Boston Beer Company

This entry is part 13 of 22 in the series May - 2015

Boston Beer Company

By Sandra Hume

WHEN KEN SMITH sits down at a restaurant, invariably he gets asked the wrong question:


Not only is the question crazy, Smith says, it’s also unanswerable. “I’ve just sat down. How can I know what I want to drink if I don’t know what I’m going to eat yet?” Sure, he could pick a drink and then base his food choice on that. Or, more likely, he’ll opt to wait a bit, decide what he’s going to eat, then choose a suitable drink to accompany it.

His point? Context matters, whether you’re at home or in a restaurant. “If I’m sitting in the sun at a baseball game, I’ll drink something a lot different than I would at a barbecue on someone’s back deck.”

Not a surprising attitude from someone who passed the Certified Cicerone ® exam on the first try. The beer equivalent of wine’s sommelier, a Cicerone ® certification requires passing two of three exhaustive and complex levels of examinations about brewing, storing, serving, and pairing beer—essays and tasting included—that less than half of those taking it pass. Smith became The Boston Beer Company’s second Certified Cicerone ® in 2010; today, the brewery has 100.

Education, Smith says, has flipped the beverage industry entirely. As a wine distributor after graduating from CSU, he knew a bit more about wine than the average consumer, but not much. He found the same to be true when he switched to The Boston Beer Company in 1995. His required knowledge was in merchandising, not the beverage itself. In truth, there wasn’t much to know. The 1980s attitude of wine was all about white zinfandel and jug wine; vodka was Absolut or nothing; beer was Budweiser or Coors, Smith remembers.

Then consumers began to educate themselves. In the beer world, folks on the barstools now knew more about what they were drinking than the people serving it. Chicago brewing expert Ray Daniels saw a need and, endorsed by the Boulder- based Brewers’ Association, developed the Cicerone ® program in 2008. As a beer educator, part of Smith’s job on Boston Beer’s training team is to help would-be Cicerones® prepare for the exhaustive test.

Smith loves the interaction of teaching, which also includes CSU’s Beverage Business Institute. The side of him that minored in history at CSU revels in the beer factoids he gets to share. Like that refrigeration was invented not for meat, but for beer. Or that the builders of the ancient pyramids were paid in beer — one of the first monetary systems developed. Or that the revolution cementing the very foundation of our country was born right in the taverns of Boston over pints
of beer.

After 30 years of witnessing growth and change in the beer industry, Smith couldn’t expect more in his career. He recently reduced his travel to “only”
17 or 18 weeks a year, and the
guy whose email signature includes a Frank Zappa quote about the importance of beer says he’s having more fun than ever. “I don’t take things as seriously as I did when I was 25. What I’m doing now, it’s exactly what I want to do.”

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