As the craft beer market continues to expand rapidly, it should come as no surprise that microbrews have started to seep into Vegas’s five-star dining scene. Yes, times are a-changin’. So how do you navigate the almost endless variety of beers now available on restaurant menus? The same way you might navigate a wine list as thick as the Bible: Bring in a pro. Just as a waiter might beckon the sommelier to help diners wade through the wine varietals, on-site cicerones are beginning to appear to help with all the new microbrew choices.
Russell Gardner, director of craft for Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada, was once a cicerone at Venetian’s Public House, where he says the role was essential. “I worked with the chefs a lot because of the beercentric menu,” he explains. “It was in probably 80 percent of the food, whether it’s listed on the menu or not. A lot of the stocks are done with beer, and a lot of braising was done with beer, including the barley-crusted steaks.”
At Mandalay Bay, Sarah Johnson, a self-proclaimed beer nerd, has been expanding the hotel’s craft beer offerings as director of food and beverage. Although Charlie Palmer’s Aureole is most famous for its wine tower—which requires a graceful “wine angel” harnessed to a pulley to retrieve the bottles—it now has a complementary craft beer list. Side by side with the award-winning wine list, it offers choices as various as a Lagunitas IPA, several types of Belgian ale, and a German wheat beer from Weihenstephaner. Johnson also works with individual venues to expand their beer selections and suggest beer pairings.
According to these pioneering cicerones, Vegas is actually behind the curve in its love affair with beer. “If you look at any other major city, they’re five to 10 years ahead of us,” says Gardner. “You go into any bar in San Diego and of their 12 taps, 10 are local breweries. Same with Chicago and New York—every place you go into has local and craft beers. Vegas is just now catching on.”
Now that so many varieties of beer are turning up in the Strip’s nicest restaurants, discerning drinkers will naturally want to pair their brew with their food, the same way wine drinkers do. Not surprisingly, beer connoisseurs Gardner and Johnson say that given the diversity of its ingredients—beyond the basic barley, wheat, and hops, brewers have been known to add such things as chipotle peppers, Mexican chocolate, mustard seeds, and oysters—beer actually pairs better with food than wine does. “You’re not just dealing with grapes and the barrel,” Gardner says. “You also have many different kinds of malts, hops, and waters with different pHs. Then you have barrel aging on top of that. To me, it’s a much more complex beverage than wine.”
These cicerones have a few go-tos to start with. “A big IPA with blue cheese is one of my favorite pairings,” Gardner says. “A good steak with an aged barley wine or old ale is really, really nice. For a snack, chocolate chip cookies with a Russian imperial stout or a nice malty amber with some hard Parmigiano-Reggiano.” Johnson agrees, adding a favorite she says pairs well with “everything”: “Saison Dupont is my desert-island beer. There’s some complexity, but it’s subtle enough that it works with a variety of foods.”
Comparable to the program for sommeliers, the Cicerone Certification Program has three levels: certified beer server, certified cicerone, and master cicerone, the highest level. The certification process for master cicerones involves demonstrating knowledge of all facets of beer, including brewing ingredients and processes; tastings; and, probably most important to diners, pairings with food. Only after passing a two-day exam, including written, oral, tasting, and demonstration components, does one earn the title. Just six people have been certified master cicerones since the program began in 2007; although none live in the Valley, we do have 10 certified cicerones. “There’s a lot of beer activity going on in town,” Johnson says. “It’s very encouraging.”
When asked about the role of a cicerone, Gardner explains that they generally encounter two kinds of people: “You get the person who’s very wary about beer, who doesn’t really know and is kind of scared of the whole thing. Maybe they’re wine drinkers—so you need to slowly break them into beer with a simple pairing using a beer that they like already, not something too far outside of the box. The other side is you get someone who sits down and says, ‘Do your thing. This is what I want to eat, and what should I have to drink with it?’ They’re not going to hinder you with, ‘Oh, I don’t like hoppy and I don’t like Belgians.’ And that’s when it’s really fun, because you’re really getting to blow people’s minds and open up their eyes to what beer can do.”