THE LOOP, CHICAGO
Know Your Beer: The Mind of a Master with Jason Pratt of MillerCoors
INTERVIEWED JUNE 26, 2017
AT MILLERCOORS. - CHICAGO, IL
What do you know about beer? Whether you're the type who picks out every detail of the appearance, aroma, mouthfeel, and taste of your chosen beverage, or someone who goes with the bartenders recommendation, the beauty of beer is the ability for people of any background to come together over a pint of what makes them happy. There are those, however, who seek to expand their knowledge and delve deeper into the nuances of their favorite beverage. Some of these people are known as Cicerones.
Of the nearly 90,000 to have gained some level of Cicerone Program certification, only 13 have reached its pinnacle. Known as Master Cicerones, these select few have proven themselves to be veritable walking encyclopedias of beer knowledge. One of the 13 is Jason Pratt, Senior Manager of Innovations at Tenth & Blake Beer Co., the craft division of MillerCoors. Working his way up through the ranks at Miller, the recently awarded 40 Under 40 recipient works to share his expansive knowledge with the folks at one of the world's largest beer conglomerates, also spearheading the new 'Know Your Beer' program in the now ultra competitive beer market.
But what's next once you've reached the peak of your profession? We sat down with Jason over tasting notes for the 'Know Your Beer' program to find out how he got to where he is today, how he balances big beer versus craft, and how he plans to keep pushing himself forward on his journey through the world of beer.
Jason, congrats on the 40 Under 40! How did that come about?
That was interesting... I got a semi-cryptic email from someone at Crain's and they basically said, "We've got some great news for you, can we talk next week?" I ended up sitting around wondering what that could be. They called me and were very gracious. They talked to me about what it meant to be a part of that and some of the alumni that had been there before. It's a huge honor from them so it was really nice to get that group together and be a part of it.
So how long have you been at MillerCoors?
It will be ten years in October.
And how did you get started with the company?
I started off as a research microbiologist. So I've taken a crazy path getting here.
You're a Michigan State alumnus (Go Green!). Did you study microbiology there?
Yea, microbiology and molecular genetics was my degree out of there. So beer was that really logical jump, you know? (laughs) There's so much science that goes into brewing, and that's the thing nobody really tells you when you're going to school. A career in brewing is a possibility. All the time I spent studying science and doing research, brewing never really entered that conversation, at least back then. Now I think you're seeing more and more programs that are focused on beer. It's great to see.
Was it straight to MillerCoors after graduation?
It was. I stayed around the lab I was doing research in for a couple months and then really started the job search. What it came down to for me was that I knew I wanted to get into industry of some kind. I always kind of joke that it was beer or vegetables for me. I had this job offer on the table from a vegetable company in Detroit. And there was this little brewery over in Milwaukee, WI that I had an offer from too – Miller Brewing at the time. I felt like I was at this crossroads. As funny as it seems now, I wasn't really a huge beer drinker. I drank beer but I don't think I fully gained that appreciation for it until I could see it first hand and see what it took to brew. But I feel like I made the right choice. Beer over vegetables all day.
You're a Master Cicerone today, but everyone started our drinking something cheap in college. What was that for you?
It was whatever the cheapest pint was. I was at a point in my life where I felt like it was all interchangeable and it didn't really matter. I've luckily come a little way since that point. There are nuances and differences even between the light beers that people always assume are so similar. It was Miller Lite and Coors Light that I would typically go for.
Was there a first "different beer" that you remember?
Yea, I'm trying to think of the spot... but there was a raspberry wheat that was interesting. It was the first time I'd tried something a little bit fruity from a beer perspective. Oh yea... it was Harper's. The craft beer boom had sort of come and gone at that point. So the idea of someone brewing their own stuff wasn't exactly top of mind for me at the time. It was interesting to try that, and I thought it was unique and different.
We'd highly recommend you don't ruin your nostalgia by drinking any more of Harper's stuff. So you'd picked beer over vegetables. What did you in Milwaukee for Miller in your early days there?
I transitioned into a role known as yeast and fermentation scientist. We were making sure our quality control systems across all our breweries countrywide were in place. We were doing education for the quality staff in the breweries at the time – test methods, procedures – that sort of thing. Then, as a side job, they had me running the beer education of 'Welcome to MillerCoors.' It was shortly after I started and they said, "Alright, you're new, this will be good for you." I also got a chance to do some new product development stuff too.
At this time, had you already taken the first level of Cicerone?
