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Monday, December 14, 2009

Interview with Chief Beer Officer Scott Kerkmans

**The following interview appeared in the Summer '09 issue of TAPS: Canada's Beer Magazine.**

Imagine waking up every morning knowing that your whole day would be devoted to marketing the beauty of the beer industry; getting dressed and heading off to the next destination to educate enthusiastic people on all the qualities of beer; traveling the world to develop and set up beer menus and hosting beer dinners in restaurants both large and small. Doesn't that sound like your dream job? Well, 29 year old Scott Kerkmans is living that dream, and he is loving every minute of it.

Back in 2006, the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel chain (Starwood Hotels and Resorts) began a worldwide search to name a Chief Beer Officer to lead a new project they were embarking on - the Best Brews Program. Kerkmans had to beat out over 7, 800 other applicants from 31 countries to be crowned the first ever, Four Points by Sheraton Chief Beer Officer, and he's been on cloud nine ever since.

He was in Toronto recently, attending a number of conferences, and we managed to meet up to discuss his highly coveted job over a couple of pints of course.

Congratulations on your 2nd anniversary as Four Points by Sheraton's Chief Beer Officer (CBO). What have the last couple of years been like?
Incredibly fun and incredibly successful. The Best Brews Program receives great customer feedback, which makes us really happy to hear. It's always rewarding to hear customers compliment the program, and to hear that we are helping change the taste buds of people throughout the world.

What does a CBO do?
I manage our Best Brews Program at all our participating locations. I mostly train our staff on how to handle beer, serve beer, and how to respect beer. I also spend quite a bit of time on test marketing our program with various products, whether it is a food and beer pairing or just gauging what's hot in the industry. I tend to do my fair share of beer dinners, which are always fun. And I do a lot of promotion for Four Points as well.

You've mentioned the Best Brews Program? Can you describe it?
The first Best Brews Program started out of the Four Points by Sheraton Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) location. The general manager was passionate about beer, so passionate that he had over 100 varieties in stock to choose from. Four Points noticed how successful this model was and decided to start rolling it out to other locations. By 2006, it was gaining so much exposure and was building so fast, that Four Points had to hire someone to overlook the entire operation. We have since taken it international.

What the program is though, to get back to your question, is our idea of having at least 4 draught options with half of them being local or regional selections and 12 bottle choices with half of those being local or regional. In other words, not all of the options are local, just half. The other half of the beer selections are quality national or international craft beers.

How many Four Points are currently participating in the Best Brews Program?
There are 23 countries participating in the Best Brews Program with 136 locations worldwide. There are 90 locations in North America alone, and Canada is well represented with 19, which we are working at expanding.

What does your day-to-day schedule look like?
I don't really have a typical day, or week for that matter. I get to travel around to our different properties to speak with the staff about serving techniques, provide educational material to managers, tour various breweries to hopefully create a healthy working relationship, and promote our Best Brews Program at trade shows, festivals and select beer events. I am also a certified beer judge and I like to judge the odd competition. Everyday is a great day full of new experiences.

Tell us how you did it? How did you beat out over 7,800 other applicants to obtain the position?
Well, I think I had four factors working for me. One, I was a professional brewer for a number of years prior. Two, I sold beer through a distributor, which provided me with a good working knowledge of how beer gets sold in America. Three, I was the first employee hired by DRAFT Magazine to write about beer; and four, I was/am so passionate about the industry. I think I used all four experiences during the hiring process. To get the job I decided to submit a short video explaining why I wanted the job and why I would be great at representing the Four Points initiative. That video caught the attention of the Four Point's executives and the rest as they say, is history. It might have also helped that I took them a bottle of my homebrewed beer and a bottle of Mead. (Laughter)

Didn't know Four Points by Sheraton was a place to go for a craft beer. What changes have you brought to the hotel since you've started?
Introducing customers to local and regional craft beer for one. It is so rewarding when you hear the stories of travelers who get to try a new beer for the first time in one of our hotels. The Best Brews Program isn't really concerned with sales (even though they have been great!); we are more concerned with customer satisfaction. There is a curiousity surrounding beer now, just as the wine industry experienced years ago, and putting our program in place to ensure people can get to satisfy that curiousity is awesome.

