On first impression, things look pretty serious. About two dozen people have gathered in a darkened conference room at a Whistler hotel for a seminar. But while the two-hour history lesson features a large screen highlighting facts and figures, it also involves something that’s normally frowned upon in class: drinking beer.
“After two or three beers, the level of participation will be higher,” jokes Ken Beattie as he launches into his History of Beer presentation, part of the Whistler Village Beer Festival. And indeed, as the samples are handed out to illustrate Beattie’s talk on the six iconic styles of beer that shaped the beverage’s history, the atmosphere softens and the banter becomes jovial.
Like wine lovers, beer geeks are discovering that a bit of knowledge helps them appreciate their favourite beverage more. So increasingly, beer-centric gatherings such as the Whistler festival in September (which this writer attended as a guest) and B.C. Craft Beer Month events in October are featuring educational components. Beattie and others—such as the Vancouver branch of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale)—periodically run seminars. (On November 25, CAMRA is offering Cider 101 and Cider 102 classes.) Schools like the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts offer more in-depth casual study. Enthusiasts are drinking it up.
Beattie has worked in the beer industry for 25 years and wears several hats: in addition to his role as the executive director of the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild, he runs classes, beer tastings, and corporate events through his Eureka Beer Guide website. His colourful personality makes even a potentially dry subject interesting; at the Whistler seminar, for example, he called his talk a “Marty McFly zip through time”, covering beer history from 5000 BC to the present and touching on the drink’s role in everything from religion and legend to war and the royal courts of Europe.
“Beer is the world’s oldest recipe,” he said. “It’s also why we’re civilized.” One theory, he explained, is that as early as 3500 BC, hunters and gatherers settled around grains like barley and wheat so that they could make beer, since water wasn’t a reliably safe beverage—fermenting these grains resulted in a drink that wouldn’t make them sick. He added that the majority of brewers were women until about 1700 AD, since women were the ones making the homebrew while the men were out hunting.
During the seminar, Beattie guided the tastings but was careful to let students form their own opinions before offering his. “Taste is subjective,” he explained. “What I taste isn’t necessarily what you taste.” Having a common vocabulary with terms like biscuity and piney, however, helps to articulate flavours.
Beattie previously taught the Prud’homme Beer Certification program in Vancouver, but that course is currently only available online through the Thirst for Knowledge website. However, Beattie will be conducting corporate and private beer-education functions through December, and he’s scheduling public classes in 2015; for updates, see eurekabeerguide.com/.
Chester Carey, who is both a certified cicerone and a sommelier, teaches a two-level Serious Beer course at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. His next intake is in January: Level 1 classes run for three hours on Monday evenings for eight weeks and cover beer styles, history, ingredients, brewing techniques, and taste.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Carey explained that when he started giving the course five years ago, he taught it twice a year. With the growth of the craft-beer industry, however, demand has increased and he now runs bigger classes three times a year; spots typically fill up several weeks in advance.
“Everybody is taking an interest in beer, whether it’s consumers who are trying new things or people who are opening [beer-based] businesses, or restaurants that are realizing that other restaurants with good beer programs are a lot busier all the time,” he explained. Carey estimates that 70 to 75 percent of his students are affiliated with the food and beverage industry, while the rest are “just interested in beer for beer’s sake”.
So how serious are the Serious Beer classes? “They’re meant to be fairly fun, but it’s not beer Pong,” he said. “There’s a lot of information that we’ve got to go over…and the quizzes can be brutally hard.” While Carey includes guided beer tastings, students can’t just chatter at the back of the class: they need to keep up if they want to advance. The second level is a 10-week course that ends with the goal of writing the exam to become a certified cicerone.
But even if students choose not to write the exam, they still learn a lot along the way. And there’s always something to talk about over beers after class.