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In 2008, Anne Becerra quit her job in New York to go on a road trip with friends and family. Becerra spent the trip sightseeing, and trying to figure out what she would do next with her career. She wanted to do something she was passionate about, and beer had always been one of her greatest passions. The trip allowed Becerra to try beers throughout the country. She discovered unique flavors, met with beer enthusiasts and returned to New York with a new hobby. Becerra was ready to switch careers and do what she loved — but she never thought working with beer could become her full-time gig!
Anne Becerra is New York City’s first female Certified Cicerone. She’s also the Beverage Director of New York’s Treadwell Park — West. I chatted with her about the Cicerone certification process, how to sell beer to people that don’t enjoy drinking it and the hard work that comes with the profession.
Deborah Sweeney: Let’s go back to that 2008 road trip. Beyond trying new beers, what else did you discover?
Anne Becerra: I already loved good beer, particularly Belgian, but this trip allowed me to take it up a notch. I made a point of trying local beers in all the towns I spent time in and finding them became almost as fun as drinking them. What really struck me was how beer became an entry point into the local culture and people. I loved discovering all these new breweries and how everyone I met was so excited to show them off and brag about them. It was a source of pride.
I also enjoyed seeing places like Yellowstone and the Badlands for the first time. It was so humbling that it changed my whole perspective on things. Every time worry would start to creep in (“What are you going to do for work?” “You know you don’t have a job to go back to,”) I would have to stop and remind myself to just enjoy the moment and the experience.
Deborah Sweeney: What happened when you returned to New York?
Anne Becerra: I never thought about beer as a career. I wasn’t a brewer and I didn’t know much about it aside from it tasted good. When I got back to New York, I started to set up interviews. Every time I thought about getting a new job and a new office, I felt a pit in my stomach. I did not want to sit at a desk all day. I did not want to “work for the weekend,” but I had no idea where to start.
I began picking up random event gigs and temporary marketing jobs, trusting that the right thing would come along. In the meantime, I decided to try and get a job in a beer bar, just for a few months, for my own enjoyment. I figured I could learn more about beer, make a little cash and figure out what field I should go into. So, I fudged my way into a job at an established beer bar in Manhattan. I had probably worked five bar shifts in my entire life and only as a last minute fill-in, I put all those places on my resume and made sure my friends would vouch for me. I got the job.
As soon as I got there, I started thinking how in the world are there this many great beers and breweries and I only know like 5% of them? Why is no one talking about this? I started soaking up as much information as I could get my hands on. I took copious notes on every beer I tried, took brewers up on their offers to come visit their breweries and read every Michael Jackson book out there. I had no clue what would come from it, but I didn’t want to squander the opportunity I had in front of me to learn.
I also felt that there were a ton of people that would enjoy these beers just as much as I did if they knew they existed. If I could help get the word out about all these amazing beers, then maybe they would be easier to sell at the bar. I figured the more people understood good beer, the more they’d ask for it and bar owners would take notice. I started writing articles, pitching ideas, talking to editors and basically looking for and creating opportunities wherever I could find them.
Deborah Sweeney: Did you have mentors who helped guide you?
Anne Becerra: Absolutely! I was so lucky to meet a ton of amazing people in the industry very early on that I learned so much from and had so many great experiences with. The person that first comes to mind when I think “mentor” is a woman named Wendy Littlefield. I met her at the bar I was working in when I was studying for my Cicerone test. I thought she was so interesting and elegant, plus she seemed to know a lot about beer. I didn’t know at the time that her resume could stretch across 20 city blocks, I was just excited to pick her brain. (Wendy and her husband founded Brewery Ommegang and Vanberg & DeWulf Imports, were the first to import a slew of Belgian beers and she was the first woman to be inducted into the Belgian Brewers Guild.)
In our conversation, we started talking about Belgium and I said I’ve always wanted to go. A few months later, I couldn’t believe it when she invited me to come to Belgium with her and her husband Don to visit some incredible breweries and learn about the culture in person. It was one of the most amazing experiences ever. Having a strong network of friends and colleagues that you can brainstorm with, share advice with and learn from is so important. I cannot say enough good things about the friends I’ve made in this industry.
Deborah Sweeney: What does it mean to be a Certified Cicerone?
Anne Becerra: The certification process is a test that includes ingredients, brewing process, service, food pairings, tastings — you name it.
Cicerone is a designation, not a job. That’s a very important distinction. There are Certified Cicerones in every aspect of the beer industry: brewers, distributors, supplier reps and bar managers. If you’re a Certified Cicerone, you’ve proven that you know a lot about beer, but it doesn’t necessarily qualify you for any specific position. However, going the extra mile, investing time and energy into learning and doing things like getting your Cicerone certification can really make the difference between having a job and having a career.
