It is one of my long-term personal goals to become a Master Cicerone. You get to take the journey with me. I’m not planning on sharing answers to exams or anything like that, but it occurs to me that while Ray Daniels and his Cicerone program may be known around the Brewers Association, it’s a fairly new program and may be relatively unknown to beer geeks in general. I shall attempt to let others into the process through my eyes. It’s going to be a while, so stick around. This multi-part series will likely span the next few years. Don’t worry. It’ll come around again on the gee-tar. Just keep an eye out.
Mmm... beer.
What is a Cicerone?

Short answer: Essentially, a sommelier for beer. You need to take a very detailed and comprehensive exam to become a certified Master Sommelier. The process to become a Master Cicerone is very similar. You need to intimately know beer, how each style should taste, how they should be served, stored, presented, and paired, etc. and then you need to take tests. AND pass them. There are three levels: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone.

There’s an excellent little Q&A here that also covers the origin of the word “cicerone.”

Why bother?

For me, it’s partly a matter of personal accomplishment, but primarily professional interest. There’s a chart available with recommendations on who should attain what level, and I do think that some level of Cicerone certification should be attained by most (if not all) persons working in the brewing industry. It’s an excellent way to show pride in the product. In addition, the more support the program gets the more likely it is to be treated with respect, thus allowing Certified and Master Cicerones to reap the respect they deserve for their level of knowledge on beer. Since my long term goal involves having my own brewery, knowing as much about beer as possible and being able to show certification for that knowledge seems like a great goal. Frankly, it also sounds like a lot of fun.

What kind of stuff do you have to learn?

Hopefully, nothing!

Hah!

I’ll get a little more in depth into what kind of stuff I’m actually covering in the next piece about the first exam, but for the most part it looks like an overview of BJCP styles and information on serving, storage, and presentation. To be quite honest, I’m fairly certain I could pass the first level of testing without reviewing anything, but I will anyway. Not only would I prefer to pass with flying colors, but also so that I can share with you, the intrepid reader, what kind of stuff I was looking at.

The first part of this (study and exam) is going to happen for me this weekend, so keep an eye out for more next week.

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Categories: appreciation, cicerone, industry
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 17 Jul 2009 @ 01 06 PM

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 15 Jul 2009 @ 4:41 PM 

Last night, I went to multi-brewery beer dinner. It’s the first time I’d gone to a beer dinner that wasn’t hosted at a brewery and also the first since I started writing here. Overall, I had a blast, but it got me to thinking: What exactly makes a successful beer dinner?
Beer Dinner Menu, Spice Street, July 14, 2009
Certainly, there are two easy starting points: Good food and good beer. Without those, you are doomed to fail, but if that’s the only thing you’ve got, I think you’re only coming out at mediocre. So I tried to come up with a little list of what I think makes (or would make) a beer dinner exceptional.

Have brewery reps present. Last night, we had brewmasters from two of the four breweries represented on site (Triangle and Lone Rider, and a rep from a 3rd (Natty Greene’s). They came around to each table as their beer was being served and talked a little bit about the style, how they thought it would pair with the course, a little about what was going on with them for business and everything. It was a wonderful touch, and the 4th brewery was noticeably absent when their beer was poured. If brewery reps aren’t available, at the very least, have a beer connoisseur or cicerone available to go around to each table to talk to people about what they’re drinking and eating.

Be thoughtful with your pairings. I really enjoyed the menu last night, but we had what I would consider beer pairings for wine people. I’m not trying to be disparaging, here, but it was organized in a very familiar way. Light beers went with seafood. Dark beers went with red meat and chocolate. It’s traditional, and really mimics the way most people pair wines with food. To be fair, if you’ve got a wine-friendly crowd that’s fairly unfamiliar with beer/food pairings, this is probably a great way to go. Myself, I like it when you actually work on the flavors available in the food and the beer together for an end result.