I had not, no. I didn't even take the first level until I jumped over to the commercial side of the business in probably 2012. I was doing our internal training sensory training programs so I was on our expert tasting panel. It gave me a chance to taste all the different beers from all the breweries. We'd have to taste Miller Lite from all seven of our breweries, side by side.
That's really not that long ago and you've clearly come a long way since. Can you walk me through the steps you took to get to where you are today?
When I made the jump from the technical side over to the commercial side of the business, it was really and eye opener. I was set up in the central region and had a chance to move to Denver and get immersed in the Colorado craft scene. One of the things we use as a benchmark for our teams is the Cicerone Program. My boss at the time expected me to get to Certified (2nd stage) within six months of starting. I came onto the team and took the Server (1st stage) right away. Then I started studying for the Certified. It was a very different skill set to what I had on the technical side.
What's the biggest difference?
There was a lot more focus on styles than I'd had before. That was something I really wanted to start diving into in a little more depth. I did that three months after I started and passed the Certified. Then I took a little bit of a break.
What gave you that push to keep going? Certified to Master is quite the leap.
You kind of get to that point where you're sitting there at Certified, and it's a great level to be at. I think at the time there were only seven Masters in the world and I didn't think I needed to go all the way to that point in order to do my job. Then I got to this point where I realized one of the things we teach people is the idea of a "beer journey." No matter where you come in, you should always try to be pushing yourself to go further. About a year before I ended up taking it, I realized I couldn't just sit up in front of people in good faith and tell people you need to keep pushing yourself if I'm not doing it too. So I thought, alright, let's go see how this thing works and I signed up for the Master.
Did you pass first time?
Wow, that's gotta be pretty unusual. What was the study process like when making the huge knowledge jump between Certified and Master?
It was pretty crazy. The thing about the Master exam is that you have to be pretty good at a number of different areas. The first thing I did was I went out and bought a number of books on beer. Anything I could find, I went out and bought. But then you really have to get out there and start experiencing things too. I've been lucky enough that for work I've been able to travel to a bunch of different locations. You start to go to those local areas and start tasting beers you can't get in your local market. I sat down and started building this database of all the beers I'd tried, comparing style, and within the style, different versions of it. I'd sit down with five Belgian triples and figure out the difference between each of those and how you'd talk about them. You start to do the pallet training stuff to.
What was your process there?
So some of the weirder things I'd do... my wife would make me a smoothie and throw a bunch of random ingredients in and I'd have to pick them out. One of the things we do on the team now is use jelly beans. We blind taste jelly beans and describe the flavors. Perhaps the weirdest thing I did was go into Whole Foods and smell the testers for the essential oils. I'd say, this is Lavender, this is Bergamot, or whatever else. You start to build up your vocabulary so when you see it on a test, you don't just say it's "floral." You go to that next level. It's kind of fun coming up with some of the ridiculous descriptors.
That actually sounds pretty fun.
Yea, but I basically didn't have a life for a year. Every single crack of time — you're on a plane, you start reading something, you start memorizing the ABV, IBU, SRM. When I'd get home on the weekends, I was spending probably eight to ten hours studying.
Never mind, that doesn't sound fun anymore.
Well, before anyone feels bad for me, it's beer. I love it and it's easy to do. Part of that studying is going to Binny's and racking up a stupid bill. It's a crazy process. It's intense. But it's well worth it.
We know it's top secret, but what can you tell us about the day of testing experience?
It was one of the most nerve racking things I've done. For people who played sports, it feels like you're going into the big game. You just hope you show up. You feel fairly confident coming in based on the amount of work you put in. Then you have these moments of just sheer panic where you're like, "I should have studied more on this." There are a couple different sections. There's an oral portion where you actually have to sit in front of these industry experts. You're sitting there and they grill you on different topics. You just try to answer the best you can and be as coherent as possible. Then there's the written portion. You sit down with a blank book and you just start writing in essay form. Then the tasting part is tricky. They put a beer in front of you and ask you to ID it. There's off flavors and a descriptive portion where you have to write either a technical description or a consumer focused description. So you do all that, then you rinse and repeat on day two. And you try to get some semblance of sleep in between.
And when you're done, you wait....
The period you spend from after that second day until you find out your results (about six weeks) is way worse than the exam itself. Your stomach is in knots and you wake up in a cold sweat. I should have said this, I should written this. You just second guess everything.
You're clearly passionate about and actively involved in the craft world but you also work for MillerCoors. How do you balance the two worlds?
