Anne Becerra, New York’s first female certified cicerone (aka beer sommelier), tells Moneyish how she became a professional beer drinker.
Drinking beer for a living is a serious craft.
Just ask Anne Becerra, who left her marketing job in New York City to become a cicerone — the beer version of a sommelier — and who now gets paid to sip and select stouts, lagers, IPAs, saisons and the best brews she finds around the world.
“Spirits and food have always been really important to me, but I didn’t know a lot about beer. What originally drew me to beer was flavor, and then price,” Becerra, 35, told Moneyish at the Treadwell Park craft beer bar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “If I was going to a party, I could either bring a $12 bottle of Yellowtail, or a really great bottle of beer. It became this really fun hobby.”
In 2008, Becerra took a cross-country road trip vacation with friends and family in an RV, passing through western states like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and stopping to try the local beers along the way.
“It transformed (beer) into something much deeper. It wasn’t just the flavor — it became the culture, and these small towns that you’re really getting to know through their drink. Everyone was so proud to show off their local beers,” she said. One of her favorites was Mousse Drool, an American brown ale made with four different malts from Big Sky Brewing Co. in Missoula, Mont.
When Becerra returned to New York in 2008, getting back into the office grind was a total buzzkill. “I was setting up all my interviews when I got back to work, and every time I did that, I felt like I got punched in the stomach. I was like, ‘I don’t want to be in an office.’” So she quit her day job at a marketing firm and got a job at The Ginger Man, a Murray Hill beer bar where she worked as a bartender first. She worked her way up to becoming a buyer, who hand selects the beers that will be available on the menu, over six years of serving and studying suds on the job.
Beer remains the preferred alcoholic beverage in the U.S. — among men, anyway. Sixty-two percent of male drinkers say they prefer beer, in contrast to 19% of female drinkers, according to a 2017 Gallup poll.
Becerra has made it her mission to get women to develop a taste for beer, too, by spreading awareness that beer can be just as sippable and enjoyable as wine. (Fifty-two percent of women say they drink wine most often, compared to 24% who prefer liquor, and 20% who favor beer.) One of her current favorites is Passion Fruit Wheat ale; a tangy, sweet, mild beer crafted in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. Or DeadSearious!, a sour beer brewed by Carakale Brewing Co. in Jordan, and made with actual water from the Dead Sea. She discovered the obscure brews during her travels and through her industry friends.
“When I discovered these, I had no idea they were out there. You’re not seeing ads in magazines or on the radio,” said Becerra. “Once you understand how many flavors are out there, you become much more excited.”
In 2011, Becerra decided to become a cicerone through a certification program created by former biochem major turned beer aficionado Ray Daniels in 2007 to bring knowledge to the craft beer movement. The program focuses on five areas: serving; beer styles; flavor (a tasting portion, just like wine); brewing process; and ingredients, beer and food pairing.
The test — which costs $395 to take, and $100 to retake if failed — is only administered in person and given six to 12 times a month in cities around the world. It includes essay and multiple-choice questions, and a live serving demonstration in which test takers have to serve beer in the proper glassware. Students must receive a score of 80% overall and at least a 70% on the taste-testing portion to pass. Becerra, who studied for around six months, passed the test her first time.
Now Becerra, who serves as the beverage director at Treadwell Park, says she’s a human encyclopedia of all things hops. She’ll tell you that barbecue, like pulled-pork sandwiches and ribs, pairs best with a black lager. Cheese goes great with a wheat beer or double IPA. Sour beer balances fish, and sweeter ales complement spicy food.
While Becerra said the craft beer community has welcomed her, she has experienced some sexism in the industry.
“People would come in [to the bar] and automatically pitch their beer to the guy. I’ve walked in to judge beer competitions, and people asked if I needed directions,” she said.
The craft beer business is thriving while sales of domestic beers like Bud Light were down 2% in 2017, Forbes reported. Retail dollar sales of craft beer increased 8% in 2017 to $26.0 billion, and now account for more than 23% of the $111.4 billion U.S. beer market, according to the Brewers Association. And there are more than 3,000 certified cicerones in the U.S. today, according to the Cicerone Certification Program, which doesn’t track the gender or race of recipients.
“People are generally more open-minded now to try new flavors,” Becerra said of a shift toward craft brews. But while Becerra has great taste in beer, she says she prefers to remain a consumer rather than opening her own brewery.
“There’s so much good stuff out there,” she said. “Translating what’s out there to new audiences and getting the word out is more interesting to me.”
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