Over a Decade in, Have Cicerones Actually Made Beer Pairings Relevant?
Cat Wolinski
“No one brings beer to a dinner party,” a colleague recently said to me. I was shocked. (I do!, I thought.)

But he was right. Most people don’t. They bring wine.

A recent survey from the Beer Institute revealed that only 16 percent of adults aged 21 to 24 who drank alcohol in the last month consider beer “special,” and just two percent see it as “sophisticated.” Wine, on the other hand, was deemed special and sophisticated by nearly 40 percent of respondents.

The messaging is clear: Wine is classy, beer is common. Wine is fancy, beer is casual. Wine deserves glassware and white tablecloths; beer pairs with barbecues and plastic cups.

This is slowly starting to change.

Brewers, beer educators, and geeks like me are making a concerted effort to bring beer to the table. First came the Cicerone Certification Program, a process intended to mirror the wine industry’s sommelier certification. The Cicerone program is a multi-level course that educates students in beer styles, service, and pairing.

The Cicerone program has certainly been valuable. But the future of beer and food pairing is not Cicerones. It’s not competing with wine, either. It’s being wine.

The most vocal advocate for beer and food pairing might be Julia Herz. As the Brewers Association’s craft beer program director, and herself a Certified Cicerone, Hertz piloted the CraftBeer.com Beer & Food Course with a Culinary Institute of America graduate and a Certified Cicerone. She also helped organize Savor*, an annual beer and food festival that takes place in Washington, D.C. in June.

This year marked the 11th annual Savor, at which some 90 breweries served beers alongside elevated hors d’oeuvres. (Think barrel-aged sours and swordfish crudités instead of IPAs and pretzel necklaces.)

Richard Norgrove Jr., owner and brewmaster of Bear Republic in California, says his family business focused intently on beer and food pairing from the get-go.

“That model of opening up in a warehouse and pulling a taco truck outside wouldn’t have worked 23 years ago,” Norgrove says. Bear Republic, which currently operates a brewery in Cloverdale and two brewpub locations in Healdsburg and Rohnert Park, is within three of Sonoma’s major wine growing regions: Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Russian River Valley.

“There are so many good epicurean locations in our town that you can’t be just be a regular brewpub,” he says.

Norgrove says all Bear Republic employees are encouraged to complete the Cicerone program, along with the brewery’s own internal “beer 101” training program, to better showcase its beer as equal to wine.

“Instead of trying to compete against [wine], we’re trying to complement it,” Norgrove says. Bear Republic has won several awards for its wine selection. “For many years we were the anomaly.”

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