For instance, one of the pairings last night was Lone Rider’s Shotgun Betty Hefeweissen with a hop-marinated scallop and frisee salad. This is a traditional pairing. I’m not sure it really worked. Without doubt: the beer was excellent and the scallop was excellent, but the beer scrubbed the rather delicate flavor of the scallop off of your palate entirely. They were both great, but they weren’t great together. It might have been really interesting to see Lone Rider’s Deadeye Jack Porter paired in this instance; using the dark roasted flavors (and probably lower carbonation) to play against the light flavors and somewhat spicy flavors in the scallop to create a whole new sensation across the palate might have been really fantastic. Mind you – I haven’t tried it. It might suck. But I think getting that kind of non-traditional pairing right is a step toward creating a fantastic beer dinner.

At the same time, you can’t really beat chocolate stout and chocolate cake together, traditional or not. Damn that’s tasty.

Give people information. I think it’s important to remember that craft beer still has a really small market share and that to population at large, craft beer – much less beer/food pairing – is something entirely new. Giving people information – especially printed information – that they can refer to during the dinner and even take with them afterward, is tantamount in getting them to enjoy themselves and come back for more later. Tell them what they’re drinking, what to expect out of what they’re drinking, what to expect from the pairing, and where to find the beer later. (Presumably, they know where to find the food.) Education is key. There are three related reasons that so many smart people are into wine: 1) There is a lot to learn. 2) There are readily available resources to learn about wine. 3) Smart people like learning. Craft beer fits into the same mold. Exploit it.

What about you? Outside of “good beer” and “good food” what makes a good beer dinner into a great beer dinner for you?

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 08 Jul 2009 @ 2:27 PM 

Local issue today, friends. I think this can probably apply to most places if it has to, but my focus today is the great state of North Carolina.

Dear North Carolina Legislators and Gov. Bev Perdue,

Please stop. There’s been a lot of talk about how to fix the state budget. In fact, we’re a week overdue on a budget, anyway, so this seems like a pressing issue. People keep talking about what to tax to fix this budget shortfall. I’d prefer that the answer be “not beer.” I think I’d also like to say, “Don’t furlough me again.” but really? This is about beer.

I know. Sin Taxes are popular and easy: Tax the things that Portion A of the population fervently believes is bad for Portion B of the population. In doing so, not only will you make money on people who are not Portion A, but it will act as a deterrent for Portion B to buy those evil products. Portion A loves it, and they’re very vocal and often have money, which kind of makes me wonder why we aren’t taxing them.

Just a couple of things:

1) If you’re only taxing a portion of the population, it’s not a very effective tax in terms of income.
2) If you’re using tax as a deterrent on consumption, you’re not planning on making any money in the long run, as the less people buy the evil products, the less money you will make.

Sin Tax seems silly. I’d much rather see a Fat Tax. We know that our health care system is in financial crisis. We know that there’s an obesity epidemic. We know that obesity is a predictor in heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, and early mortality across the board. We know what makes people fat (sugar and (amazingly) fat), so tax that if you want a tax deterrent. I’ve mentioned before that I think that a tax on products containing High Fructose Corn Syrup would be much smarter than a tax on beer, and I still do. But I’m not here to argue that.

No, I’m going to assume, that despite the wonderful efforts of the good people behind Stop the NC Beer Tax (dot com) that you’re going to throw your better judgment to the wind and raise taxes on beer and wine. So instead, I’m going to tell you how to do it.

Consider for a moment that a city in your fair state was recently voted co-Beer City, USA in a poll run by President of the Brewers Association. Consider that, as of this summer, there are ~40 craft breweries either in operation or in the middle of starting up. These are all small businesses contributing to your local economy. They’re creating jobs in communities across the state. Consider that a rise in beer tax will hurt these small businesses – especially the startups – the most.

But hey.. you’re going to tax beer. Portion A must be satisfied. Please consider the following two-part plan:

1) Increase tax per barrel of beer manufactured inside the state of North Carolina by any brewery manufacturing over 15,000 barrels of beer annually (ie – Regional Breweries and larger). Leave the small business out of it.

2) Increase tax per case of any beer imported to the state of North Carolina by any brewery manufacturing over 15,000 barrels of beer annually. Leave your neighbors’ small business out of it, too.

