What happens when you seek out Charlottesville’s top rated beer servers?

Company taproom manager Drew Carroll, one of Charlottesville’s 19 certified beer servers, is intrigued by the idea. Photo: Ron Rammelkamp Company taproom manager Drew Carroll, one of Charlottesville’s 19 certified beer servers, is intrigued by the idea. Photo: Ron Rammelkamp

The next big thing in beer is going to be weed. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

You’ve likely heard of sommeliers, the expertly trained snobs who help you negotiate a wine list. But you might not have heard of cicerones, the sommeliers of the beer world. Trained to guide you through ale and lager styles and help you pick the perfect beer for every palate and circumstance, they know the particular glass in which to serve you each style of brew, and it is their job to recommend a food pairing to match, whether you’re hankering for a Scotch ale or a dunkel.

So how many cicerones (pronounced sis-uh-rohns) actually claim a Charlottesville address as home? Zero. If you were a hefeweizen, that’d be nein. If you were a Belgian tripel, that’d be nul.

There are two levels of cicerone, per the Cicerone Certification Program of the Craft Beer Institute (CBI). There’s the master cicerone at the top of the heap. Charlottesville has none of them. There’s the certified cicerone. Charlottesville, unfortunately, doesn’t have any of them either. But CBI offers yet another level of certification known as the certified beer server, and as of the morning of January 17, C’ville could claim 19 of those.

CBI doesn’t require certification candidates to indicate their company when signing up for their online test. That’s a disadvantage to people (like me!) who might be trying to track down all the certified beer servers in a given city. Of the 19 Charlottesville residents who have passed the test, only 10 mentioned what company they worked for.

Long story short, that left me in conversation with four intrepid individuals huddled together next to a space heater in the dining room of the Whiskey Jar on January 28. There was Cameron Charness, a homebrewer who dropped out of UVA’s astronomy school to pursue his dream of running a brewery; Nancy Richardson of Blue Ridge Beverage, the only female certified beer server in the group; Drew Carroll, Champion Brewing Company’s taproom manager; and Marc Smith, a product manager for Virginia Eagle Distributing.

Richardson was quick to point out that a lot of the beer expertise in the area is not represented by CBI certifications. Beer Run, for example, certifies all its servers in-house with monthly classes that are arguably more comprehensive than the Cicerone Certification Program. But for companies who don’t have as much in-house knowledge as our town’s beer cathedral, CBI can be helpful.

“I am very lucky my company invested in its sales team,” Richardson said. “There are so many more people that know this stuff and they just haven’t paid for a test.”

Still, the knowledge at the table was considerable. When Richardson mentioned New Belgium Brewing is now making a sour ale known as Snapshot with Lactobacillus bacteria instead of the more common Brettanomyces, Charness jumped in.

“Just for the lacto to survive in it, I think it would have to be no more than about 5 percent ABV and also lower in IBUs,” he said.

To translate, that’s 5 percent alcohol by volume and 13 international bittering units, the industry standard for describing the bitter bite in beer that primarily comes from hops. Turns out, Snapshot is exactly 5 percent ABV and has only 13 IBUs. As a point of comparison, American India pale ales (IPAs) typically have at least 40 IBUs on the low end.

Sour beers in general are growing in a big way, according to Carroll. That comes on the heels of last year’s boom in lower alcohol IPAs. Commonly called session IPAs, Lagunitas Brewing Company, Founders Brewing Co., Terrapin Beer Company, and C’ville’s Champion Brewing Company all released beers intended to have all the flavor of the typical IPA but less than 5 percent ABV. (Whether they achieved that goal is a question for a different time.)

Two classes of consumers are also now growing, according to the panel: women and younger 20-somethings. That stands to make the number of craft beers of all types continue to build, according to Smith.

“It is definitely not an all boys club anymore,” he said.

As for the future of the craft beer market, the panel said a number of frontiers are still untouched. Lagers and milder British styles are two categories that seem underrepresented and could see a spike in production. Smith said he thinks Belgian ales have more room to grow.

Carroll reached even higher with his prediction for craft beer’s future.

“I think it will be interesting to see what happens in the states where marijuana is legalized,” he said. “Using that in the brewing process, it will be interesting to see how those flavors would develop.”

Charness was less sure the legal hurdles would allow pot beers to happen anytime soon. Smith mentioned a few companies, such as Humboldt Brewing Company, that are already making tasty hemp beers.

When I asked Richardson about her predictions for the future, she hesitated, because apparently, the conversation couldn’t get much farther out.

“How am I going to top that?” she asked.