beer in a restaurant, but recently I overheard a couple of guys asking for an interesting beer list at a diner in New Jersey and trying to get them to carry more craft beer. I was laughing in my eggs. There’s only so far you can go with this stuff right now. Maybe down the road a bit, there will be specialty stuff at diners but …

For more on beer training, visit Merritt’s website.

How do you train your staff on food and beverages, and what challenges do you face? Leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter.

Image credit: bholland, iStockPhoto

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