When I heard Gavin Harper was the second Orange County person to pass the arduous Master Cicerone beer exam, I was like, “where have I heard that name before?” It wasn’t until I met him again for this interview that I realized I sat next to him at Unsung Brewing’s tasting room in Anaheim shortly after they opened and had a random chat about what we both love: beer.
What is a Cicerone? It’s sort of like the beer version of a sommelier, but according to Cicerone.org:
The word Cicerone (sis-uh-rohn) designates hospitality professionals with proven experience in selecting, acquiring and serving today’s wide range of beers.
The Cicerone Program offers different levels of exams: Cicerone Certified Beer Server (I currently have this), Certified Cicerone, Advanced Cicerone, and Master Cicerone. Out of 16 people that have passed the master exam, 12 are in the U.S., five are in California, and two are in Orange County; Patrick Rue of The Bruery being the other beer-credible nerd. Think you have what it takes to pass? Check out the Master Cicerone syllabus.
Where did you get all of your beer experience?
I became interested in beer from my dad. In the 90’s, there was a big boom in the microbrewery scene, and we moved and traveled up and down the entire East Coast. I wasn’t yet 21 and obviously didn’t drink, but he was always trying different types and colors of beers and visiting different brewpubs while talking about his experiences in Europe and about the local beer culture. It was all fascinating. On my first trip to England in 2001, I was exposed to a beer culture that I fell in love with. My dad was in discussions of importing several brands into the U.S. and I got to know more about a few smaller breweries in Yorkshire. Several summers I would help out around these breweries and pick the brains of the brewers. I also brewed my first batch of home-brew in 2001, and for some reason, we put whole cloves of garlic in the batches to make it drinkable. From that point, my interest continued to grow from serving as technical director for my dad’s import business to working in breweries, and from there, consulting for breweries and watering holes.
How long have you been prepping for the Master Cicerone exam?
I honestly had never thought about seriously attempting the exam, but I inauspiciously entered the lottery for the 2016 exam and received a seat. I wasn’t completely prepared, but did well enough to have the confidence to take it again in 2017, which resulted in a pass. Altogether, it was about two total years with about five months of focused study a few hours per day after work, on the weekends, staying up late, and whenever I could find the time.
What do you intend to do with your extensive beer knowledge?
I simply want to cherish the moments drinking a phenomenally crafted beer. Of course, this doesn’t require any skill, but I feel sometimes this is lost and is truly the purpose of beer. I do enjoy teaching as well…I’ve wanted to be a teacher in some fashion since grade school. Whether this ends up working for an education department or continued freelance consulting, the goal is to further the knowledge around beer and why the Cicerone Certification Program was founded the first place.
What is one of the most common off-flavors in beer?
Off-flavor is an interesting term and I probably have a different definition than most. There are very few true off-flavors in beer, chlorophenol (plastic-like) and trans-2-nonenal (wet cardboard-like) are two that I would consider so. Any flavor present that the brewer did not intend is an off-flavor. Many flavor compounds that most consider off-flavors are found in most beers and sometimes intended to be there. For example, DMS (cream corn-like) is quite noticeable in a famous hipster lager. Diacetyl (butter-like) is prevalent in the original pilsner, and acetaldehyde (green apple-like) jumps out of the beer that wears the crown. These flavors are intended to be there and part of their profile so they must not be off-flavors. The wet cardboard off flavor (T2N) is unfortunately commonly perceived in too many beers for me. I’ve come across this papery flavor in draught and bottles/cans from being old and often stored warm. Yes, I’ve seen warm-stored kegs and it’s horribly astounding. The origin of this flavor is also often mistakingly understood, but that’s for another day.
What is your go-to style of beer? Do you have a daily drinker?
Any day I wake up is a day I long for a proper cask pull of a fresh Yorkshire bitter. I would have to put pilsner up there as well.
What style of beer do you think is vastly underappreciated?
Pilsner has become somewhat en vogue today but perhaps would have been my answer five years ago. I have to echo English bitter here. When done well this style is wonderfully complex and easy drinking. Hops and/or malt can shine, they’re not overly bitter, and after four imperial pints, you’re still thoroughly coherent. Outside of the lower carbonation that could present some pairing issues, bitter can be paired with a wide variety of foods because of the malt presence and intricacy.
If you were planning a trip to Europe to experience the beer scene, would you go to Belgium, Germany, or
England (or elsewhere) and why?
This is a tough one and there is no wrong answer here, but I think I’ve spoken about England enough for any lover of beer to understand this would be a worthy destination. However, I would have to say Prague, Czech Republic. Most beer lovers are familiar with the vastly different types of ales that exist, from fruity and spicy Belgians to clean German ales. But lagers are a bit more mysterious or less understood. Some may even know about different German styles of lagers from dark malty-rich bocks to minerally pale Dortmund beers…but the depth and complexity of the Czech lagers can be baffling and magnificent. A polotmavý ležák (amber lager class) from one brewery to another can be as different as a Scottish ale to an American amber. Much of this is due to the old traditional practices for both malting and brewing. It’s all still very hands-on, which leads to a wide variance of flavors. To see and experience this first hand, I believe, would be both eye-opening and rewarding for any beer lover, plus it’s all in one city!