Craft beer has gone from a specialty item used to attract diners to a handful of bars and restaurants in any major city to a basic product category that most bars and restaurants have to have.
What makes that tricky is that in the general population (your guests) there is a wide spread of beer knowledge and expertise. Some people know nothing at all about craft beer, but want to drink it anyway. Others are experts. Your staff has to be able to talk to both ends of that spectrum, and honestly, be able to figure out where a guest falls between those two extremes.
So what level and type of training is important for your staff to have about craft beer?
They need to have enough knowledge to successfully sell the products you carry.
They should know and understand a few key, common beer tasting terms, “hoppy, malty, crisp, light, smooth,” etc. Your servers should also be familiar enough with the beer styles you carry to recognize them, “pale ale, IPA, lager, ale, stout, porter, wheat.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to craft beer, one of the most common questions or requests is also one that is the trickiest to answer and requires some rote memorization. When a guest comes in and says “I had xyz beer yesterday, do you have anything similar?” your staff should be able to make a good recommendation.
This means knowing at least the major brands (nationally and locally) in the major style. Not necessarily well enough to sell them, but well enough to categorize them and lead to a sale of something on your menu. For example, “I had a Lagunitas IPA the other day, do you have anything similar?” To answer this question, your server doesn’t need to know a lot about Lagunitas or their IPA. They have to be able to recognize the style of the beer (in this case, pretty easy, since it’s in the name) and know enough about your IPA to effectively sell it and to establish a reasonable expectation from the guest. For example, “I love IPAs too. Right now, we’ve got two on draft. We have Anti Hero, which is from a Chicago brewery called Revolution and is definitely more West Coast style, and pretty hoppy. We also have Two Hearted Ale, from Bells in Michigan. It’s a Midwest style IPA, so even though it’s got plenty of hops, it also has some malt to balance it and is pretty smooth for an IPA.”
This example actually points out the next thing your servers and bartenders should know. The differences between the beers on your list. If you only have one IPA on draft, your servers really don’t need to understand the difference between a West Coast and a Midwest IPA, or the difference between earthy, floral, resiny, and citrusy hops. On the other hand, if you have two IPAs and a double IPA on your list, your staff should be able to describe the differences.
In another example, if someone comes in and orders a Blue Moon, and you only have one wheat beer, all your servers really need to know is that you don’t carry Blue Moon, that Blue Moon is a wheat beer, and what wheat beer you have available. “I’m sorry, we don’t carry Blue Moon. I do have a local Heffeweizen, which is also a wheat beer if you wanted to give that a try.”
In short, your beer training should start not with “how much can we teach our staff about beer,” but with “what are our guests asking our staff about beer.”