FOR THE PAST month, I’ve been examining the evolving union of beer and food – a marriage that’s enhancing the image of our favorite adult beverage.
But there is one downside to this evolution, a nasty trend that needs to be nipped in the bud.
I speak of the dreaded “beer sommelier.”
Yes, there already is such an animal – an expert who manages a restaurant’s beer list and advises diners on the proper selection to match the evening’s meal. Several U.S. restaurants (none in Philadelphia, as far as I know) now boast one, and there have been informal talks to begin a professional training program in America.
Now, I don’t think any of us have a problem with restaurants providing expert beer advice, some guidance on choosing the best beer for your meal. It’s an overdue improvement over this familiar tableside dialogue:
You: “What kind of beer do you have?”
Clueless waitron: “Everything.”
No, it’s the term itself – sommelier – that’s sticking in my craw.
A sommelier by definition is the employee who maintains the restaurant’s wine list. A “beer sommelier” is like calling someone a “baseball quarterback.”
Worse than the clunky vocabulary, the use of the term is a misguided step toward what you might call the winofication of beer.
We’ve been seeing it coming for some time now: corked ales, aged casks of barleywine, lavish dinners that pair beer with haute cuisine. I winced a bit the first time I spent a very winelike $15 for a single bottle of domestic beer but excused it as the necessary cost of high-priced ingredients and labor.
Yet as beer continues to upscale itself, winofication spreads. Wine adjectives (“elegant,” “seductive”) have begun to creep into beer descriptions. There’s even one pricey ale made by methode champenoise.
I don’t fear a blurring of the traditional lines that have always separated the two (wine is expensive, beer is cheap; wine is for art galleries, beer is for tailgaters). Beer can safely cross these lines and retain its principles.
Truth is, I’m mainly worried that folks will start calling me Monsieur Sixpack.
OK, I’m overreacting. But I say we stop it here at “beer sommelier.”
We need a different term.
One suggestion I heard recently was “cervosier.” That’s an old French word for brewer, which means it should be ruled out for the simple reason that it is, in fact, French. (I mean, c’mon, name three French beers.)
We could just call him or her a “bartender,” only I’m having a hard time imagining a 12-year-old Thomas Hardy Ale poured by Moe Szyslak.
Here’s a better one: Cellarman.
Besides being a pronounceable English word, it boasts a proud lineage. A cellarman in Britain was the guy responsible for properly maintaining a pub’s casks, pumps and lines. It’s a nearly lost craft nowadays because most kegged beer is pasteurized and artificially carbonated. Aside from its temperature, factory beer doesn’t require a lot of attention.
Reviving the old term would bring new importance to the care and selection of beer.
The restaurant cellarman (or cellarwoman, of course) would be a well-versed expert who could tap a keg and select the perfect lager for that blanquette de veau. He or she would research and order new beers, oversee the coolers, maintain and update the bottle list and glassware, consult with the kitchen on food pairings, write the beer menu, train the servers and suggest appropriate bottles to patrons.
The cellarman might also play a role in bringing back those old casks of “real ale,” naturally carbonated and conditioned in the cool, dark corners of the cellar.
A restaurant that hires a cellarman would be telling its customers that its beer is special, not some second-rate adjunct it’s obligated to stock for the philistines who don’t know a Chablis from a Chardonnay. That it’s an important part of the restaurant’s cuisine – as important as the ingredients in the kitchen, as important as the wine.
Calling the position cellarman, not beer sommelier, would maintain beer’s proud tradition as a distinct and worthy alternative to wine.