The route a beer takes from brewery to glass is often rife with hazards. Brewer error, distributor mishandling, dirty tap lines—any unresolved issue can skew a drinker’s experience. That’s bad news for everyone involved.
Luckily, Nicole Erny is here to help.
The Oakland native and outspoken industry stalwart got her start like most—bartending—but soon thereafter earned the highest recognition a beer aficionado can achieve: the Master Cicerone certification. At just 28, she was the fourth-ever Master Cicerone (as of this piece, there are still only 18), as well as the first woman and the youngest person to claim the honor. To boot, it only took her one attempt to pass the famously grueling, two-day-long, 14-hour exam.
But being so young, Erny had a lot more to prove to herself. After proctoring tests and teaching sensory exams for the Cicerone program, she decided it was time to move into a new type of role. Today, she works as the quality, sensory and education projects coordinator for Alvarado Street Brewery in Monterey: a brewery that, for the last few years, has been releasing some of the most in-demand beers in Northern California.
And yet, even as a formidable expert on brewing, Erny still seems to believe she’s got a lot to learn. Once in a while, you just might catch her behind a bar in the Bay Area, conversing with local beer fans about what they love to drink.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Alyssa Pereira: “Your first job in beer was at The Trappist in Oakland. Was there something in particular that drew you towards Belgian beer? Or were you generally interested in bartending and this was what was available?”
Nicole Erny: “I was specifically interested in beer bartending. I was really passionate about Belgian beer after a trip to Amsterdam, and was really excited about beer in general. I was involved in homebrewing and after I turned 21, all my weekends were like, ‘What brewery are we going to?’ I've always been interested in flavorful things and I think when I was a kid I thought I would be interested in wine. When I got to be an adult, I found that—especially after I turned 21 and was more freely going out and experiencing beer and wine both—the bar to entry to beer is just lower in terms of cost. And I was lucky to live near a beer bar, Barclay’s, which a lot of brewers were hanging out at. So I got to meet people that were making beer and that were interested in talking to me about beer and that nurtured my passion for beer as well.
I actually have a degree [in what’s] basically journalism—I graduated college in 2007 and it was not a great time to try to enter the journalism field. It was kind of like, ‘If you want to do this, write for free.’ I wasn't particularly inspired to do that. I wanted to pay my student loans. [So I thought] it'd be really cool to have a fun job that’s really social to make up for all the time I've been spending behind my computer. I wanted to bartend and I really wanted to get into beer. I was just taking whatever crappy bar job I could because I had no bar experience. And then I heard about The Trappist opening at a buddy’s house so I set out to convince them to bring me on. To be part of the opening is still very special.”
Alyssa: “I read that part of the reason you began studying for your Cicerone exam was because you felt you constantly had to prove your knowledge to consumers, or even industry peers. Was there a particular incident you recall that was the catalyst for starting with the program?”
Nicole: “The Cicerone program had just barely begun to exist when I started working in the beer industry. I knew quite a bit about beer and I was dedicated to learning more about homebrewing, and I found—as one might expect, serving beer as a young woman at a pretty nerdy beer bar—that most customers would assume that I knew nothing. I felt defensive pretty easily, but I just kind of responded to that by learning even more, and being the best guide to everybody that came to that bar—making sure that people weren’t just settling to have one more of the same thing when we had, at the time, over a hundred beers in the bottle that were super interesting and tasty. So there was that kind of practical side of it.
But I also had that desire to prove to myself that I knew it, and to earn a certificate that showed that I knew that I was talking about. I had started studying with a homebrew club called the Mad Zymurgists and I was studying to become a BJCP judge, which I also am. While I was doing that, somebody mentioned that Ray Daniels was doing a Cicerone program. The day I heard about it, I knew right away that it was something that I wanted to do and that it would be really cool to make it to the Master level, especially [because of] just how applicable it was to the work that I was doing at the time. Something kind of clicked in my brain at that meeting. So I looked into it and started studying at the same time I was studying for the BJCP exam. At one point I felt like I was in like beer grad school because I took the Certified Cicerone exam and then took the BJCP exam within a month of each other. It worked out.”
Alyssa: “After you passed the test, what were the real-world effects? Not just professionally, but also personally, in terms of your interactions with peers or consumers? I imagine there's some degree of satisfaction when you get dismissed as a woman and you're like, ‘Well, actually, I am the most knowledgeable expert on this topic.’”
Nicole: “I try to be humble, but there have been a few instances. I've known to occasionally moonlight as a bartender, ’cause I just like to serve beer. It's so important. Even where I work now, ultimately what it's about [is the] customer experience, about people enjoying beer. I like to be a resource. I do occasionally argue with people [though]; that’s my personality.”
