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Advice on working as a beer consultant

cert cicerone exam advice Sep 30, 2015

Bottles of Gueuze at Cantillon in Brussels. 

Hello fellow beer geek! This is a slightly edited cross-post I originally did for my personal Chris Cohen website, but which is also relevant to many people who are pursuing Cicerone certifications. I get an email about every other week asking for advice on how to get started as a beer consultant. I'm happy to share what I know with you.

The first basic question is what does a beer consultant do? I've helped local bars and restaurants improve their beer lists, I've created, promoted, and executed beer pairing dinners, I've done beer classes for industry and non-industry folks who are interested in learning more about beer, I write beer-focused articles for online publications, and I wrote the primary Cicerone exam study guides on the market. For me, the reason I've done the consulting work, beer dinners, obtained my Certified Cicerone certification, passed the BJCP exam, founded the SF Homebrewers Guild, and continue to write about beer online are: 

1) I LOVE and am obsessed with beer and homebrewing; 
2) I'm opening a bar in SF, Old Devil Moon, and want to raise my profile; and,
3) I wrote and published these Beer Scholar Cicerone Study Guides and want to get my name out there and let people know they exist (and are for sale!).

All the work I do in the beer community raises my profile...BUT I do it because I love beer and the community of people around it. Essentially, I've turned my main interest in life into a full time job. The monetary benefits and the fact that people care about what I do feel like bonuses to me.

Networking is as key in the beer industry as in any other.  My work in the beer community has helped me make great connections. My move into the industry is nearly complete as I'll soon be opening Old Devil Moon. My hope is that there will be lots of interest from folks like you who can tell from my writing and other activity that I'm going to serve the best beer on the planet with all the respect great beer deserves. So there's some of the "what" and the "why." 

Consulting work is fun and it makes me some money on the side (more about that later), plus I've learned a bunch about working in the beer industry and made lots of beer world connections in the process. I've also honed my beer service skills and seen how other business owners work with beer. I've learned some service methods I plan to replicate at my place and I've definitely seen LOTS of stuff I would never do at my bar.

So how do you get into this work? My initial advice is to go get your Certified Cicerone certification out the way ASAP. I can help you with that if you need some guidance, pick up one of my Beer Scholar Cicerone study guides, ha! There are currently only about 1,000 Certified Cicerones out there. This isn't a sales pitch for my study guide at all, being a Certified Cicerone really does give you know-how and the authority to tell someone without reservation: "I'm an expert." When you can do that, you can start doing trainings at bars, running classes, or pitching beer stories to publications. There can be good money in some of that. It's especially rewarding to do classes about beer for regular folks who are interested in learning and having fun, whereas working as a consultant for a business can often involve difficulty and pushback from business owners who are afraid to cede any control or accept the fact that someone else knows more about this stuff than they do (even though they've hired you based on that assumption...I know, it's weird). Many business owners are great and will make your job fun and easy, others won't, that's just something to be aware of! Since taking on a few such gigs I've learned to essentially add 50% to the price I think seems reasonable, because they will ask you to do more than you think and it will be more time consuming than you think, trust me (it's common that they'll end up making a bunch of new requests along the way, on the assumption that it's just part of the initial job they asked you to do or that it won't add much time to the job, it usually does). Another great option is to reach out to local or online publications and start pitching beer focused articles to them. There's no better way to network than to be able to write to people in the beer industry and say, "I'm doing an article on X, can we talk and/or can I get a media pass for this event." And trust me, those media passes are one of the main perks of beer writing, it doesn't pay much AT ALL unless you make it a full time job and become an editor at a major beer magazine (which typically requires that you've already written a book and lots of articles on the cheap for other smaller publications).

