Elayne Duff: A change is brewing

One of the top US mixologists has made a big switch. MIXOLOGY author Andrew Wilkin spoke with Elayne Duff at the Bar Convent Berlin, a mixologist who has decided to move into the world of craft beer. Now part of the brand new and fast expanding “disruptive division” at ABInBev, big challenges await.

I’ve been speaking with Elayne Duff for 20 minutes at the Bar Convent Berlin and we’ve yet to speak about beer. That might seem surprising, given she works as Global Event Manager of Experiential Marketing at global brewing behemoth Anheuser Busch InBev. It also makes a great deal of sense. How come? Duff’s career to-date spans nearly 15 years working in mixology. In beer? Just four months.

A sprinkle of stardust

Indeed, prior to working at the world’s biggest brewer, Duff was undeniably one of the US’s top mixologists. As chronologically befitting, we start with the days when it wasn’t porters and pale ales, but martinis and margaritas that made up her day to day. A couple of big names got her inspired to begin a career in mixology. Most notably it was Steve Olson – of ‘aka wine geek’ fame – as a lecturer at a B. A. R. course who convinced her into making this a bona fide career choice. Another American star – PDT’s Jim Meehan – then mentored her for her first couple of years. “It wasn’t until he told me I could be a mixologist that I believed I could,“ Duff says. After learning the tricks of the trade through a mix of courses, guest shifts and hard work, at the start of the new century she then got the job as Diageo’s Brand Ambassador and Head Mixologist.

She explains how New York, at the turn of the century, had over five thousand bars, but few boasted well trained bartenders or a strong menu. She was shocked by how many bartenders in New York didn’t even know the basics. Utilizing the Diageo bar at their NY headquarters, she trained bartenders and distributors in the ins and outs – “how to balance a sour, knowing how to stir your drink etc.” The teaching aspect of the job came naturally to her. “I learnt everything in exactly the same way, so I could talk with them on their level,” Duff says. Working for Diageo for nearly 15 years, this also included an assignment with Delta Airlines, creating their onboard cocktail program and travelling around the US training the bar and management staff in mixology.

There’s a sprinkle of stardust too, guest-starring on Spike TV’s Bar Rescue and helping P Diddy – ”a very very intelligent man” – with the launch of Ciroc Vodka. This all helped her side consultancy business Duff On The Rocks to take off. I’m not surprised she’s been scouted as a TV personality, or that she’s found teaching her forte – Duff is warm, articulate and passionate. During this time, she’s also raised a 10-year old daughter with husband Philip Duff, a bar and beverage consultant and MIXOLOGY author to boot. Duff on the rocks? More one big Duff Balancing Act.

From mixing to brewing

She’s justifiably proud that the last decade has seen the rise of a craft cocktail scene in the Big Apple – making a quick shout-out to the Nomad Bar, where she also hosted her wedding party. Indeed, it’s been a wild rid – one I’d love to discuss further – but here’s the crux of the matter: beer. Now working full-time at ABInBev as Global Event Manager of Experiential Marketing, her work in mixology is grinding to a halt. ABInBev scouted her out and Duff, eager to take on a new challenge, decided to head into the world of craft beer.

Duff is working for ABInBev in a newly created unit, one that’s expanding fast. “I’m now working in developing the education of craft beer styles”, Elayne explains. “In the education of beer programs or about beer styles for people who own bars and need that on their menu.” For this purpose she’s working with people like Master Cicerone Mirella Amato, who is Global Director of Beer Knowledge and Appreciation at ABInBev. Then, she’s also working on the presence of their craft beers at beer festivals. Here she makes a choice comment – ”the Bar Convent Berlin  is the best trade show I’ve ever been to”, citing the quality of the booths and education as factors. “On the contrary, other beer trade shows have a long way to go”. She gives an example of an upcoming trade show in Mexico, where ABInBev are exhibiting their beers. “We’re adding a new section to our booth, a ‘tasting forum’, where people can receive some one on one beer education and taste four very exclusive beers they otherwise wouldn’t have tried,” she says.

Duff always liked beer, but the Brand Ambassador role at Diageo required a lot of spirit knowledge. Whether it was bourbon, tequila or vodka, she had to know the nitty-gritty. “There wasn’t a lot of room for anything else,” Duff says. “Now I need to know about beer, I will put the same heart and soul into learning about it.” With a weekly Cicerone class underway, she’s well on the right track.

Talking business

I bring up some major talking points. Are craft beers still “craft” when the conglomerate – in this case Anheuser Busch InBev –  has gobbled them up, as it has with Goose Island, Blue Point, 10 Barrel and Elysian? Duff says nothing has changed at the brewery level. ”It’s still the guys with the beards and the shirts doing the hands on work.”

In short, she sees it as a win-win for the breweries and for beer aficionados worldwide. “There’s only so far you can go as a small guy. Only so much money you can make,” Duff says. “It’s like if somebody came to you and said ‘I’ll let you keep doing what you’re doing but I’ll give you money so you can do more of it and take your brand worldwide. That’s the vision.” She likens ABInBev to a “sugar daddy”, taking the beers to new territories they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to. And what about that other talking point – the ABInBev takeover of SABMiller, which had just seen a bid rejected at the time of our chat? Duff keeps her lips firmly sealed.

Moving to the specific beers, she’s a particular fan of the Goose Island Sofie, a barrel aged sour. She’s more coy when I ask about the beers not in the craft range–the Beck’s and the Bud’s on the portfolio. Does she enjoy these varieties? “I have drunk a good Bud in my day,” she smiles. “But at the end of the day, it’s a lager and I’m into more complex beers, the IPA’s and sour beers.” Maybe it’s a hangover from her days in mixology. “I love negroni’s and bitters, which are also very complex,” she continues.

Making a revolution

As is customary at the Bar Convent, time’s tight. We begin to finish up. What’s next? She wants to become Cicerone certified and more. “I want to revolutionize the beer industry and the way in which people interact with beer,” she claims, citing improvements in glassware and teaching people how to drink beer with food as examples. “I also want to bring this to the cocktail world, so they have as good a beer program as a cocktail program. If you do one, you can’t let the other suffer – you have to do the whole thing!” I laugh. “Then, what’s next? We’ll have the perfect bars everywhere.”

Elayne Duff smiles. “I dunno, cocktails in space?”


Foto: E. Duff via Birte Filmer (at BCB 2015)

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