Hello fellow beer geek!
I get an email about every other week asking for advice on how to get started as a beer consultant. It seems like it would make sense to address those questions here, I'm happy to share what I know with you.
The first basic question is what does a beer consultant do? I've helped local bars and restaurants improve their beer lists, I've created, promoted, and executed beer pairing dinners, I've done beer classes for non-industry folks who are interested in learning about beer, I write beer-focused articles for online publications, and I recently successfully Kickstarted a Cicerone exam study guide. For me, the reason I've done the consulting, beer dinners, obtained my Certified Cicerone, passed the BJCP exam, founded the SF Homebrewers Guild, and write about beer for Serious Eats (http://firstname.lastname@example.org) are because:
1) I LOVE and am obsessed with commercial beer and homebrewing;
2) I'm currently working on opening a bar in SF and want to raise my profile; and
3) I'm about to publish a beer book and want to improve sales (check it out: The Beer Scholar Study Guides for the Cicerone Exams).
All the work I do in the beer community raises my profile. I do it because I love beer and the beer community. The benefits and the fact that people care all just feels like a big bonus to me.
My work in the beer community has helped me make great connections, networking is as key in the beer industry as in any other. When my move into the beer industry (from being a lawyer) is complete when I open my bar in mid to late 2014, my hope is that there will be lots of interest from folks like you who know that I'm going to serve the best beer on the planet with all the respect beer deserves.
Consulting work is fun and it makes me a little but of money on the side (more about that later), plus I've learned a bunch about working in the beer industry and made lots of beer world connections in the process. I've also honed my beer service skills and seen how other business owners work with beer. I've learned some service methods I plan to replicate at my place and I've definitely seen LOTS of stuff I would never do at my bar.
So how do you get into this work? My initial advice is to go get your Certified Cicerone certification out the way ASAP. I can help you with that if you need some guidance, check out my Cicerone exam study guides here. There are currently only about 1,000 Certified Cicerones out there. This isn't a sales pitch for my study guide, being a Certified Cicerone really does give you know-how and the authority to tell someone without reservation: "I'm an expert." When you can do that, you can start doing trainings at bars, running classes, or pitching beer stories to publications. There can be good money in some of that. It's especially rewarding to do classes about beer for regular folks who are interested in learning and having fun, whereas working as a consultant for a business can often involve difficulty and pushback from business owners who are afraid to cede any control or accept the fact that someone else knows more about this stuff than they do (even though they've hired you based on that assumption...it's weird). Many business owners are great and will make your job fun and easy, others won't, just something to be aware of! Another great option is to reach out to local or online publications and start pitching beer focused articles to them. There's no better way to network than to be able to write to people in the beer industry and say, "I'm doing an article on X, can we talk and/or can I get a media pass for this event." And trust me, those media passes are one of the main perks of beer writing, it generally doesn't pay much.
The other huge questions is: can you make a living doing this? From my experience, this just isn't something a person can make a full living doing, I'm sorry to have to tell you that. I've made $500+ a pop doing big multi-course beer dinners where I've sold 50 tickets for $80, but you can only do those so often (and make sure you have a solid payment deal worked out in advance or that you're supplying the space for the dinner yourself, otherwise you'll just get handed an amount of money afterward that will likely be lower than you expected, sad but true). I've done very basic consulting for restaurants here and there for a couple hundred bucks. When I started out I did my first consulting gig for free and that experience hammered home something we all already knew - no one values anything they get for free (or cheap). While you may have to try it once for free just to get that initial experience, always charge something meaningful if you want to be appreciated and taken seriously.
Nowadays, when bars or restaurants write to ask me what my fee is for consulting work, I quote them at least $1,000. That fee is for the following: 1) helping them work up a theme for their beer program; 2) creating their tap and bottle list with suggested seasonal changes; 3) coming in for a long day (4+ hours) of staff training where we'll learn about proper pouring, glassware and properly cleaning it, and we sample and discuss the new beer so they'll be able to speak intelligently about it to their customers (who may be pretty darn beer smart themselves); and finally, 4) if I'm confident that the location is actually serious about beer and I'm proud to say I helped get them there, I'm happy to promote the location to my huge network of beer geek friends and associates in the Bay Area. Working with a well known Certified Cicerone to make your beer program among the better ones in your area and then getting their endorsement can bring you lots of business.
For the most part, I find that clients massively underestimate how many hours of work and research are involved in doing all that consulting work and they very much undervalue the positive changes that can accrue from getting serious about beer. It makes me laugh when I see business owners who are willing to pay big six figure numbers for their build out and ABC license but then balk at bringing in an expert for a grand to help them with something as important as their beer program...and generally we're talking about supposedly beer focused businesses here! By quoting at least $1,000 I immediately lose interest from people who just don't get it and that's fine with me because I don't want to waste my time or their time! I know what I offer is worth more than that even, so if they balk at that rate, it's not a good fit.
My motivation for doing this work is not to make lots of money, in my experience the only way to make real money in the beer industry is by selling beer! I may not have answered all your questions, but those are some immediate thoughts. Feel free to add thoughts or ask questions in the comments so I can answer them for everyone to see. Good luck with whatever path you chose as you forge ahead on your beery project!