The Wine and Spirits Education Trust has expanded its efforts for basic and advanced beverage alcohol training in the US in the past few years. Plans are to continue the growth, says WSET chief executive Ian Harris. As the industry evolves, up-to-date education on beverage alcohol is increasingly in demand.
Harris sat down with us to answer 6 important questions about beverage alcohol education and training.
VIBE: The Wine & Spirit Education Trust has seen impressive growth over the past few years training the American trade in beverage alcohol. Why do you think the industry is interested in becoming more broadly educated today?
Ian Harris: There is a recognition that the consumer has a much wider choice of beverage than ever before, so all sectors of the industry (producers, wholesalers, distributors, and customer-facing staff in retail and hospitality) are recognizing the need to have staff those who have the product knowledge to be able to take advantage of the opportunity for the increased margins created by this consumer interest. There is also a recognition in all sectors that education in product knowledge is a wise investment which delivers a measurable ROI.
VIBE: How does the trade best take advantage of your various certifications?
Harris: Because we have courses and qualifications at all levels, starting with one-day programs in wine, in spirits and in sake, there is a broad spectrum of courses available for everyone who wants to enhance their knowledge. We also have a growing network of providers of WSET Programs all across the USA, so finding a suitable course has never been easier.
VIBE: Are you seeing any trends in terms of types of participants in your educational programs, or in how far they advance?
Harris: We have an increasing number of non-trade students who not only want to gain more information for personal use from WSET as a highly respected educational body, but also who value the same accreditation that the beverage industry seeks. There is also a marked increase in the number of bartenders attending our programs following the rise of the craft movement, and as consumer interest and knowledge of spirits grows. The progression of the students from their first courses up to more advanced programs is continuing at the same rate as the past two years, but there is always a constant pressure of having to balance the commitment needed for a formal training program against the personal and professional demands on students time.
VIBE: As you expand in the US, what are your goals for WSET and their trainees?
Harris: There is a clear need for WSET to recruit more educators, particularly in the field of spirits. In the last 12 months, 10,000 people have taken a WSET course in the US, making it the third largest market for WSET. But 95% of those did so to enhance their knowledge of wine, so we have a clear opportunity for our suite of spirits qualifications. But our overall goal is to make WSET courses more accessible in the US, both by expanding our network of providers, but also with the development of our on-line learning options.
VIBE: As an educational concern, how do you keep up with the broad and rapid changes going on in the beverage alcohol business?
Harris: This is a key aspect of WSET, and it is crucial that we keep the content of all our courses at all levels up to date in an industry which is changing more quickly than at any time in my 40 years in it! These “broad and rapid changes” can be attributed to many factors, including the boom in craft spirits, the growth of global export markets for wines from a growing number of wine-producing countries, as well as the institutional changes brought about by regulation. To ensure that WSET Programs are kept up to date, we have a dedicated team of 8 people in our Global Education department who manage the regular cycle of updates to all our courses (including the translations of materials) and they work with industry experts to ensure that all our Programs are up to date, relevant and fit-for-purpose.
VIBE: What would you say are the major differences you see in US students as opposed to those in the UK?
Harris: I have been coming to the US on a regular basis since I joined WSET 15 years ago. At that time, we could count the number of US students as a few hundred, with courses only available on the East and West coasts. Now, WSET courses are available at over 50 locations across the country, and in the last 12 months we had over 10,000 students take a WSET program, and this figure is growing year on year by around 40%.
The major differences between US and UK students is that I see a real thirst for knowledge in the US, particularly among younger people starting out in this great industry, which is less apparent in UK. This may be because the UK is a more mature market, or perhaps because the US students see education in general, and WSET qualifications in particular, as a major stepping stone to a better job, a stable career, and therefore better income (as well as increased job satisfaction). Interestingly, I see that same enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge when I visit China, which is now WSET’s number one market!