Taking beer knowledge to the next level

A higher education

Time was when you heard "beer" and "college" in the same sentence, it was because you were listening to some bro recount the good times at the latest Tappa Kegga Bru frat party. These days you're just as likely to be overhearing a conversation between students taking a class on the sudsy elixir at one of Michigan's institutions of higher ed.

Beer school? It's true. This fall Schoolcraft College in Livonia will join other schools like Central Michigan University, Western Michigan University, and Grand Rapids Community College in offering a beer-oriented certificate or degree program. It's part of an overall trend of professionalization aiming to give beer its due alongside wine as a beverage worthy of thoughtful people.

"People are much more serious about beer now," said Annette May, who will be teaching the two-semester class at Schoolcraft. "I'm expecting everyone from culinary students to homebrewers who want to start a brewery, just a class full of people across the board wanting to learn about beer and brewing."

Beer credentialing is not new. Since the mid-1980s, the Beer Judge Certification Program has sought to define and standardize beer styles for purposes of creating evaluation criteria for competitions. There are more than 5,400 active judges certified under the program, according to the organization's website.

May is not only a BJCP-certified judge, in 2008 she also became the first woman to achieve certification under the Cicerone program, launched in 2007 by industry veteran Ray Daniels. Cicerones are the beer equivalent of sommeliers in the wine world, demonstrating detailed knowledge of beer history, storage, service practices, and style and flavor characteristics. There are about 2,000 Certified Cicerones today, according to May. Approximately 60 of them call Michigan home.

But why go to all this trouble to achieve professional beer ed?

"The major benefit of obtaining a beer education is that it allows all of us to speak the same beer language," said Bobby Vedder, a Certified Cicerone with Powers Distributing in Orion Township. "It's a standardized way of speaking to bar owners, brewers, and others in the business. Also, it takes personal taste off the table. I may not be into dopplebocks, for example, but I know a good one when I taste it. You need to think within the style standard and judge against that. It takes the ego out of it."

"The end result is with beer education you get a good pint of beer served to the customer, delivered along with some background information, every time," said May. "Servers know how to store kegs, pour beer, and maintain draft lines, and understand the importance of clean glassware."

For people seeking a less formal setting in which to acquire beer knowledge, May offers classes including "Basics of Beer," "Pairing Beer with Food," and "Certifications in Craft Beer" through her independent consultancy, Know Beer.

But leave your snobbery at the door.

Beer education gives you "an ability to speak to individuals in a more direct and simpler way," said Vedder. "Instead of lording your beer knowledge over someone, you can truly share it with people."

For More Information

• Beer Judge Certification Program: bjcp.org

• Cicerone Certification Program: cicerone.org

• Schoolcraft College: schoolcraft.edu

• Beer Education in Southeast Michigan: knowbeer.org

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