A Chat With a Cicerone

Peter with Glass

Certified Cicerone Nicole Erny from the Trappist beer bar in Oakland, Calif., will be teaming up with Executive Chef Chuck Courtney of the Duck Club Restaurant on Friday, Jan. 29th at the Lafayette Park Hotel in nearby Lafayette, Calif. to put on a special Belgian Beer Dinner.

This will be a five-course, experience featuring dishes specifically paired with five of Belgium’s most flavorful brews. Here’s some information:


Who: Nicole Erny of the Trappist & Chef Chuck Courtney
What: Belgian Beer Dinner
Where: The Duck Club Restaurant, Lafayette Park Hotel, 3287 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, CA 94549
When: Friday, January 29, 2010 @ 6pm
Cost: $75 (exclusive of tax and gratuity). Please call 925-283-7108 to make reservastions.

I interviewed Nicole prior to the dinner  about the Cicerone Program and her experiences in planning this event.

Peter Estaniel (PE): Congratulations again for your relatively recent promotion to Certified Cicerone. It's quite the accomplishment. Can you tell us a little bit about the Cicerone program and why you think this kind of training is vital?

Nicole Erny (NE): The Certification of Cicerone™ designates "those with proven expertise in selecting, acquiring and serving today’s wide range of beers." The term is an antiquated word that has been replaced with the word "docent." Like a docent is an educated guide through an exhibit, a Cicerone is a knowledgeable guide to the vast world of specialty beer.

This program was started by the incredible craft beer and homebrewing advocate Ray Daniels. His Designing Great Beers was a first book for homebrewers that presented technical and practical explanations of beer styles within the context of history and location. Beginning the Cicerone program was a great next step for Ray, as it is a culmination of his years of dedication to the craft of producing, serving and enjoying great beer. Anyone can deem themselves a beer expert, but now there is a clear set of standards and titles for those of us in the industry with a higher level of dedication to great beer. Many of the country's finest beer bars and brewpubs have Cicerones on staff, not to mention those working in distribution and sales and production. I hope that we begin to see more and more Certified Beer Servers at every institution that serves beer, and that the Cicerone title will help beer into fully becoming a mainstream part of the fine dining experience.

PE: Is the Cicerone program something you'd recommend to the "average joe," or just for people in the industry? What would you recommend for the average person wanting to learn more about craft beer?

NE: The Cicerone program is intended for those actively working in the beverage industry. Some people may find that becoming a Certified Beer Server aids them in acquiring work or in their hobbies, but really this and the higher levels are intended for professionals in this industry. Like gaining a sommelier title, becoming a Cicerone requires an investment of time, energy and money.

For those who want to learn more about beer or beer and food pairings, there is a wealth of information out there. There are a few resources on the Cicerone Web site. Also www.craftbeer.org, the Web site for the brewer's association, has fantastic resources for learning about beer. There is information about commercial styles, as well as articles about food and beer pairing and an awesome bookstore. Reading periodicals like The Beer Connoisseur or even the Celebrator also helps one stay up on trends in the beer world.

Finally, for really in-depth understanding of beer styles, I reccomend visiting the Web site for the Beer Judge Certification Program. I find the BJCP's beer styles tend to be a bit more rigid and less trendy than the BA's. They also include classic examples of the style that you can find in the US, so this can be a great resource to understand beer as a product of location and history. If you want a useful certification but are outside of the industry, you can take the BJCP exam and become a homebrew judge. I also reccomend homebrewing or even just attending a regular homebrew club meeting. This can be a great social way to learn about beer styles, trends in homebrewing and process.

Homebrew meetings usually include a significant tasting portion as well. Even though I don't brew much, I love going to my homebrew club meetings and listening to the style and tech talks that fellow members present. Plus, I became a member of the American Homebrewer's Association, which gave me a few free months of Zymurgy homebrewing magazine and discounts at pubs and access to homebrewing events. Being an active member of the homebrew scene is a great way to learn a lot about beer.

PE: What do you think was the most difficult part of becoming a Certified Cicerone?