Deborah Sweeney: What do you need to do — testing, demonstrations, and scores — to pass the certification program?
Anne Becerra: The test to become a Certified Cicerone takes a few hours. It’s a combination of questions, essays, tastings and demonstrations. In order to pass, you need to score at least an 80% overall with at least a 70% on your tasting. When I took the test there was nothing more to go off than an outline. I created my own study guides, did my own research and had friends blind test me. There weren’t formal study templates, Cicerone prep classes or any of the things offered today. I’m pretty good at memorizing but there’s a big difference between memorizing and understanding. Diving deep in and learning from scratch ensured the information didn’t go in one ear and out the other. All that knowledge I gained from studying is what makes me good at what I do. Passing the test was just icing on the cake.
Deborah Sweeney: How do you convince people that don’t enjoy beer to give it a try?
Anne Becerra: Well, you have to remember that we’re up against decades of sexist advertising and bland tasting beers. People have long been told to drink straight out of the ice cold bottle, leaving the gas to expand in our stomach. What I’m trying to do is simply show that there are far more options than what we see in ads. Often times, I introduce beers to people based off flavors I know they already like, but may not know exist in beer. If someone loves margaritas, a red Bordeaux or even an espresso martini, I can find a beer just for them. The real challenge is just getting someone to be open minded and try new things. I have about a 99% success rate when it comes to finding someone their new favorite beer and often times it started with “I don’t like beer.”
I also think presentation is a big factor. Nice glassware, proper pours, the right amount of head and a great food pairing. All of these elements come together to create the overall experience. Lastly, language is important. Not everyone has the time or desire to be an expert, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to enjoy what they drink. Whether I’m doing a TV segment or hosting a beer dinner, I try to keep my explanations simple and fun. Working at bars in Manhattan for the last 10 years, I’ve encountered every type of beer drinker you can imagine and a very small percentage of them want to get into tiny details. I try to introduce beer as a fabulous part of an overall experience, rather than the entire experience, and it’s so exciting when people realize there’s a whole new world of options for them to explore.
Deborah Sweeney: There’s so much more to your job than beer tasting. What else goes on that most people would not know about?
Anne Becerra: I have to wear a ton of different hats on any given day. There are so many moving parts that I have to be extremely organized. Curating and ordering the beer is the fun part, but we’re also creating and executing events, coordinating deliveries and inventory systems, scheduling, staff training, P&L and the people element. It’s not just guests you’re interacting with in the service industry. You have management, front and back of house staff, distributor and supplier reps, delivery teams, event planners, investors — you name it.
Don’t forget the inevitable curveballs either. (Internet’s down! Glycol unit broke! The sky is falling!) You have to be ready to change gears quickly and adapt. The easiest piece of advice I could give anyone is to surround yourself with a great team. The right people can truly make all the difference in the world, and will have one of the most immediate effects on your experience.
Deborah Sweeney: Tell me about your role as Cicerone and Beverage Director at Treadwell Park.
Anne Becerra: I have such an amazing time at Treadwell Park. We now have three locations and it’s really fun to introduce the concept and rotating beer list to new neighborhoods. It’s important to me that we’re able to not only offer great beer to our guests, but an educational component. We have people come in that may not even realize we’re a beer bar, so it’s our job to get them curious and excited. For example, our new signature cocktail menu is inspired by the flavor profile of some of our favorite beers. Quite often, we use that menu as a tool to introduce guests to our beer menu based on flavors we already know they like in their cocktail.
At our uptown location, we have a very special “Reserve List” featuring unique, rare and vintage beers from all over the world. I gave each beer its own description page. If there are specialty ingredients used, a unique brewing process or a really cool backstory, you can read about it here. Everyone should be able to enjoy delicious beer regardless of their level of knowledge. A list of 100 strange beer names with massive price tags is enough to intimidate anyone, so I really wanted to make it easy to understand and fun.
Deborah Sweeney: Outside of Treadwell Park, where else can people find you?
Anne Becerra: I’ve used the social media handle @annelikesbeer for just about everything, and should have my website up and running by early 2019. It will be beer-focused, but in the context of entertaining, education, culture and travel.
I’m very fortunate to have platforms such as The New York Times, Rachael Ray Show, The Wall Street Journal, Glamour Magazine, and more help spread the word about great beer and breweries. I work with culinary schools and host beer dinners and events. I am currently working on a project with a fabulous production company that I can’t talk about just yet, but am so excited about. Stay tuned! It’s been about 10 years now and I’m still so excited about my job. I love the community, culture and introducing it to new people.
December 27, 2018 at 07:10AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs