The Cicerone (Basically a Beer Sommelier) Is the Drink World's New Hip Job
This city might be the home of Anchor Steam, one of the nation’s first craft breweries, as well as the Lower Haight’s pioneering beer bar Toronado, but until a few years ago, the beer culture here has been mostly a “large-bearded-man-in-a-dirty-bar type of thing,” says Sayre Piotrkowski, cicerone at the Monk’s Kettle in the Mission.
A grimy dive is certainly not the domain of a cicerone, the term for a certified beer sommelier—the latest hip job in the drink world. According to the Cicerone Certification Program, started by Chicago-based beer expert Ray Daniels in 2007, cicerone literally means “one who conducts visitors and sightseers to museums.” (The leap to beer might be a long one, but the 18th-century terminology sounds duly impressive.) Certified cicerones must pass an exam on beer chemistry, history and culture. Like master sommeliers of wine, one can even aim to become a master cicerone.
The fact that the cicerone certification even exists is testament to a big shift in beer culture. Today there are a handful of cicerones around the city. Well-curated beer selections are currently in high demand. Rich Higgins, a certified cicerone and the head brewer of the new Social Kitchen & Brewery in the Sunset, for example, was also commissioned to assemble the extensive beer menus for Starbelly in the Castro and Delarosa in the Marina District.
Of course, a cicerone needs good food to pair with his or her beer recommendations, and pub menus have followed suit. At places such as Public House, which has 23 beers on draft (70 percent of them from California), Giants fans can order Boccalone sausages to go with their Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale, and chickpea fritters to accompany their Marin Brewing Tiburon Blonde. While Social Kitchen offers the requisite wings, almost half its menu is vegetarian, including a bean-and-chard chili and mushroom-rye bread pudding. Bar Crudo—the NoPa restaurant known for its raw seafood preparations—boasts a 40-bottle-strong beer list. Co-owner Tim Selvera likes to pair his cream-based chowder with a sour beer called Duchesse de Bourgogne.
Pairings are also part of the cicerone’s job. Piotrkowski has done “beer vs. wine” dinners, matching each dish with a drink from each category. “I think we’ve opened some eyes,” he says, particularly those of women. Selvera says, “Some women don’t like hops,” which can give beer a slightly bitter edge. “But I’ll give them a Belgian beer, which is more citrusy, and they’ll like it much better.”
While wine sommeliers are taken more seriously than their beer counterparts for the time being, one thing that the cicerone has working in his or her favor is beer’s price point. “You can get the world’s best-quality beer for a fraction of the price of a mediocre bottle of wine,” says Higgins. Even cultish beers like Russian River’s “-ation” series typically cost no more than $30 for a 750-milliliter bottle—the bottom end for similarly handcrafted wine. Beer may be on the rise, but clearly, it’s still the drink of the people.