The other huge question I get is: "can I make a living doing beer consulting?" From my experience, this just isn't something a person can make a full living doing, I'm sorry to tell you that. I've made $500+ a pop doing big multi-course beer dinners, but you can only do those so often (and make sure you have a solid payment deal worked out in advance or that you're supplying the space for the dinner yourself, otherwise you'll likely get handed an amount of money afterward that will be a good deal lower than you expected by the host restaurant, sad but true). I've done very basic consulting for restaurants here and there for a couple hundred bucks or more intense consulting and staff training for a several thousand dollars. When I started out, I did my first consulting gig for free and that experience hammered home something we all already knew - no one values anything they get for free (or cheap). While you may have to try it once for free just to get that initial experience, always charge something meaningful if you want to be appreciated, be taken seriously, and feel like it was worth your time after all is said and done.

Nowadays, when bars or restaurants write to ask me what my fee is for consulting work, I quote them at least $1,000 depending on what they're looking for. That fee is typically for the following work: 1) helping them work up a theme for their beer program; 2) creating their tap and bottle list with suggested seasonal changes; 3) coming in for a day (4+ hours) of staff training where I teach proper pouring technique, about proper glassware and how to clean it, and we sample and discuss the new beer so they'll be able to speak intelligently about it to their customers; and finally, 4) though I can't say this to the clients, if after doing the consulting work I'm confident that the location is actually serious about beer and I'm proud to say I helped them because they followed my advice and are doing great work, then I'm happy to promote the location to my huge network of beer geek friends and associates in the Bay Area. Working with a well known Cicerone to make a beer program among the better ones in the area and then getting their endorsement can bring in lots of business from beer lovers, that's obvious. 

For the most part, I find that clients massively underestimate how many hours of work and research are involved in doing such consulting work and they tend to undervalue the positive changes that can accrue from getting serious about beer. I have to chuckle when I see business owners happily pay big six figure numbers for their build-out and ABC license but then balk at bringing in an expert for even $1,000 to help them with something as important as their beer program...and often we're talking about supposedly beer focused businesses here! It's sort of like art, people generally massively undervalue the time it takes to become an expert and the value of a consultant's product. By quoting at least $1,000+ to prospective clients I immediately lose interest from people who just don't get it and that's fine with me because I don't want to waste my time or their time! I know what I offer is worth more than that, so if they balk at that rate, it's clearly not a good fit.

Finally, I regularly do beer tastings I call "Beer Bootcamp" at a local DIY space. It has also been picked up by local companies as a fun team-building get-together event for their staff. These are among the best gigs and frequently pay the best as well. In San Francisco we're talking in the realm of $500 or more for half a day's work, which is pretty rad, but the cost of living and also the amount of corporate/tech start up money out here of is off the charts, so don't expect that kind of pay everywhere. Those events are fun because they are low stress, you're dealing with a bunch of people who want to have fun at least as much as they want to learn about beer, and often the companies will do most of the organizational legwork ahead of time, leaving you to do the fun part of talking about the beer selection with the crowd as you go through the tasting. 

Ultimately, you can't line these gigs up on a regular basis no matter how hard you hustle. Some months are incredibly strong and bust,  some months are slow and the money is terrible. That's the life of an independent consultant in most industries, especially during your early years while you're building a reputation and brand presence. It's all about getting that great reputation, making contacts, building word of mouth, doing tons of marketing, and constant hustle and event organizing. 

My motivation for doing this work is not to make lots of money, in my experience the only way to make real money in the beer industry is by making and/or selling beer, which is why I'm opening a bar! My final advice to anyone who wants to work as a consultant in craft beer is this - go get a job in craft beer! Whether it's beertending at a top joint or doing sales for a cool brewery - it's a foot in the door. If you have real hustle you'll be able to get your Cert Cicerone card and begin lining up consulting gigs and events on the side to start making a name for yourself. 

I may not have answered all your questions, but those are the immediate thoughts that come to my mind about consulting work in beer. I'm sure there are other paths and methods for making this work, if you know of any, I'd love to hear them! Feel free to add thoughts or ask questions in the comments so I can answer them for everyone to see. Good luck with whatever path you chose as you forge ahead on your beery career project! 

Cheers,

Chris Cohen

cert cicerone exam advice