One of the things we've been trying to do here for a long time is build a "beer culture." I wish more people would get a chance to see it. We have these courses called Beer Merchant. There's a 101 course that's ingredients, process, beer styles, intro to beer and food, off flavors, and glassware. We bring internal employees, distributors, and we've had retailers come through it. We follow up with beer 201 which is a full week on beer. It's bring your stretchy pants week. It's beer and cheese, cooking challenges, we do a lot of really cool stuff. So we've had this culture internally for a while now. I think the Cicerone program has allowed us to put our external stamp on what we've been doing internally for over ten years.
When it comes to how we relate to the craft side of the business... we've been embraced with open arms in a lot of cases. There are still some people that have that stigma around the big company stuff. I would say there are people that are very passionate about beer, and love beer, at every company. There are people trying to do good things with it everywhere. What we really do is put this focus on the world of beer when we teach. It's not just our portfolio. I really believe that if you're going to appreciate beer, you need to know about our competitors. You need to know about beers and styles that we don't make. So we bring in beers from other countries. We bring in competitors. It's about opening people's eyes to the fact that while we have some fantastic beers in our portfolio, there's a huge world of beer out there and we make a very small portion of it in the grand scheme of things.
Speaking of other beers, tell us about the 'Know Your Beer' program.
The Know Your Beer program is designed to be this unbranded education program. What we want to do is get the beers in front of you without the focus of the branding. We want to let you focus on what's on the inside — the beer itself, side by side. We're focused on educating how you perceive the appearance, the aroma, and the taste of beer. We're walking people through a process that lets them choose which is the favorite.
Sounds a little like the old Pepsi taste challenge.
Well that's more of a, "Do you like A or B more." We're hoping to educate people on the different aspects of beer that add to the flavor and add to the appearance. Then give them a chance to taste. Instead of a competition, it's really about education. Then they get a chance to see which one they chose at the end of the day.
(Editor's Note: At this point, Jason took us through the Know Your Beer steps in which we sampled two "unknown" beers and picked our preferences on several tasting categories. At the end, he reveals the beers to be Bud Light and Miller Lite.)
Honestly, we're pretty surprised how different the two are when sampled like this.
A lot of times people assume all light beer is the same. You see them at the surface. They're all lighter in color and they have a little bit less flavor than some of the bigger craft stuff you see out there. But there's a lot of nuance within the style too. When you think about these beers being brewed at multiple locations across the country with nothing to hide behind whatsoever, it's one of the toughest styles on the planet to brew. It takes a lot of art and science and a ton of passion goes into it. We've got some very skilled people. The technical ability to go and brew it, to make sure a beer we brew in California tastes like a beer we brew in Wisconsin is pretty cool to see. That's what I kind of fell in love with. It's the beer that got me into the industry.
Do you always do this test between Miller Lite and Bud Light?
This test is set up specifically for Miller Lite versus Bud Light. But you guys coming in here knew it was going to be those two beers. But out at the bars, people are non branded. They're not showing any affiliation whatsoever and will ask if people want to do some beer education today. A lot of people have been surprised that beer A (Miller Lite) was a light beer, based on the flavor of it. That's interesting to see, I think.
How's the test been going for Miller Lite so far?
Well we give people the chance to pick, and if they don't pick Miller Lite, that's ok. We've seen a pretty good percentage of people pick Miller Lite so far, and that's been great to see. We fully believe in the beer inside the bottle.
You mentioned your desire to keep pushing forward. What's next?
That's a good question. I was the manager of beer education leading up to this and I just took a role in beer innovation. I want to try to develop a different skill set. I'm learning a lot about our process for innovating and creating new brands which is interesting right now. Who knows down the line. I'm open to a lot of things. I'm still reading. I still go up to the bar and I'm the worst person for a server because I sit there for five minutes reading every single beer. You never stop learning. Master Cicerone is not a destination. It's a stamp that you've gotten to a certain level. But there's always more to learn. There's always something you can brush up on. If you don't keep brushing up on it, you'll lose it. I'm going to keep pushing myself from a beer knowledge standpoint and try to get myself to a better spot. There's always that next level.
Which bars around town are we likely to see you sitting at?
I'm really trying to hit all the different breweries around. I love going to Dovetail. I think they're doing great things and I love what they're brewing. Hopleaf is always a classic. You know you're going to get that curated beer experience.
Photography by Hilary Higgins.
A huge thanks to Jason Pratt for taking time out of his day to walk us through his life, take us through the Know Your Beer program, and even teach us the wonders of the Pilsner Urquell Mlíko. Follow news concerning Tenth & Blake, the craft division of MillerCoors, for updates on innovations made by Jason and team.