Fact is this: Something like 99% of the beer consumed inside the state of North Carolina is manufactured by a regional brewery or larger – a significant portion of that beer is imported IN to the state of North Carolina. Those breweries are making money in states Other Than Yours – especially the macrobreweries – but most of the small breweries in the state aren’t. They’re distributing locally, often by-hand, in their own communities. They’re getting the tax pinch on every purchase of their product, not just the ones that happen in-state. So how are these small breweries going to deal with the fact that they have a significantly higher cost of operation and, if the Sin Tax works, poorer sales? Will they lay off workers? Will they close doors altogether? In Beer City, USA?

The way to turn the corner on this economic downturn begins and ends with the small business. Don’t hurt them more just because Sin Tax is easy. Help them, and reap the benefits. Maybe take yourself out for a good local beer to celebrate a good deed done for the day, and then ask yourself:

Why are we taxing beer in the first place? Sin Tax is cheap and misguided. There are a million better ways to save money and generate revenue that don’t actively hurt small businesses in our state while at the same time, allowing us all to continue to treat ourselves to a an occasional affordable luxury.

Cheers,
Erik L. Myers,
Self-Righteous Beer Evangelist

If you’re inside North Carolina, please take the time to go Stop the Beer Tax.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 08 Jul 2009 @ 02 31 PM

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When you go to the store and buy a great beer, how much does packaging play a role in what you buy?

Like every intelligent person, I tell myself: Not a lot. I can look past any preconceived notions I might have about packaging and buy it for the beer inside.

Okay. So then, without knowing brands, which of these would you rather spend a decent amount on – say $15:

Labels Intentionall Obscured

I obscured the labels there to try to get you to not make a decision based on brand, but it’s hard to hide packaging details. I don’t know about you, but for the most part, I choose the bottle.

I know that cans are better for beer, I know that cans are better for the environment. I am attracted to bottles. They’re opulent. When I look at my little “beer cellar” where I’m keeping and aging beers, the bottles look cool. I’ve got a sixer of Dale’s Pale Ale around in the same spot and while I know the beer is great, it just doesn’t look as classy. They look like cans.

So let’s talk about this.

Bottles are the traditional packaging option, and we all know about them by this point in history, so let’s not really get into a long list of the pros and cons. Consider, though, that different types of bottles make different impressions. Big corked bombers with wire cages look rich, and who hasn’t ever looked at a pack of Coronitas and thought to themselves: “Man, the beer isn’t that great but those bottles are REALLY cute!” Flying Dog recently released a line of their big beers in 8 oz. bottles which, in my mind, might be the perfect size for a packaged barleywine. Bottles; let’s call them the standard to beat.
Beer Can
Yes, cans are better for beer – they’re like little kegs. People like to talk about how beer out of a can tastes tinny, but you never hear them say that about kegs, and yet kegs are just large cans. They keep light out, they can dramatically reduce oxygenation, they’re easier to recycle, they shatter a whole lot less, and they’re allowed in more public venues than bottles. However, they have this huge social stigma associated with them, thanks to BMC.

When cans were first introduced to the market they were popular and revolutionary! They’re easier to make, easier to store, they don’t break! So what happened? Well, the beer started getting crappy, didn’t it? It’s not the can’s fault, but what do most consumers think of when they think of canned beer? A 30-pack of Bud Light, not a Bourbon-barrel-aged Double IPA. Getting people past that hump is going to be a big one. Articles like this one in the Washington Post will probably help. It also helps that New Belgium – a company that is known for setting environmental standards – now has Fat Tire in cans, but it’s going to take more before it becomes a standard for craft beer, especially really specialty ones.

Incidentally, the “tinny” argument is imaginary. You know when the lining that stops beer from reacting with metal cans was invented? 1933. Seriously. There is no tinny taste. It’s all in your mind.

The pouches that I included in the picture up there appear to be new on the market. They starting popping up on blogs around the internet in the beginning of June, but I haven’t really seen much chatter about them. (You’ll see that even that link is titled: “Beer in a pouch doesn’t add metallic tastes, easy to fill.” – See? The metallic taste thing is ever-present.) There appear to be two companies pushing them: The Beverage Pouch Group and a place called InCan. The latter is based in Alaska and is focused pretty intently on backpackers, which is about the only place that I can personally see this product going. As far as I’m concerned, the major drawback to these is that if you’re not camping, these look like a big ol’ pain in the ass to keep in your fridge. Not stackable and they need their 6-pack case. Not efficient. Cool looking? Without a doubt. But will it beat out my bottle scenario up top? I don’t think so. They look like novelty items.