NE: Basically slowly amassing enough knowledge over time to be able to naturalize all of the information needed to successfully pass the exam. There is no way to "study" for the exam; you can only remind yourself of things you already know.

The way the exam is written really requires the test taker to deeply understand and own the material. For example, most of the exam is fill-in-the-blank and essay. I have been heavily entrenched in learning about beer for the past three years, and had done a little brewing and learning about beer styles for at least three to four years before that. My daily work requires me to recall facts and concisely describe interesting things about beer that consumers are interested in. this takes constant refinement. My experience in preparing me for the highly technical BJCP exam gave me intimate knowledge of over 70 beer styles. This combination of technical knowledge and practical experience is necessary to pass the exam and continue through the ranks.

PE: Your Belgian Beer dinner at the Lafayette Park Hotel is coming up this Friday. Who approached whom with the idea of putting this dinner together?

NE: Here's another reason why I love my homebrew club meetings. It turns out that Erik Beer, the aptly named president of DOZE, my homebrew club, is good friends with Tony Eichers, the executive manager of the hotel. They had the idea of a beer dinner, and Erik thought of me as a host. I worked with a distributor to sample some options and we began piecing together ideas for the dinner. It has been wonderful working with all of the gentlemen at the LPH, and I'm really looking forward to this Friday.

PE: The menu looks awesome. How big of a role did you play in planning the menu? Was the menu built around the beers, beers built around the menu or a little of both?
NE: While we sampled beers, we talked about possible pairings. I made suggestions of flavors that would pair with each beer presented. Chef Courtney is accustomed to preparing dishes to serve with wine at their monthly wine dinners and drafted a menu shortly after our meeting. I reviewed the menu and made some suggestions for revision, and we came up with what we have now. I can't wait for the dinner!

PE: What is your favorite pairing on the menu? Which pairing do you think you took the most chances and why?

NE: I am particularly thrilled about the main course. The rich and mildly gamey bison with the black truffle oil and mushrooms (and pommes frites) should be very well accompanied by the nutty, raisiny and slightly alcoholic St. Bernardus Abt 12 beer. A pleasant alcohol presence can work wonders with rich and fatty foods.

The riskiest is the first course. I feel like pairing with a very dry beer is always a risk, because it is very easy for textures to become out of balance. Dry beers paired with something a bit sweet and fatty can result in muted tastes on both sides, and the beer can take on an astringent, mouth puckering quality in comparison to the food. This is a course that we talked about a bit before finally deciding on the smoked salmon and Dungeness crab bombe. What sold me was the presence of dill and capers. the peppery, cool herbal notes and tartness from those will help balance sweetness from the fish within the dish, and De Glazen Torren Saison with its strong peppery notes and bouquet of fruity esters should be a perfect accompaniment.

PE: What advice would you give people looking to plan a beer and food pairing menu on their own? Are there any general guidelines people should follow?

NE: I think the main thing for paring beer and food at home is to focus first on matching intensity, then choose a beer with a mix of matching and contrasting flavors. Garret Oliver, in his book “The Brewmaster's Table,” talks about "impact." I call it “intensity" for simplicity: The principle is that you want to match the depth of flavors in the dish with a beer that has an equal depth of flavor. So if you have a salad of mild greens with a light citrus vinaigrette, you'd want a dry, low intensity beer to match that. But if your salad is one of bitter greens with gorgonzola and balsamic vinaigrette with raw onions or candied walnuts, you'd want a robust beer to match up to it. You don't just say "oh it’s salad, pair a witbier to it."

Matching and contrasting flavors is a second goal. Just like when you're decorating a room in your house or putting together an outfit, you don't want to be "too matchy-matchy" finding one to two flavor hooks and at least one contrasting character (usually bitterness, alcohol presence or carbonation are no-brainers) will set you up.

Another big consideration is matching the body – and thus the sweetness or dryness of the beer – to the dish. Like a said, a too-dry beer will become lost behind a sweet heavy dish. Likewise a sweet beer paired with a not so sweet dish can overpower. This is part of the intensity factor but is often overlooked. Also consider that beers within a style can vary greatly.

PE: After becoming a Certified Cicerone, do you find yourself being a little more discerning with the things you eat? Do you make it a point to pair things in your every day eating or are you able to switch it on or off?

