By David Lepeska
Like soaring architecture, wily crooks and hard-hitting sports, a good beer is something Chicagoans love. Ray Daniels has gone one further: He wants to know exactly what makes a good beer good and use that knowledge to improve the beer-drinking experience.
Mr. Daniels, 53, is on a quest to set up universal standards with the goal of instilling a greater respect for the taste and dining possibilities of beer. His effort has earned raves from brewers, critics and chefs.
“Trying to set some standards for beer sommeliers is a wonderful thing for enhancing the reputation of beer in fine dining and in America in general,” Karen Page, the James Beard Award-winning co-author of “What to Drink With What You Eat,” said of Mr. Daniels’s work. “Beer’s definitely being taken more seriously.”
Since falling in love with craft beers in the 1980s, Mr. Daniels has studied beer-making at the century-old Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago; worked as an editor for the Brewers Association, the country’s largest beer trade group; and wrote several books on brewing, including the highly regarded “Designing Great Beers” (Brewers Publications, 2000).
As he watched the production and popularity of artisanal microbrews grow over the past decade, Mr. Daniels noticed that most bars were simply adding new draft beers to their offerings with little concern for presentation or taste. Seeking “a better-tasting beer and a better beer experience,” he devised standards for beer knowledge and presentation. In January 2008, he began offering certification exams.
Today, his organization, the Craft Beer Institute, offers three different tests: certified beer server, certified cicerone and master cicerone, in ascending level of difficulty. Mr. Daniels wants to make a cicerone — literally, a guide for sightseers — the beer equivalent of a sommelier. The certified beer server exam costs $69 and can be taken online (at cicerone.org). The certified cicerone exam costs $345 and focuses on the history, production, serving, styles and tastes of beer from around the world.
“He is one of the most credible people in the beer industry,” said Julia Herz, head of craft beer at the Breweries Association, which represents craft brewers. “He’s the perfect one to spearhead this.”
Test takers might be asked to name a Belgian-style ale flavored with Curaçao, orange peel and grains of paradise, or to describe a salad and a beer that make a good pairing and the specifics of why they work together.
Though Mr. Daniels is trying to equate his certifications with those for wine, he is put off by stuffiness.
“In the wine world, people get all snobby about their knowledge,” said Mr. Daniels, who lives on the North Side. “We’re trying to avoid that. I want the cicerones to be guides, not gods.”
About 3,500 people have passed the beer server exam, and 200 have become certified cicerones, Mr. Daniels said. Small brewers like Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas support his program; Samuel Adams weaves cicerone standards into its internal sales training.
More than a dozen restaurants and pubs in the Chicago area have a cicerone-certified bartender or manager on staff, including the Bristol, a chic bistro in the trendy Bucktown neighborhood.
On a recent Friday there, Erin Phillips, the front-of-house manager, recommended the braised pig tail and a Belgian-style brown ale to a customer looking for a hearty food-beer pairing.
“The Rochefort 8 would stand up to the richness of the sauce and pull down the spiciness of the pork broth,” said Ms. Phillips, who is cicerone-certified. “And there’s a lot of earthy notes to the beer that I think would play off the pickled mustard greens as well.”
Chris Pandel, the Bristol’s executive chef who was named Rising Chef of the Year in the 2010 Jean Banchet Awards, Chicago’s highest culinary honors, said he appreciated Ms. Phillips’s knowledge.
“Her ability to take the nuances of what a beer could do and pair it with food, as you’d do with wine, is outstanding,“ he said.
The Bristol offers about 60 beers and the same number of wines, and Mr. Pandel thinks the two deserve equal billing.
“They really have the same purpose in the meal,” he said. “Beer’s not just for guzzling anymore.”
Originally appeared in Feb 20, 2011, New York Times, www.nytimes.com