The last option, and one that isn’t discussed much, is plastic. I ran into a bunch at the Craft Brewers Conference this year. The plastic that is used to make soda bottles – PET- (Polyethylene terephthalate) is available in normal brown 12 oz. beer bottle form. From far away – I’m not sure you’d know the difference – at close range, there’s definitely something different about it. Once you pick it up, you know. These have about the same pros and cons as cans – except that they, of course, allow light in. The carbon footprint of manufacturing a PET bottle is significantly smaller than a glass bottle and very similar to manufacturing a can. But does it feel cheap and look cheap? Yes. Can I get by that as a consumer? Sure. But the beer has to be great.

For me, it’s a personal dilemma. As a consumer, I am attracted to glass packaging. As a future brewmaster, I’m attracted to cans. As a future business owner, I’ll probably tend toward cans, because I know it’s better for the bottom line of my business, but I spend a lot of time wishing that I could make big fancy corked ones.

What about you? Are you a brewer? Are you a beer geek? What’s your preference?

Postscript: Cans are a really interesting piece of the beer industry’s history, as well as the history of America. I found An Illustrated History of the American Beer Can while researching this post. It’s really pretty fantastic. Check it out.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 06 Jul 2009 @ 11 43 AM

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 03 Jul 2009 @ 10:34 AM 

Out trip ended in Boston. I used to live in Boston. In fact, Boston is where I learned to love beer, so a return to Boston is always welcome. It’s a good thing we were there for several days, or I wouldn’t have been able to hit all the places, new and old, that I love.
Rock Bottom: Fresh Beers
Our first stop was the Sunset Grill and Tap (beermapping). The Sunset is my favorite bar in the entire world. Really. For truly. For two years in Boston I lived a block away from this place. When I was unhappy with my roommate situation and didn’t want to be in the house, I spent every night at the Sunset for something like 6 months. My bachelor party was upstairs at their sister bar Big City. I cannot ever express my undying love for this bar. So! I’m not really qualified to give any sort of subjective review of this place. It’s like another home to me. So, I’ll just have to talk about the beer we got while we were there.

On a Tweet tip (whether he knew it or not) from Jason Alstrom, I started off with the Great Divide 15th Anniversary Double IPA. My wife, against her better judgment, I think, had a watermelon beer (can’t remember which one: not BBW, not 21st Amendment – no idea) that smelled exactly like watermelon bubblebum from 8 yards away. I can’t really speak to it. It was stunning. I hope she’ll say more about it in comments. The Great Divide was fantastic. Clearly oak aged in a bourbon barrel, it was smooth and big and hoppy and incredibly well-balanced: my favorite thing in an IPA.

My second beer actually ended up being my wife’s second beer. I tried Dogfish Head’s new release: Sah’tea. Here’s what I’ll say: Like every single one of their offerings, I’m glad I tried it. It was this amazing bouquet of chai spices with a mead-like sweetness, and a combination of big fruity and bready flavors. It is pretty much unlike any other beer I have ever tried. Will I have another one? Unlikely. I’m really not a fan of sweet beers. My wife, on the other hand, has talked about going to buy some bottles to make her friends taste.

I finally finished off with something that pretty much stopped me dead in my tracks for a while. I wish I could tell you what it was (and time my jog my memory) what I can tell you is that it was listed at over 150 IBUs at which point my palate said: Enough is enough! It was ALL astringent hops. It is my only memory of the beer. In fact, the only thing that got me going again was a brief trip over to Deep Ellum.

Deep Ellum (beermapping) didn’t exist when I lived in Boston. Their location was once the diviest bar in the area. I can’t tell you how surprised and happy I was to walk into this place and see it well-designed, homey, and comfortable. On a Thursday night it was packed and we had to stand in back of the people sitting at the bar to get drinks. My only complaint was that if you weren’t sitting on something, there wasn’t really a place to hang out without being in some sort of traffic. It’s a small price to pay for ability to order a Cantillon Iris 2005. I can’t review it. It was lovely and amazing. The very fact that I could order it made me happy beyond belief. I really wish my Belgian bars here in NC could see the kind of rotating stock selection and actual reasonable prices clearly available at Deep Ellum.