When working with staff members, do you see more people already exhibiting some degree of beer knowledge?
Primarily you'll see a lot of novices that get easily excited about the beer industry, but who don't possess any real knowledge of styles, or knowledge of brands outside the national brewers. It can be a real eye opener for them when I share information about the brewing industry, especially when discussing the craft market. Most new servers, or managers for that matter, are unaware of what is out there, but they embrace it once they have some education behind them. That is a very rewarding part of my role.

I can imagine that you've traveled a lot, visiting some great brewing nations. Which country would you say is on the rise in terms of beer selection and quality?
To tell you the honest truth, Canada has impressed me lately. As an American we can't get that many Canadian beers in our hands unless we travel to a Canadian city. But when you do get here (to Canada) there are a lot of unique beers starting to be produced. Canadian breweries, from what I've experienced, tend to stick to style guidelines more than we do in the US, and they do a damn fine job of it. However, I'm tasting more and more 'new' stuff here, and I'm liking it. I've also noticed how cheap the great imports are in the liquor stores. It must be nice walking into a LCBO and getting a bottle of Orval for under $4. I really believe that the Canadian beer scene is on the rise, in terms of craft produced beer.

Where are you from?
I was born and raised in New Mexico and that is where I started home brewing. I have moved around the US quite a bit, to Salt Lake at one point. Man, do they have some weird drinking laws. I currently call Denver home now.

How did you get into the beer industry?
Like so many others - home brewing. When I was about 20 years old, my brother bought himself a home brewing kit. After trying to make a couple of high alcohol brews that turned out terrible he gave up. On my 21st birthday he gave me the kit and I started brewing right away. I dedicated more attention to the art then my brother, and before I knew it I was making a living brewing beer for a brewpub in Albuquerque. I worked my way up to head brewer before heading off to brew in Alaska. Then it was off to Phoenix to sell beer, and finally to DRAFT to work as their Beer Director.

Beer Director for DRAFT Magazine? Interesting. How smooth was the transition from writing about beer to educating people about beer all over the world?
Good question. Well, I think I combined all of my past beer experience into one ball and utilized each skill when it was required. I still do some writing for drink magazines, and I have my own blog; but I think my background has provided me with enough knowledge to ensure confidence in my work with the public.

What has been the highlight of your 2 years in the position?
I don't think I can narrow it down to one. There have been so many. Going to Oktoberfest in 2007 was amazing as was touring our Asia Pacific locations. I was able to judge in the first ever Asia Beer Awards - that was definitely a highlight that I'll always cherish. But I think that the biggest highlight would probably be just getting the job in the first place.

You've touched on the Canadian brewing scene already? Any favourites?
I don't have any one favourite. As I have mentioned, I am impressed with how Canadian breweries brew true to style beers. While the majority may not be big or extremely bold, they are very drinkable and quaffable. I think the beer culture in Canada is extremely vibrant and definitely heading to where the US market is, yet steeped in tradition with pride for the national breweries.

What can Canadians expect when they walk into a Four Points by Sheraton establishment?
They will be able to expect to find beers that they may be familiar with if they're from the area, and could expect to see some that they're not. Canada is great for our program. If someone living in Ontario travels to British Columbia and stays in one of our hotels, they will be able to drink a beer brewed locally (or regionally) that they may not have been able to otherwise. Our program offers travelers who don't have the time to venture out to the breweries, or other pubs, the chance to experiment with quality craft beers.

What a job!
People ask me every single day if they can have my job, or ask if I need an assistant. There is a natural curiousity surrounding beer and it's a topic people can discuss for hours, and for a multi-national hotel chain to realize this, and act upon it, is unbelievable, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it.

So, do you need an assistant?
Haha. Not yet!

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