I Want Your Job: Roger Mittag, Beer Professor
I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
Name: Roger Mittag
Job: Founder of Thirst for Knowledge Inc. and Prud’homme™ Beer Certification, Instructor and Adjunct Professor at Humber College’s School of Hospitality.
Roger Mittag first encountered beer at the tender age of seven. “We’d be up at our cottage, and my dad would be doing some outdoor work and let me have sips of his beer,” Mittag recalls. But it wasn’t until 1997, when Mittag was hired by Labatt’s Oland Specialty Beer Company, that things got serious. Mittag started in sales, and describes the environment as incredibly beer-focused: “They would quiz us every week or so,” he says.
Two months into the job, the company took the entire team on a trans-Atlantic beer education adventure. “We started at the Keith’s brewery in Halifax, and visited breweries in Belgium and England,” Mittag says. “It all sounds like fun and games, and it was fantastic, but along the way they really trained us. We learned how to taste, pour, and talk about beer, and when we got back they expected us to deliver that same kind of experience to our customers.”
Inspired by the trip, Mittag worked in sales for four years before transferring to head office, where he was asked to design a training module for the entire Labatt team. “They wanted me to train everyone the way I was trained,” he says. “It was at that point that I realized that this was what I wanted to do.”
Mittag stayed on as National Sales Training Manager at Labatt for another four years before leaving in 2005 to create Thirst for Knowledge, which bills itself as “Canada’s Leading Beer Education Company.” While developing a “beer school” for Labatt, Mittag had the idea of creating his own. Thirst for Knowledge now boasts beer school courses, seminars, and tastings. Through the company, Mittag also developed Prud’homme Certification, which is Canada’s first certification program for beer.
Torontoist: When you started thinking about making a beer school for the public, what kind of people did you think would be interested?
Roger Mittag: I thought it would just appeal to people who wanted to know more about beer—average consumers. I researched the Cicerone Certification Program and a beer sommelier program in Germany because I wanted to see whether I was duplicating what was already available or whether we needed something different in Canada. I realized that for a course taught here we needed to focus on our market—on our beers that we have available to us. I want people that come through my courses to experience beers that come through Ontario. I’m not going to introduce something I’ve tried that’s really cool but not available here; I’d rather focus on stuff people can get.
Your beer certification program Prud’homme has three different levels: Beer Enthusiast, Beer Specialist, and Beer Expert. Can you explain a bit about each level and what it entails?
The first level is really geared towards everyone—it’s designed for the consumer, while level two and three are more for people who really want to work in the industry. Level one is about expanding what people already know about beer. There are tastings, and we look at how beer is brewed. There’s also an introduction to food and beer pairings.
In level two we get more into the specifics, like examining the ingredients of beer in a lot more detail. In that level we also teach how to cook with beer, and there is a broad beer and cheese day. Finally, there is an emphasis on understanding draft systems and how they should work.
There’s a massive amount of information in level three, which is geared towards facilitation. Right now, my current participants are giving me feedback into things they are looking for in future courses, so I’m adjusting it based on that. At this level, people can learn to brew small batches themselves, design and facilitate their own tastings and dinners, and gain the skills to become comfortable speaking in front of crowds. I’m also developing a workshop for this level where the students can learn how to build their own draft system.
You currently teach some of your courses in conjunction with Humber’s School of Hospitality. What are the differences between teaching at Humber and teaching your own courses?
Normally I have mostly adult learners, so at Humber it’s different because the students are college-age. My course is a pre-requisite for some [hospitality] programs, and some students are there not necessarily because they want to be but because someone’s forced them to. Also, Humber is a very culturally diverse school, and some students have to take my course but have no interest in beer or don’t drink alcohol because of personal or religious beliefs. I never pressure anyone, but I do encourage students to smell the different beers. I had one student this year who would taste the beers but not swallow them, and that worked with his beliefs.
Typically, as people get older usually their palate becomes more defined. But right now we have so many ethnically diverse foods available that these students have palates that are far more refined than mine was at their age, which is a good thing. They are also very experimental and are looking for many different styles of beers, which is great because Humber just recently introduced my certification program. Students can now graduate with level one and two of Prud’homme certification, which will help them in the workforce.
Can you tell me a bit about your patented beer-wheel? Are there any go-to rules for food-beer pairings?
The principles that apply to wine and food also apply to beer and food; you have to know a little bit about the beer if you are going to match. The wheel is based on three elements: cut, complement, and contrast. Complement means matching similar flavours. For example, there’s caramelization in beer due to the malt, so caramelized onions and beer would be a match. Contrast means you want both of the flavours to coexist in your mouth simultaneously. And cut is like a palate cleanser—the cut of the beer cleanses the richness in the food. This is something you don’t get in wine, but you do in beer because of the bitterness of the hops.
What’s the best beer you’ve ever tasted? Do you prefer imported to domestic, or vice-versa?
People are always asking me that, but it’s hard to choose…I have between twenty and twenty-five different beers in my house at any given time. I had a couple of guys try to nail me down: “If you were on a desert island, what beer would I drink?” And I always say it doesn’t matter, because I’d be drinking it quickly! [Laughs.]
But I have a very non-partisan attitude towards beer. I do like pilsners, both Canadian and European. I also like Belgium-style Trappist beers like La Fin du Monde, and Trois Pistoles that come from Unibroue in Quebec.
There are a lot of imported beers I really like, but I’m a big fan of domestic breweries as part of the whole local movement. Beer is best when it’s fresh, and it is freshest when it is made closest to home. Any beer that is imported has quite a lengthy journey—at least three months—and any Ontario beer is at most couple of weeks old. I think our domestic beers are starting to create some really nice styles, and industry is growing.
What role do you think beer plays in our culture?
People often view beer as being a second class drink in comparison to wine—that dates back to ancient Rome. But people are now realizing that the education they got with wine can apply to beer as well. Beer is the universal socializer. It’s very unassuming, and therefore people don’t associate snobbery with it. it’s the kind of drink you can have with a bunch of friends.
I think beer equates well with the outdoor lifestyle we associate with being Canadian. We’ve been brewing for a long time, and we’re generally very unassuming. I’ve had the opportunity to do some work in the U.S. on behalf of [the] Canadian Tourism Association, and Americans are always amazed at our beers and what we have to offer.
Photos by Eric Yip/Torontoist.