Sarah Hogan tucked herself into a back corner at Ça Va, the Westport Champagne bar where she bartends, on a gray April afternoon and gently swirled the wine in her glass. She considered its ruby hue, inhaled the aroma and finally sipped.
It wasn’t for pleasure, though. Hogan was practicing her deductive tasting skills, also known as blind tasting, in preparation for the Court of Master Sommeliers’ introductory examination.
Identifying unknown wines is only part of it, however. Hogan will still have to pass a test that covers everything from growing grapes to food pairings, as well as the wines produced in regions as diverse as Spain (the El Pedrosal 2013 Hogan was tasting came from Ribera del Duero), Greece, Oregon and Argentina. Oh, and fortified wines, beer, spirits and even sake could be on the test, too.
It’s intimidating, to say the least. That’s why Hogan joined “The Gang of Pour,” an informal group of managers, bartenders, enthusiasts and front- and back-of-house staff who gather at Ça Va every Monday to study wine. Some are prepping for court exams at various levels, others want to expand their knowledge.
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Their combined effort to improve the level of wine service in Kansas City adds to our culinary identity, says Ross Jackson, wine director and sommelier at Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room, who together with Caitlin Corcoran, general manager and co-owner of Ça Va, founded the Gang of Pour last year.
“It’s very important in this city,” Jackson says. “We have world-class chefs working here, and we have to keep up.”
It’s not just wine, either. Beer- and cocktail-focused pros are equally determined to up their game, whether by joining tasting and training events or pursuing certifications and credentials.
Continued learning is essential, given how quickly the industry is changing, says Corcoran, who herself was an award-winning barista and bartender before moving into wine. Consumers are no longer loyal to a single brand or product, and bars, breweries, wineries and coffee roasters routinely experiment with and serve one another’s beverages. Professionals owe it to themselves and their guests to become more knowledgeable and well-rounded, Corcoran says.
“If we all learn and raise each other up, it’s better for Kansas City,” she says.
That’s why, in addition to wine, the Gang of Pour will this year add visits to distilleries, breweries and coffee roasters to its itinerary. It simply makes sense, Hogan says.
“They’re more connected than you’d think,” she says.
Sommeliers have long been essential to the restaurant world. But Cicerones? They’re the new kids on the block. Craft-brewing legend Ray Daniels created the Cicerone Certification Program a decade ago to educate beer professionals. It now includes four levels, each requiring increasing expertise in beer styles, production methods, glassware, technical specifications, draft line maintenance and other aspects of brewing.
“Somebody who just wants to bartend and pour beers doesn’t need it, but for somebody who wants to own their own brewery or work for a supplier or something like that, it’s important,” says Erica Schulte, a certified cicerone (the second level) who is now preparing for the advanced cicerone exam.
It’s clearly a priority for Schulte, who has worked at Flying Saucer Draught Emporium and Westport Ale House and now serves on the KC Craft Beer Week (kccraftbeerweek.com) committee. No matter where you are in the industry, she says, there’s an opportunity to learn more.
“If you can constantly educate yourself by tasting or whatever else, that’s just making you better at what you do every day,” she says.
Bartenders share that drive to improve, and they now have more tools than ever. Classic cocktail books have been reissued and new ones written. Events such as the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival (popfestkc.com) have expanded their professional, competition and social schedules and now attract participants from across the country.
Beverage Alcohol Resource’s 5-Day Certification Program provides a comprehensive distilled spirits and mixology education (it mirrors the Court of Master Sommeliers’ approach) on-site in New York, while BarSmarts, offerings by Beverage Alcohol Resource and Pernod Ricard, is easily accessed online.
The U.S. Bartenders’ Guild has its own programs, including the Diageo-sponsored World Class competition, and the local chapter also regularly hosts seminars, competitions and tastings for members. Kansas City is also now an industrywide destination, as evidenced by one busy week in April.
It kicked off with the Bar Institute Econo, a spinoff of the education-focused Bar Institute. The KC stop on the 25-city tour tapped local volunteers to lead sessions on sustainability, organizing a successful charity event and balancing work and life. Building skills and relationships is invaluable to a bartender’s career, says founder Lindsey Johnson, also the creator of spirits marketing company Lush Life Productions and Camp Runamok, a summer camp for bartenders.
“I tell people to look around at who’s here at 10 o’clock in the morning. This is who you want to hire or get to run your next event,” Johnson says.
Bryan Arri, a server and bartender-in-training at Manifesto, was among those in the audience and was as keen to make industry connections as he was to learn about the day’s topics.
“For me, it was more the hope of networking, since I’m super new in Kansas City,” says Arri, who was a barista and bartender in Columbia, Mo., before moving here.
Next came Academia Patrón, sponsored by the Patrón Spirits Co. More than 100 people from Kansas, Missouri and surrounding states attended, and they, of course, had the chance to sample Patrón’s tequilas. The main draw, though, was a morning-long presentation by Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council on the tequila industry’s regulations, practices and heritage.
“You can easily make a great living not caring about any of those things,” says Dani Revord, a bartender at North Italia who was there. “But for me, it’s America. We vote with our dollars. I want to make sure the things I’m encouraging people to buy are (produced responsibly).”
The week wrapped up with the USBG Midwest Region Leadership Conference, which drew 60-plus out-of-town bartenders and featured a Kauffman Stadium tour and a visit to McCormick Distilling Co. in Weston.
Chances are, most participants will then eagerly share what they’ve learned with co-workers and industry colleagues, and that can only mean good things for consumers, Schulte says.
“Knowledge is power,” she says. “The more we educate people, the better (Kansas City) will be overall.”
To reach freelance spirits and cocktail columnist Anne Brockhoff, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wanna up your beverage game?
Hospitality industry professionals are increasingly seeking opportunities to learn more about the wine, beer, spirits and other beverages they serve. Some of their favorite resources are listed below. Be sure to also check the website or Facebook pages of your favorite local wineries, breweries, distilleries, bars, restaurants and retailers for tastings, classes, tours and other events they may be hosting.
Court of Master Sommeliers, mastersommeliers.org
“Windows on the World Complete Wine Course” (Sterling Epicure, 2017), by Kevin Zraly
“The Wine Bible” (Workman Publishing, 2015), by Karen MacNeil
“Wine Folly” (Penguin Books, 2015), by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack
Cicerone Certification Program, cicerone.org
Beer Judge Certification Program, bjcp.org
KC Craft Beer Week (Nov. 11-18), kccraftbeerweek.com
American Homebrewers Association, homebrewersassociation.org
“The Oxford Companion to Beer” (Oxford University Press, 2011), by Garrett Oliver
“Tasting Beer” (Storey Publishing, 2017), by Randy Mosher
“Beer, Food and Flavor” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2015) by Schuyler Schultz
Cocktails and spirits
BAR 5-Day Certification Program, beveragealcoholresource.com
The Bar Institute, barinstitute.com
U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, usbg.org
Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival (Sept. 7-10), popfestkc.com
“The Craft of the Cocktail” (Clarkson Potter, 2002), by Dale DeGroff
“The Cocktail Chronicles” (Spring House Press, 2015), by Paul Clarke
“Liquid Intelligence” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014), by Dave Arnold
Brave New Bartending
This is the fourth in an ongoing series. Part 1 examines bartender creativity and how it shapes our drinking. Part 2 looks at the ways the hospitality industry tries to stay healthy. Part 3 profiles an artist-bartender whose canvases include items from the bar.