Beer lessons brought to book

01 June, 2007

Weekly staff training isn't an option for most, but assemble a library and get your staff talking

We have a small collection of books here at the shop that I laughingly refer to as the "staff resource centre". There are a couple of well-worn copies of Michael Jackson's Beer Companion and his Pocket Beer Book, the latest Good Bottled Beer Guide, the WSET's Exploring Wines & Spirits, and a slim tome titled Bluff Your Way in Wine: the Bluffers Guide , on to which some wag has stuck a piece of paper saying Staff Training Manual . There's also the ubiquitous Terry Pratchett novel and a rather racy memoir of parliamentary infidelity. But, as you might imagine, the well-thumbed Beer Companion is essential reading for a specialist beer shop such as ours, although lately the WSET course book has felt the lick of the highlighter pen.

In an ideal world, staff training every week would consist of opening a few beers and debating the merits of what is being imbibed. Who knows - on reading this my team may insist on a regular Monday night session, with fine ales, smoking jackets and mature cheeses.

Sadly, the reality is less glamorous; sure, we hold tastings, but these are never as frequent as they could be. The structured programme of tastings I ran many years ago on the first Saturday of every month, working through the year with seasonally-appropriate beers, was a success in terms of getting people through the door, but less successful for sales. People tended to turn up, try the beers, listen to the spiel then clear off.

Far better to open bottles on an ad hoc basis; then you serve the dual function of rewarding regulars and (hopefully) educating and enthusing them.

So if it's relatively easy to pique the curiosity of the average customer (and if you haven't tried to do this with a little glass of kriek beer and a piece of dark chocolate, then put this paper down and hop to it immediately), what of the average staff member?

By default, it is reasonable to assume they have ended up working in a drinks shop because they have a (hopefully) healthy interest in the product. A decent staff discount should work as an incentive to explore what they are selling, ­supplemented, if necessary, by whispered threats and goading with a sharpened stick. In an ideal world, everyone would go on an industry-recognised course . In the real world, however, time and budget constraints mean this is rarely possible.

A few years ago, I self-funded my WSET Advanced certificate, as I was fortunate enough to have an unusual balance of flexible hours, reasonable income (supplemented by a second job, I should add) and a raging thirst - sorry, I mean a raging curiosity. I also attended the Beer Academy's introductory one-day course. I'd recommend anyone thinking about doing a course hosted by either of these institutions to jump in feet first.

But back to the here and now. While we don't have the time, money or flexibility to send everyone for a regular tune-up, we try to provide the next best thing - engendering a spirit of curiosity and providing books that have the answers.

Conjuring up a touching scene, one staff member let slip that he finds one of the books a bit dry, but having another member of staff read to him made the topic come to life.

We should start a Sunday school: "This week, the structure of the appellations contrôlée in Burgundy. Now, sit up ­everyone, deep breath, and off we go."

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