Given that tea is now curated, tequila comes in tasting flights, “master chocolatier” is a bona fide career path and fromagers have their own newspaper columns, the idea of a beer “sommelier” hardly seems absurd. It might even seem a little overdue.
Sommelier-ish folk have actually been offering beer pairings in high-end bars for a few years now, but the beer world has, until recently, lacked a standardized certifying body for experts. Enter Chicago’s Craft Beer Institute, which since 2008, has issued some 18,000 “certified beer server” certificates. To date, only six people have achieved the institute’s highest level of certification: master cicerone. Those who pass the 10-hour written exam and four-hour oral grilling and tastings possess encyclopedic knowledge of the brewing process and highly refined tasting abilities. (“Cicerone,” likely derived from the Roman philosopher Cicero, is a generic word for “guide.” Basically, it’s a PhD in beer.)
Toronto’s Mirella Amato is Canada’s only master cicerone, having passed her exams in December. But what does a master cicerone actually do?
“I work with people who want to learn more about beer, from consumers to publicans and marketers and breweries,” says Amato, a one-time opera singer who now runs Beerology, a beer-education and consultancy company. “I wanted a piece of paper to show people can trust me.”
Unlike sommeliers, none of the six master cicerones are likely to be found recommending drafts in restaurants. Most apply their skills consulting, as Amato does, or working with major distributors to help acquire promising new craft beer brands.
In fact, the surge in craft beer sales—industry sales have more than doubled to $12 billion in the past five years—is what’s driving the professionalization of beer knowledge. Craft beer advocates stress how important it is for industry members to beef up their knowledge of proper storage, glassware and serving temperatures for craft beer. Gone are the days when beer simply lived in the fridge and the flavour was “cold.” Now, enthusiasts line up to hoard rarities like the annual spring release of Halifax’s Garrison Spruce Beer; esoteric and earthy Italian imports like Panil; and, most famously, Westvleteren XII, a Belgian ale brewed by Trappist monks that sold out in minutes when it hit 16 Ontario liquor stores at a cost of $80 per six-pack last December.
But, cautions Amato, just because we can buy these rarities, doesn’t mean we necessarily know how to handle them.
“I was at a beer bar, drinking a pilsner that tasted off, so I asked the manager if the line had been used for a fruit beer before,” Amato recalls. “The manager told me that it had, but that the line had been cleaned and nobody had noticed. I was amazed. I was like: ‘This is me noticing.’”
“It upsets me,” she says, inhabiting the role of Canada’s first beer superhero. “I see crimes against beer being committed every day.”
Mirella Amato’s Four-Pint Meal
“The maltiness of a British pale ale goes with beans, while grassy notes complement the greens and spices”
e.g., Bass Pale Ale
Main: Ravioli with beef cheeks
“The mellow eathiness of a Northern English brown ale ties nicely with beef and mushrooms.
e.g., Newcastle brown ale
Secondi: Whole trout
“Assuming it’s pan fried, I’d go Bock. The rich toasted notes parallel the searing on the fish”
e.g., Holsten Festbock
“The creamy carbonation of a Belgian blond will cut through the rich texture of the custard”
e.g., Affligem Blond
The Toast: Full-Strength Maker’s
On Feb. 18, the folks who make Maker’s Mark publicly rescinded their decision to dilute the famously 90-proof bourbon by 3% to meet demand. Apparently, when this year’s batch was casked six years ago, someone failed to realize how popular bourbon would be in 2013. The move intended to stretch supply and avoid shortages. So we’ll raise a glass to their good sense with the only cocktail that seems appropriate: two ounces of bourbon…and a small splash of water (McArdle explains why).