Cicerones take beer beyond ‘working man’

8 Feb

The cicerone certification program is setting standards for the way beer is served as craft beers and food pairings continue to grow in popularity.

Certified beer server Jessi Roberson, of Oswego, carefully pours a beer for a customer at Tap House Grill in Oswego. Tilting the glass gives beer its proper foam, or "head."

For years, fine restaurants all over Chicago and the world have boasted in-house sommeliers, or wine experts that can tell patrons everything about their glass of vino, from the region where the grapes were grown to whether a merlot or a chianti will go best with their meal.

But now more area restaurants are taking on the sommelier’s “little brother” of sorts: the cicerone.

The cicerone program, the beer equivalent of a wine sommelier, is the brainchild of Chicagoan Ray Daniels, an instructor at the Siebel Institute of Technology, a beer brewing school with locations in Chicago and Germany.

“I thought there was a need for it because of all the people drinking bad beers,” Daniels said.

“Bad beer,” he says, is flat, sour or cloudy because of improper pouring or mishandling of the product. Factors such as the beer’s temperature, the glassware used and the cleanliness of the keg tap lines all affect the beer’s flavor.

“The bottom line is there are a lot of ways to ruin beer, and if the people in the business don’t know what they’re dealing with … then the consumer ends up getting bad beer,” he said.

Through instruction and tests, Daniels has certified more than 3,500 people nationwide since 2008 in the three levels of certification: certified beer server, certified cicerone and master cicerone, a distinction only a small handful of people have attained.

And the program is catching on, he said. Daniels hopes the program will become a staple in the restaurant industry and eventually be taught in culinary schools.

Expanding the army

When Fountainhead opened in Ravenswood in late April 2010, the restaurant’s beer director Phil Kuhl knew he needed a level of legitimacy to back up his beer knowledge.

“For the longest time, everyone just called me ‘the beer dude’ … but there was no credibility, there was no standard,” said Kuhl, who became a certified cicerone in May 2010. “There should be standards. I just felt it was very important to make us credible and taken seriously.”

In the suburbs, Tap House Grill, with locations in St. Charles, Glen Ellyn, Westmont and Oswego, requires all of its employees to be certified beer servers.

“The people that come in see the certifications on the wall, and they’re impressed by it,” said Rafael Gomez, the restaurants’ beverage director. “You wouldn’t go into a car dealer and have the salesman know nothing about the car.”

But Gomez, who it sitting for the cicerone exam in April, doesn’t want to be thought of as a beer elitist.

“We don’t want to be known as the ‘beer snob.’ We want to be the ones to educate the people about beer,” he said.

The cicerones and beer servers act as guides, Gomez said, to make suggestions and improve the experience of the patrons – to open their eyes, and tastebuds, to new experiences.

“People are getting really sick of drinking bland beer. Miller Lite, Bud Light, it basically tastes like water,” Gomez said. “They see this as an opportunity to taste something new, and once they try it, they don’t want to go back.”

Complementing the food

Dave Lawson, of Aurora, and Erin Sullivan, of Shorewood, enjoy brews and burgers at the Tap House Grill in Oswego. About 40 beers are on tap at the restaurant at any time.

The cicerone knowledge and certification is something Kuhl considers crucial at a time when craft beer is exploding in popularity and more and more restaurants are looking to start beer and food pairing dinners. In the last year, about a dozen of these beer bars and gastropubs have gone up around town, he said.

The Tap House Grill, already four locations strong, plans to open a fifth location mid-March in Plainfield to capitalize on its popularity. Locations in other towns, and even Chicago, are in the company’s future, Gomez said.

Tap House Grill offers a monthly food and beer pairing dinner, something Gomez said is nearly always full with repeat attendees. For February, he traveled to California to brew a small-batch Sierra Nevada beer specifically for the dinner.

Downtown, Kuhl is using his knowledge of beer and the teachings of the cicerone program to sell out seats for beer dinners and is starting small plate dinners to get more people interested in the concept.

“Response from customers has been great,” Kuhl said. “(Beer) was more of the working man’s beverage, but it’s not that anymore. For all intents and purposes, there’s so many more things you can do with it, so why wouldn’t you?”

Cicerones in Chicago (incomplete list):

Goose Island Brewpub

The Publican

Owen & Engine

Bangers & Lace

Windy City Distribution


One Response to “Cicerones take beer beyond ‘working man’”


  1. Writing about beer and cicerones | Stephanie Hardiman, journalist - February 22, 2011

    […] I chose to write about a new certification program that’s essentially the beer equivalent of a sommelier – the cicerone. (Read it here.) […]

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