Beer, Wine & Spirits: Staffing beer pros

On-staff experts can boost sales of premium brews

Public House in the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian in Las Vegas features 24 draft beer taps, more than 100 bottled or canned beers, and one other element which, at the time of writing, remains unique in Nevada: a certified cicerone, or beer expert.

Although it’s fairly common knowledge that the best way to advance a good wine program is to hire a skilled sommelier, enthusiasm was once considered the main quality necessary to sell more-premium beer. But with the world of beer now significantly more complex than it once was and consumers growing ever more knowledgeable, restaurateurs are finding that sommelier-level knowledge is the key to improving premium beer sales, as well.

That’s what the cicerone program strives to provide. Developed by Chicago-based beer educator Ray Daniels as the beer equivalent of sommelier certification, the program trains, tests and awards distinction at three levels: certified beer server, certified cicerone and master cicerone. Master cicerone status thus far has been attained by only four candidates.

Russell Gardner is the certified cicerone at Public House, which opened Dec. 31, 2011, and is the latest outlet for Las Vegas-based Block 16 Hospitality. He appreciates the edge that his training affords him, including the ability to pass along his understanding of beer to his servers.

“Before we opened, we held weeks of server training,” Gardner said. “Beer knowledge was a big part of that, and I led staff in product tastings and beer-knowledge training every day.” 

Michael Shetler, director of beverage for nearby Aria Resort & Casino, may not have achieved cicerone status, but he also aims to drive business with his beer knowledge, particularly when it comes to food and beer pairings.

At Aria’s Sage, which Esquire named a 2010 Restaurant Not to Miss, Shetler offers a choice of beer or wine pairings for the restaurant’s four-course signature tasting menu, and he doesn’t allow the fact that the bar boasts only six draft taps to hamper his choices.

“Ideally, two people at a table will be having the beer pairings, so I can pour 6 ounces each from a bottle,” he said. “But we’ll also recap a bottle and hold it in the fridge until the next beer pairing order comes in, checking to make sure it’s still in good shape before we serve it, of course.”

Together with general manager Jeff Metcalf, Shetler makes certain that staff at Sage are sufficiently beer savvy that they are able to present the beer pairings at the table.

“To ensure that Sage’s beer pairings are properly executed, it is imperative that the staff’s confidence and ability to properly describe the pairings is up to speed,” Shetler said. “The key is that the staff understands how the characteristics of the beer and food change when paired together, and how to describe those nuances to their guests. The only way to do that is to have them taste and evaluate the food and beer together.”

PREVIOUSLY: Beer, Wine & Spirits: Age is just a number [3]