Wine sommeliers steer you toward a good wine to pair with your dinner, they turn you on to a wine you maybe never would have tried. If you are lucky enough to run into Julia Herz, she does the same thing -- with beer. Herz is a certified cicerone and director of the Craft Beer Program for the Brewers Association.
Noelle Carter: What exactly is a cicerone and what distinguishes a cicerone from an avid beer-lover or a beer sommelier?
Julia Herz: A cicerone is definitely somebody who is interested in an expanded beer journey and experience and also being an educator of others. It's a certified program. If you test into the program, there are three levels and it gets increasingly more difficult throughout the levels. It's kind of like the beer world's version of a wine sommelier.
NC: Difficult meaning you have to try and identify different beers?
JH: Yes. We at the Brewers Association document 142 beer styles. There's a lot to know out there. It's not just beer history and the ingredients in beer, but the process behind brewing, tasting and evaluation, beer and food pairing, and draft systems and maintenance.
NC: It sounds like you have a dream job. How did you end up where you are?
JH: I do get that a lot and I feel very honored. I started as a home brewer, and now I get to represent and be the voice for today's small and independent craft brewers. Of the 2,500 breweries today, the majority are smaller, producing breweries that are really on the local and regional level. We're in the middle of a beer renaissance. What a great job to get to talk these men and women up.
NC: How long have you been brewing?
JH: I've been brewing about 20 years. It's a hobby that as soon as I was legal, I was ready to go.
NC: That's so cool. You've mentioned that beer is the No. 1-selling beverage in the U.S. Where are the trends in craft brews going, and have you seen anything particularly interesting and exciting?
JH: You have to take the sales of wine and spirits and combine them to basically match the sales of beer. We're a beer-loving nation first and foremost. With that now we have the localization of the beer movement and the globalization of the beer movement. On the local level, you have retailers you can go into. Some are even doing flights or trays of small quantities -- you can taste your way through several beer styles.
On the brewery level, you have small brewers taking old-world beer styles, turning them on their ears and giving them a new-world twist. You have more malt, more hops, more ingredients, more experimentation going on with our craft brewers today than what we we're really seeing from the old-world brewing nations. The U.S. is the largest beer destination because of what's going on.
NC: Are there any specific regional trends?
JH: Yes. Beer definitely has terroir, too. You have the Pacific Northwest, which is basically supplying about 30 percent of the world's supply of hops. So Oregon, Washington and California, they're really featuring hops in a lot of the beer styles.
You have the South that's coming into play and altering laws to make it more advantageous for breweries to start and have a better fighting chance as a small business. You have styles starting to pop out of the South that are featuring local ingredients like pecans. Brewers are starting to feature their regional ingredients, that's definitely a trend.
NC: Beer has a lot of stereotypes, including that it's a guys' drink and brewing is a men's club. But women are actively involved both in the professional and home-brewing ends.
JH: Women are home brewing, professionally brewing and running tasting groups. Whereas Gallup would say 22 percent of women who do drink fermented beverages are drinking beer, I'm going to say that when I personally am at a beer festival or a beer dinner and I look around, I'm seeing such a higher percentage rate for women who are enjoying craft beer. Craft beer is bringing women back to the beverage of beer. It's frankly being marketed as a beverage that is not gender-specific.
NC: I have to confess: I tried home brewing once and it was a horrible failure. I really didn't know what I was getting into. What would you recommend for someone who is interested in brewing at home?
JH: This is the same as saying, "I want to take up baking or get good at pie-making or get good at canning." We have a cultural shift that's gone on in the U.S. and part of that is getting back to the basics of what we consume. Let's get used to making our own beer. It's legal to do at home. It's a solid hobby with over 1 million active home brewers. There's nothing better than sharing a home brew with your friends and family that you actually made.
NC: What about those kits that you find in the stores or online -- would you recommend a kit?
JH: Kits are a fantastic way to start; that's how I started. Kits keep it simple, too. There's extract brewing, which is where the malts have been distilled down to a liquid. You don't have to convert the grains and the enzymes in those grains to get your sugars to wake up. It's a really easy way to do it. Then as you get more advanced, you're going to go to partial grain from the extract brewing, and then you can go to full-grain brewing just like commercial craft brewers do.
NC: Some of what you said made sense and some of what you said made absolutely no sense. I've noticed that there are all these craft brewing organizations and clubs out there. Would you recommend getting involved in a club? Do I have to know anything before I join?
JH: You don't have to know anything to start home brewing or to join a home brewing club. It's one of the most welcoming communities where people just want to share their information. There are approximately 1,500 home brew clubs in the U.S. that are encouraging new members all the time.
NC: I have to say I'm excited. I think I'm going to try home brewing one more time.