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Typically when you think of a sommelier, you think of wine — even Wikipedia defines a sommelier as someone trained and specializing in the wine profession. After all, wine is a complex drink of sophistication, usually used for celebratory occasions (and often accompanying a nice meal). To be a wine sommelier you have to spend years studying every nuance of the field, including the history of different varietals and the merits of specific glasses. You can ask a wine sommelier anything you want about wine, whether it be which type you should drink with pasta or with meats, and they can answer your question and more.
Though wine sommeliers are the most popular type of expert, they're not the only ones out there. More and more people are branching off into different areas, from beer and whiskey to that of tea and coffee, proving that wine isn't the only beverage worthy of closer examination.
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To be a beer sommelier (often called a cicerone), you have to understand everything regarding beer styles and ingredients, as well as the history of beer, brewing, glassware, beer service, draught systems and food pairings. While the profession is still pretty new, with the uprising in craft beers and home brewing, a bright spotlight has been shone on beer and it's only growing. "Beer seems to be where it's getting its attention a lot more from the culinary side of things, where chefs are starting to work real closely with it," says Andrea Robinson, Master Sommelier and three-time James Beard Award-winner. "You're talking about characteristics that are accessible and unique from beer to beer based on how the barley is handled, as well as how much hops are added [and] the types of yeast used, so it tremendously affects the style."
There are a good handful of companies you could get certified through, or just take a few courses if you want to learn more. The Cicerone Certification Program has a few different levels you can accomplish, from the basic Certified Beer Server ($69) to the Master Cicerone ($595).
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Being an expert in coffee may seem strange to some, but coffee can be just as complex and rewarding as wine. Nespresso offers a Coffee Sommelier Program that broadens one's knowledge and understanding in the coffee world, teaching them all there is to know about the aromatic palette of coffee and the right pairings. The program consists of four meetings a year in Switzerland, with each meeting divided into two parts, one made up of theoretical classes and the other with practical cupping and scoring sessions.
To give the program even more credibility is Andrea Robinson, who became a coffee sommelier through Nespresso. With little experience initially, she was surprised that over the course of two short days in the training program she was able to pick up source and bulk details from flavor and smell alone. Through the training process she also found that coffee and wine had more in common than she had originally assumed. "You can talk about coffee and asses it according to its origin and what effect that has in the style," Robinson says. "You can speak to the same types of characteristics, aromatic and flavor profiles, and you can speak about them in the same way in the sense of body, acidity, and variations in aromatics that are tied to the roasting of a bean and the way they get processed."
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Encompassing everything from scotch to bourbon, whiskey is more complex than the average person may think. Whiskey sommeliers aren't as common as beer and wine, for instance, but that doesn't make them any less relevant, especially when they can tell you how not to enjoy a glass — add a splash of water but skip the ice, and approach it more slowly than you would wine (don't just quickly stick your nose in there for a whiff, the alcohol may "burn" your senses too quickly).
How does one become an expert in whiskey? In an interview with Bon Appetit, Heather Greene (the first American woman to serve on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Tasting Panel in Scotland and the first woman to win Whisky Magazine's American Young Ambassador of the Year award) first got into whisky while visiting Scotland. She soon started working at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh and had to pass a nosing and tasting exam to work on their tasting panel.
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Tea is usually discounted as what your grandparents drink over the morning paper but it's far more complex and detailed than that. Not only does it have a longstanding cultural impact, it carries with it endless combinations and tasting preferences (from the length of steep to adding things like sugar and honey). Tea is more than the "Sleepytime" Chamomile you drink at night. According to The Tea Association of the USA, about half of the American population drinks tea, making it one of the most popular drinks around.
Tea sommeliers study the science and chemistry of the leaf, learning everything from growth and what happens at a chemical level to impact taste. The American Tea Masters Association offers many different training levels, including their 14-Week Tea Mastery Certification Course ($3,225 for non-members and $2,975 for members) that teaches you everything you need to know to achieve the level of Certified Tea Master. They have course locations all over the world, including Toronto, Stockholm, and San Diego.
It's also worth mentioning that sometimes sommeliers don't refer to a beverage expert at all. In Japan there are sommeliers in other areas, like music and vegetables — though they also include sake sommeliers in their alcohol studies, an area Robinson would personally love to pursue in the future. "That's why we all love this stuff," she says. "Because you never know everything and every time you turn a corner, there's something really new, unique, and interesting to check out."
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