Alyssa: “Let me ask you about moonlighting, because that speaks to the spirit of this Beer is Labor series. If you could put it into words, what kind of enjoyment or satisfaction do you get from actually bartending?”
Nicole: “There's a hustle to bartending that, once you have a taste for it, there's nothing quite like it. There's a satisfaction from the action of just keeping bar—you miss it if you go too long without it, or a suitable substitute. So there's that, but then it's just exciting to have that front row seat and see, what are beer drinkers asking for? What do they gravitate towards? What questions do they have? What are they confused about? Those are always interesting things to me, and just thinking about how to communicate about beer. Then there's also the aspect of being able to make some of their nights by exposing them to all kinds of stuff that they maybe don't care to think too hard about themselves. That doesn't mean they can't enjoy it, right?”
Alyssa: “I'm sure as a Master Cicerone you've given lectures and spoken on many panels at conferences. How do you incorporate your educational background in your role as Alvarado Street’s quality, sensory, and education project coordinator?”
Nicole: “[Education] has been one big focus of my first several months. [I’ve been] recreating the beer education program that they already had going, and finding new ways to make it super engaging. Staff education is so essential for breweries and for bars and restaurants as well. The brewers, the quality staff, and the seller—we can all put in tireless work to make a beer perfect. But if the server has no idea what any of that means when they approach the table, that customer experience is compromised.
And my bridge to education has always been trying to hang on to my own ‘aha’ moments. I don't enjoy lecturing. Don't get me wrong, I can talk about beer all day, but it doesn't give me the same satisfaction as trying to create situational learning experiences for people—putting the material in their hands and forcing them to interact with it in a way that helps them make sense of it more tangibly. Even though it can seem slower cause we've covered less material, I'm always looking for ways to help people figure things out in a way that helps them remember it and retain that knowledge.”
Alyssa: “Probably a year ago, I took a [Cicerone] sensory class with you, and one of the most fascinating things that has stuck with me was the taste test where we learned that there's salt in Skittles. What are the other things that you've learned, through teaching or bartending or at Alvarado, that surprise people about taste perception, and just the sensory experience of drinking beer?”
Nicole: “That's something I'm thinking a lot about now—different palates and perception and how people vary from day to day. [It’s] a really exciting emerging [topic]—a lot of research is happening now. How do we perceive aroma and flavor?
The first thing that I always start people with is understanding the difference between aroma and taste, together. Both things are flavor, but 99% of the things that people say they're tasting, they're actually smelling retronasally. You can describe it. It's not a hard concept, but the best way to show people is with their own palates. So that's what that Skittles test we did was really about, was cutting off your sense of smell, experiencing the limited tastes that a Skittle has, which would be sweet, with some sourness and saltiness—lower than you're going to detect, but likely there.
I never get tired of [that test] because there's people that come to a nerdy class about tasting beer off flavors, you know, and they're gonna be pretty smart, interested, engaged people that obviously liked to eat and drink things. But invariably there's people that have never really understood that part of their physiology, and how taste and smell are synergistic but separate senses. And it's just really awesome to watch people's faces light up when they have that experience and it all kind of clicks. It's fun for me.”
Alyssa: “How did you go from bartender to Master Cicerone and test proctor to QA expert for Alvarado Street in such a short time? [Alvarado] is definitely a brewery I consider to be one of the best in the state, and certainly one of the most in demand in Northern California.”
Nicole: “Well, I definitely wouldn't consider myself a QA expert. But my goals kept shifting as I progressed in my career. When I became Master Cicerone, I got to gloat about that for a minute, but then I was kind of like, well, what am I going to push forward next? I'm only 28. This was this big goal I didn't think I was going to make on my first attempt. I had a lot of energy and didn't know what to do with it for a while. I enjoyed working for Cicerone and setting up the exams and doing education for them, but I kept getting pulled into all these interesting topics. And my love of the sensory in particular just kept growing stronger. Eventually I had some consulting opportunities, so I went part-time and then I took some Siebel [Institute of Technology] classes, and then just looked for every opportunity to find ways to get more involved in sensory.
I took one on quality assurance panel management, and I knew [then that] I'm not going to be able to work for a bigger brewery that wants somebody with a food science degree. I knew that the experience that I had as the educator was a plus. And I had hoped for a while to work for a brewery where I could kind of do what I'm doing now, which is putting as many of my skills as possible to use. I’m super jazzed to be working with with Alvarado Street. They were a favorite brewery of mine before this unfolded, and I am really proud of what we do in our approach and our commitment to trying to make every single batch better.”