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Think you know beer?

Cicerones take drinking to a new level

  • Phil Kuhl (left) and Dave Kahle at The Fountainhead
Phil Kuhl (left) and Dave Kahle at The Fountainhead (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
February 20, 2012|By Emily Van Zandt, RedEye

"Do you have any beers that aren't on this menu?"

It's just past noon on a Thursday at Wicker Park bar Big Star, and the waitress doesn't quite know who she's dealing with. Luckily, she knows beer.

"What's the alcohol content of the Union Jack? Is it 7 percent?"

The guy grilling the waitress is Dave Kahle, a real beer geek—and he has a title to prove it.

Kahle is a certified master cicerone (a seldom-used term for "guide") and part of an expanding expert pool that has been working in Chicago and elsewhere since 2008, when Craft Beer Institute President Ray Daniels created the credentialing program. Through rigorous online and hands-on testing, beer experts can reach one of three levels: certified beer server, certified cicerone and master cicerone. To date, just four people have reached the level of master cicerone, and only one of those—Kahle—lives in Chicago.

The need for guides has become more apparent as America's beer focus continues to shift from major brewers to smaller operations. The number of craft breweries in the U.S. jumped from about 1,500 in 2009 to about 1,700 in 2010, according to the U.S. Brewers Association. And while overall beer sales were down slightly in 2011, according to trade publication Beer Marketer's Insights, craft beer sales were up 15 percent in just the first half of 2011, according to the most recent data from the Brewers Association.

The Chicago area is home to a growing number of craft breweries. Goose Island, which opened its first brewpub in 1988 and was bought byAnheuser-Buschlast year, still stands as pioneer in the craft brewing industry. Over the past decade, more than 20 craft breweries and brewpubs have followed including Half Acre, Metropolitan, Finch's, Three Floyds and Two Brothers.

Kahle was just the second person to reach master cicerone when, in October 2010, he passed a two-day, nearly 14-hour exam on beer styles, food pairings, brewing ingredients, draft-systems, a blind taste test and more. He had already passed both the certified beer server ($69) and certified cicerone ($345) exams before moving on to pass the $595 master cicerone exam. It's no wonder Phil Kuhl—a certified cicerone himself and beverage director at The Fountainhead in Ravenswood—has nicknamed the man "Yoda."

"I think people are still programmed to think that there are a dozen kinds of beer out there," Kahle said, pointing out that mass-produced lagers are the biggest sellers in the U.S. But if a beer drinker knows where to look, they can find more than a dozen different beers brewed within the city limits alone.

It's that mentality that makes the job of a cicerone a bit different from that of a certified wine sommelier, who generally works in restaurants curating wine lists and suggesting pairings. People tend to feel more comfortable admitting they're confused in the wine department. But beer? Most people think they've got a handle on it.

"Everybody's first question is, 'What's your favorite beer?'" Kuhl said with a laugh. "It depends on what day it is, the time of day, have I already eaten, what season is it, if I'm having a beer after this one … if it's chicken, what kind of chicken."

In a city still in the midst of the craft beer boom, cicerones like Kuhl and Kahle are working to help people discover new flavors and favorites. But only if they're really interested.

"If you love Bud Light, rock on," Kahle said. "If all you ever get is Wonder Bread and bologna sandwiches and that's what you want every day, rock on. But if you suddenly get a sandwich made with artisanal bread and local, organic whatever, you're gonna start saying, 'Whoa.'"

For now, their titles are an industry thing—the average bargoer won't recognize the distinction. But Kuhl sees that quickly changing, with more brewsters going for their certification every year.

Ria Neri, a certified cicerone at Bangers & Lace and one of the few female cicerones, used the exam to get her foot in the door of the beer industry.

"I was home-brewing for a few years as a hobby and wanted to further my education on beer. ... I figured, why not?" Neri said.

Kahle knows several breweries that give bonuses to staff members who pass the certified cicerone exam, while Kuhl sees bars that are encouraging many on staff to at least have reached certified beer server.

"It makes a big difference," Kuhl said. "There's a big debate now as to 'What is a beer bar?' Just because you buy good beer doesn't make you a beer bar. Very soon it's going to matter whether you have someone on staff who is certified."


Where's the beer world heading in 2012? Three experts weigh in.

"More barrel-aging, more collaborations between breweries and breweries, [and breweries] and bars. Home-brewing is definitely on the rise, and the return of the good old traditional styles."

—Ria Neri, certified cicerone at Bangers & Lace

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