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A Case for Beer on the Dinner Table

Maggie Borden

January 22, 2018

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If you’re looking to bump up your brew knowledge, Anne Becerra is the one to call. She was the first woman in New York City to become a certified cicerone (a.k.a. a beer sommelier), and has helmed the draught lines at some of the biggest names in Manhattan’s beer scene, from Blind Tiger to Pony Bar. These days, Becerra is behind the taps at Treadwell Park, where she curates the beer menu and recently created pairings for our JBF Greens Italian Craft Beer dinner. We chatted with Becerra about her road to cicerone certification, what she drinks on her days off, and which beers pair best with your favorite winter dishes.

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JBF: How did you end up being a cicerone? Has beer always been your calling?

Anne Becerra: Beer was a hobby of mine for quite some time before I actually worked in the industry. I loved trying new things, picking up a local six pack when I was traveling somewhere new, attempting to make my way through the entire Belgian section of a beer menu, you name it. When I decided to get a job in beer, I envisioned it as a temporary thing that I could do for my own enjoyment for a few months before having to go back to a "real job." Within a few days at my first beer bar, however, I was hooked and decided I wanted to make this my career in some way, though I wasn't quite sure how. I decided to take the cicerone test after meeting Ray Daniels, the founder of the organization—he was just getting started with the program and it gave me a date on the calendar to brush up on areas I didn't focus on in my day-to-day, like draught systems and laws. I created all my own study guides, organized tastings, bought an off-flavor kit and ended up passing on my first try.

JBF: The New York Times ran a piece last year offering beer pairings for Thanksgiving, and here at the Beard House we’ve been seeing more and more menus that feature beer as part of the tasting menu’s pairings. Do you think chefs are more open to embracing beer as part of fine dining? And do you think consumers are ready for that?

AB: Absolutely. I think chefs have understood the incredible diversity and range of flavors beer has to offer for years. I can't tell you how many times I've seen chefs create menus and dishes that are paired with wine for their restaurant, but then they'll enjoy it themselves with beer. There are so many similarities between food and beer, so I think it's a natural choice for chefs to gravitate towards. Unfortunately, we're up against decades of powerful advertising, very well known brands making less-than-stellar liquid, absurd stereotypes that portray wine as more refined or more highbrow than beer, and so on. When consumers can see past all that, and open their minds and palates up to something new, I think they'll see very quickly that beer has a rightful place at the table, whether it's for a casual or a fine-dining experience. 

JBF: James Beard was a champion of American cuisine—how do you think American beer fits into the international landscape of beer these days?

AB: It's so exciting to see us at the forefront of such an exciting time. What we once lacked in experience and tradition, we made up for in creativity. Assertive American hop character used to be considered undrinkable; now it's inspired countless brewers and beers all over the world. Every time I travel abroad, I find that many of the new beers and breweries tend to be influenced, at least in some way, by American craft beer. In the beginning it was all about IPAs, but now we're seeing more experimental, funky brews made with innovative techniques like kettle souring, unique fruit, intense barrel aging, amped up ABVs—there are really no limits to what brewers can create, and I think we're just scratching the surface.

JBF: If you’re not going to order a beer, what’s your go-to drink?

AB: I'm pretty promiscuous when it comes to my drinking habits, so just like with beer, I tend to order based on my mood. A smoky mezcal, a rich dark rum, single-malt Scotch, full-bodied red wine, or when I really want to turn my brain (and senses) off: a simple vodka martini. Boring, I know, but it's one thing I won't end up dissecting.

JBF: Could you offer up some recommendations for pairings with typical winter dishes? What beers would you pair with:

  • Chicken pot pie: A structured, spicy farmhouse ale. Saisons are some of my favorite beers on the planet—they’re are robust enough to stand up to a hearty chicken pot pie while still being incredibly thirst-quenching. Some good choices are Blackberry Farm Classic Saison, LIC Beer Project Ardent Core, or the always-perfect Saison Dupont.
  • Chili: A malt-forward refreshing lager with some sweet notes to balance out the heat and a crisp finish to refresh your palate. Think Jack's Abby Copper Legend, Zero Gravity Green State Lager, or Neshaminy Creek Churchville Lager.
  • Mac 'n' Cheese: A hoppy, citrusy American pale ale that will cut through the heaviness, and brighten up the dish—some great options are Barrier Non-Cents Pale, Left Hand Introvert, or Alpine Hoppy Birthday.
  • A post-New Year’s detox salad: Something light and refreshing, with very little residual sugar, like a Berliner-style weisse or a gose. Tart, tangy, and easy drinking—low on calories, yet high on flavor. Some of my go-to's are Bells Oarsman, Dogfish Head Seaquench Ale, and Sierra Nevada Otra Vez.

Learn more about JBF Greens.

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.