Education in beer: The 12-pack for higher learning

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Beer is good. Good craft beer tastes amazing. For a lot of people, it’s become more than a drink they enjoy, it has become a hobby and even further, a passion. Unfortunately, for the longest time, beer always seemed to get by. “Beer sells itself,” is something I’ve heard many times over the years working in beer, both directly and indirectly. So, in this time of leaner sales, brewery closures and shifts away from beer to seltzers and other items in the “refresher” category, can we still get away with that?

There probably won’t be too many who disagree with the statement that beer no longer sells itself, but what if there was also the added point that it hasn’t for some time? Back in 2017, working in retail establishments, beer was still selling quite well, but people were already either shifting away from it or sticking to their regular, go-to beer. Regular customers weren’t always interested in trying new beers and the ever-increasing wall of bottles and cans at their local liquor store or brew pub was almost overwhelming, so they stuck to something tried and true.

There was typically only one reason they ever ventured away from their favourites, and that had to do with the person selling it to them. Having a knowledgeable salesperson made all the difference in the world. Asking questions, finding preferences and recommending something new almost always led to a larger sale and a customer who nearly always came back looking for more.

But not every salesperson has an actual interest in beer. Those who do can sell pretty much anything, from a simple lager to a sake yeast rice beer and everything in between. Those uninterested in beer can also do well, but there is one thing that’s key to their success—education.

So, what does that mean for you, as the average beer drinker, probably enjoying this fine publication with a pint in front of you?

The nuance of beer, like wine and spirits, is something to be learned and discussed, and can become a key component of the experience. People don’t walk into pubs and breweries knowing all there is to know about beer and, yet, staff and customers have been treated that way for the longest time because, “beer sells itself.” The wine and spirit worlds have done an excellent job teaching their staff and customers about their products, and it’s time for the beer world to do the same.

Case in point. Last year, acclaimed Canadian beer writer and judge Stephen Beaumont went to Facebook to say, “I’m not going to say where I am, but I just heard someone say that Gaffel Kölsch is ‘kind of like Stella Artois’ and compared Schneider Weisse Aventinus to Guinness. Said person is training a new staff member.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Gaffel Kölsch, it’s distinctly not like Stella Artois, and comparing a doppelbock to a stout is misleading the drinker into ordering something they aren’t looking for.

So, we have a situation where one or both of these things need to happen:

1. Staff need to learn about the beer they’re selling.

2. Customers should be encouraged to learn more about the beer they’re drinking.

If you’re reading this and are part of the industry, ask yourself, how well can you describe beer to others? Can you describe flavours, minerality, carbonation, the warmth of the alcohol, the body and the mouthfeel?

You don’t have to be a Cicerone or Prud’homme, but learning how to describe beer doesn’t just help you, it also helps the industry sell the right beer to the right people. If you’re working in the industry, whether in a retail store, a pub, a brewery or a restaurant, and you talk to people about beer, you need to know what you’re talking about.

So, what does this mean? Train your staff and help your customers learn more. Host beer schools your staff can also attend. Plan training events at other venues and breweries so your staff knows more than just your beer. Build a core group of customers you can trust when they say something is wrong and it will make you more successful.

I know what some of you are thinking, “But I don’t work in the industry. What can I do?”

Ask questions. Find and support breweries and pubs that want to teach you. Find ways to learn more about beer, read books and join online groups. Keep reading this magazine. Tell your friends what you learned. Make beer exciting again by going from, “This one’s good” to “I like this one because…”

Ultimately, beer is a social beverage and craft beer is an industry that could use a bit of a boost right now. Looking back to what helped grow the industry to what it is today, it was a lot of talking about beer. The time has come for that talk to be a little more convincing and the only way that happens, is by actually knowing what we’re talking about.

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