The next day brought us to a stop at the Cambridge Brewing Company (beermapping), which has also seen a serious upgrade since I lived in Boston. Will Myers has done absolutely magical things here and while the tap list wasn’t 19-long like it was during the Craft Beer Conference, it was still impressive, with a stunning array of Brett fermented and experimental brews. We met friends for dinner. The service was a little slow, but we took it for being a busy Friday night. My wife enjoyed the Arquebus which was nothing short of phenomenal. Here’s the description from their website:

Our 2009 release is at once light and drinkable yet it boasts significant body, and it is almost syrupy smooth in texture without being cloying. Arquebus’ deep golden mien contains beautiful, complex notes of peach and apricot fruit, wildflower honey, toast and coconut oakiness, and soft, tannin-hinted, white grape notes. Malolactic fermentation in the barrel adds a hint of acidity to balance the sweetness of this beer’s finish.

Seriously wonderful, and shockingly clean for a still beer. I had a Reckoning, which didn’t turn out to be nearly as sour as I had expected it, though still dry and refreshing. The aroma far overpowered the flavor, which I felt was brief. I followed this up with an Imperial Skibsøl paired with my chipotle/steak dinner. Phe-freakin’-nomenal. I’ve had two smoked beers at CBC this year and both of them have been stunningly well-balanced. I cannot recommend this beer enough, especially paired with food – the smoke in my chipotle intermingled with the smoke in the beer was nothing short of magical.

Day 3 in Boston brought us to Rock Bottom: Boston (across the street from where we saw Blue Man Group) and Boston Beer Works, Canal Street (which was right down the street from our hotel).

Confession: I’ve never been very impressed with the Rock Bottom location in downtown Boston, and part of that may be a little colored by the fact that I had downright poor experiences with it prior to it ever becoming a Rock Bottom, back when it was the disaster that was Brew Moon’s downtown location. I will admit to being pleasantly surprised. We just grabbed a sampler and left, but the atmosphere was much better than I remember, the service was quick and friendly, and the beers were much better than I remember. Certainly, I had to make it through a sample portion of Lumpy Dog Light which is mediocre at best, but their IPA was downright pleasant, and the wife and I had a great time hanging out before heading over to Boston Beer Works for dinner.

Now, I have always had a good relationship with Boston Beer Works, based solely on their location outside of Fenway. When the Canal Street location opened, I spent some time heading up there because of the pool tables they have (had? I didn’t check.) upstairs. We stopped in for dinner on the way to a friend’s house for a party. I’m always amused when waitstaff feels the need to tell me what beers on their menu are like in terms of other beers: “This is a light lager, which is going to be kind of like a Budweiser, and this is our stout. It’s sort of like a Guinness.” Girl. Don’t sell the beer short. We ended up with what she referred to as, “The two most unique beers on the menu.” My wife ordered a Cherry Bomb, which was (I believe) a farmhouse-style ale – maybe a saison – fermented with tart cherries. It was lovely. Crisp and not at all cloying. I had the Yawkey Way Wheat which the waitress described as a “salt beer.”

“They put salt in it?”

“Ohhh yeah.”

“How much salt?” I asked her.

“A lot.”

In the past, Yawkey Way Wheat has been a Berliner Weisse and it took until I got home and thought about it to realize that the brewer had actually just changed it up a little and made a Gose. It’s a shame the waitress didn’t sell it to me like that. Regardless, it was wonderful. The salt was present, but not overpowering, and the beer was crisp, and tart, and really wonderful. I would drink it again in a heartbeat. If you’re in the Boston area, go find this before it’s gone. It’s not often you’re going to find a Gose on tap in the States.

As ridiculous as it sounds, I feel like we didn’t have enough to time to hit nearly everything that I wanted to in Boston, and I will admit this is far more than I got out to during the CBC. I don’t think that, unless you’re living there, there’s really a good way to experience the beer culture that is in and around Boston. Hands down, fantastic beer city.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 03 Jul 2009 @ 10 34 AM

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