Is the Certified Cicerone® worth it for a bottle shop beer buyer? How could it help?Nov 06, 2023
One of my students, Rick, is enrolled in the Beer Scholar Course for the Certified Beer Server Exam. After passing the CBS test, he wrote and asked me:
I just took over the beer section at a family owned bottle shop with a large section dedicated to craft beer. There is a lot of room for improvement. I'd like to build it into a destination for beer lovers. I need some insight on how to tap into what’s happening in my regional craft beer scene. How do I get to know the brewers who are making the highest quality beer and self distributing fun releases? There are so many breweries and releases and it seems like there is a dedicated set of people who are VERY in the know…I am trying to figure out how to be one of them! Do you think becoming a Certified Cicerone® would make a difference for how breweries will receive my inquiries? Do you think it will help with networking in the community? I want to learn all about beer. I don’t need to know about everything on the CC syllabus for my job, however, if breweries know how seriously I take representing them well, I believe I’ll have better opportunities to carry the beer I want. What do you think? Thanks for any advice!
Hi Rick! Thanks for the excellent questions! There's a lot to talk about here. One question is - how do you turn an OK bottle shop into a top tier super bada$$ bottle shop that gets attention in the local craft beer scene. Your other question, which is super related, is how to get more “in the know” about what’s happening in the beer scene? I have some thoughts!
1) What’s one of the quickest ways to boost a bottle shop’s reputation and sales when it comes to moving craft beer?
One of the quickest short term ways to put a bottle shop on the craft beer map, to increase a shop’s sales and visibility in the craft beer scene, is to educate your staff. This isn't just something I harp on because I do beer education for a living.
Remember that time you walked into a bar, asked about the beer, and ended up in a conversation with a bartender who knew what they were talking about and clearly had a lot of passion for it? You probably ordered an extra beer or tried some of the fancier ones the bartender recommended because they made it sound fun and appealing - they knew how to describe those beers in such a way as to find you what you wanted and to set you up to really enjoy it. They created an experience for you, rather than just saying, “I don’t know, here try a sample.” Remember that time you went to the bottle shop and looked at the rows and rows of beer…you knew a little about beer, but you wanted to try something new or maybe get something special to bring to a party. When you asked the salesperson for some help, it seemed like they didn’t know a whole lot more about it than you. That’s a massive lost opportunity for that shop to sell you something great and turn you into a repeat customer.
There's a clear relationship between having educated staff and making more sales. The process here is essentially similar for any retail beer business, whether a taproom or bottle shop...or even at the wholesale level for breweries or distributors who are sending salespeople to hawk their goods. If the salesperson knows the backstories and descriptors for the beers they’re discussing with potential customers, they’re going to be able to connect with those customers in a way that provides value, builds confidence, and communicates passion for the products. It’s hard to fake enthusiasm for what you’re selling! Some people may just want a quick suggestion based on a few descriptors of what they like, while other customers may want to chat about the latest releases and would happily chat your ear off. A great salesperson with deep knowledge of what they’re selling can easily help either of those customers get exactly what they want, can make them excited to get home and open that bottle, and ultimately are providing them with a bit of an “experience” rather than just another commodity product. Beer marketing wizard, Doug Veliky, recently summed these concepts up in this post of his, where he answered a similar question, but from a brewery taproom perspective. I've spoken about how beer education helps sell on this episode of the Good Beer Matters podcast, give it a listen (Spotify, Apple Podcasts).
2) How does one become more “in the know” about the regional craft beer game?
One thing I realized immediately upon leaving school, which has been reinforced to me over and over throughout the years, is that ALL industries work on relationships...i.e. networking by simply being friendly. It’s the same with beer. If you want to be part of the scene, it’s important to get to know folks in it. By simply hanging out because you're interested, you’ll learn what the community is into, what podcasts they listen to, what they’re reading, where they’re hanging out. I don’t just mean beer fans, but the folks in the business, too. They’re all connected in a big loose community. They come together at the top taprooms in the region, at breweries and events, festivals, and homebrew club meetings. They probably all follow the same Instagram / Facebook / TikTok accounts of other beer industry folks and fans in your area.
Getting to know folks is how you end up with access to special releases from those hard-to-get breweries - it’s how you even know those releases are coming! It’s also why you’ll feel totally cool to ask them to participate in little events at your taproom or bottle shop. As with any business, money talks in beer, too. So, as you choose which breweries to develop close relationships with through their salespeople or other employees, you will of course find that those breweries are more likely to hook you up with the good stuff if you’re also buying plenty of their core products.
3) Would being a Certified Cicerone help you be taken seriously by breweries and others in the industry you’d like to be working with?
Being able to talk the talk is essential in any industry in order to be taken seriously. It’s the same in beer. When someone in the industry says, “that person is a Certified Cicerone,” that communicates how dedicated and passionate about beer that person is. It also lets people know you can accomplish serious goals that require focus. It tells brewery owners and salespeople that you’ll take proper care of their beer and will be able to talk to your customers about it in a way that will reflect well on their business, too. Having “Certified Cicerone” on your resume will absolutely open doors - for getting jobs, accessing special beer, and generally for being taken seriously by industry folks.
The most valuable thing becoming a Certified Cicerone provides is what you learn on the journey to passing the exam. It arms you with the language to talk about beer with confidence. There are only ~4,500 CCs in the world, they’re some of the most knowledgeable people in the beer game. What you learn will help you have intelligent conversations with brewers, salespeople, other Cicerones, fans, and customers. You’ll know what you’re talking about and you’ll have total confidence for how to talk beer when a customer comes in and says something like, “I like hefeweizen and I want to try something new that’s not too intense,” or “I’m looking for a special release bottle to give to a friend, they normally drink red wine,” or “I want something to drink by the poolside that’s got a little more going on than a Coors,” or “a friend told me to try something called gueuze, do you have it and which would you recommend?”
Can you learn this stuff without doing the Certified Cicerone exam? Sure, I suppose so, but how? And what’s your motivation and plan if you don’t have a syllabus like the Cicerone Certification Program's, plus a guide like Beer Scholar? You can just read some books, but will you achieve your dream goal that way? When you prep for the Certified Cicerone exam, you may learn a few things that don’t directly impact your current job. That's possible, but the “keeping & serving” portion of the syllabus covers MANY things a bottle shop operator will find indispensable, but yes you’ll learn some draft system basics, too.
The point, ultimately, is this – becoming a Certified Cicerone gives you the tools you need to accomplish your goals in the beer industry, it will help you in many ways ranging from conversing intelligently with people in the industry to selling beer effectively to customers. If you serve or sell beer, your goal should be to pass the Certified Cicerone exam...unless you don't take your beer career seriously. A major bonus for folks who run a retail operation or sales team – by becoming a CC you gain the chops to train the rest of your staff to be more effective, too. It’s a killer investment in your business and your people.
Hope that answers your questions, Rick!