NE: My discerning diet came not just out of tasting preference, but out of attempting to eat in a pleasurable but conscientious way. I was vegetarian for six years and still follow a mostly vegetarian diet and eat meat products only from local companies that I can be assured treat raising animals for food as a fine craft and not factory work. I feel the same way about veggies, fruit and soap, and all consumables.

I joined Community Supported Agriculture from a farm out in Brentwood and have loved learning about vegetables that I never was exposed to (and my mother always had veggies on our plates.) The more flavors you have in your palate memory, the better taster you become.

I do now make a point to recognize pairings and experiment with this. Sometimes it's accidental, sometimes intentional. And I don’t just pair with beer. Can you think of anything better than black coffee with a ham sandwich?

The other day I had the best meal I'd had in weeks sitting on the tile behind the bar at the Trappist. I'd ordered a special from Tamarindo, the Mexican "antojeria" next door. It was a Portobello mushroom crepe with poblano chile cream sauce. The crepe had a luscious, toasty, eggy, slightly caramel flavor. The meaty mushrooms were perfectly cooked and a touch of white corn added texture and fresh sweetness. The piny, mild heat and full spicy flavor of the pobalnos was deadlocked with the rich fatty cream and accented by a bright cilantro flavor. With all the cilantro and pepper flavor, I was tempted to choose a floral IPA to pair, but the rich and meaty portabellas and hints of grilled chile flavor along with the richness of the crepe sent me in another direction. I instead chose St, Bernardus Prior 8, a Belgian beer that lies somewhere between the dubbel and dark strong ale styles. Prior 8 has some deeply toasty, nearly roasty flavors, some herbal spiciness, is moderately dry with a creamy body and a mild nutty note. The herbal spiciness harmonized with the poblanos and made the citrusiness of the cilantro pop. The creamy textures of the dish and the beer made for a pleasant feel. The deeply toasted notes helped define the intense range of flavors in both the crepe and the mushrooms, and the sweet white corn made the base malt flavors of the beer pleasantly more apparent. This was the best pairing I'd had in a while, and I was glad to share with my co-workers!

PE: Being exposed to a lot of good food, do you find yourself cooking a lot more or have you always been cooking a lot?

NE: I grew up with an extended family that produced much of the food I ate, especially during the summer. My aunts and uncles would all trade different types of beans, tomatoes, winter and summer squash, coyote squash, eggs, rabbit, chicken, bread, sweets, pears, peaches, plums, loquats, guavas citrus passion fruit and any other fruit you can think of that will grow in this climate. I feel really lucky to have had my grandpa sit me down and have me taste three different varieties of tree-ripened pears to see which one I liked best. I had a favorite plum tree in his yard. That and the fact that my mom raised me to be excited about meals and treats and always prepared a family meal in the evenings are what really brought me to where I am now. I have never had trouble finding immense pleasure in eating and drinking and tasting, and I hope that I can bring that joy to other people.

That all said, I don't cook as often as I wish I did. Before I started bartending full time I was doing a lot of cooking from scratch. Now that my boyfriend and I work opposite schedules, we often share our meals together to go out or to just eat a simple meal.

Every now and then I get the bug to cook something incredibly ornate. When I do, I usually forgo recipes and just go for it. I'll look up a few recipes if I'm trying something technical, but I really love creating my own sauces and reductions and freestyle seasoning vegetables and protein so that each course or item stands out but is still a congruent whole meal. I think of pairing in the same context and will often think of a beer to pair and then bring the flavor concepts of that beer into the construct of the entire meal. I might even cook with it.

PE: Thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions, I really appreciate it. Do you have any future events you'd like to promote?

NE: Belgian Beer School at the Trappist is due for a return by this April and I have an Italian Beer Dinner in the works. Anyone wishing to be on my email list can contact me at ncole@thetrappist.com. The Trappist has three events during SF Beer Week: www.thetrappist.com and click "events." Fellow Cicerone Sayre Piotrkowski has a series of Beer vs, Wine Valentine dinners during SF beer week as well!

-- Peter Estaniel