To properly drink a beer, Brian Reed says not to “chug” or take “little bird sips,” but to get a nice gulp and swish it in your mouth.
But who is Reed to tell you how to drink your beer?
Well, for one thing—he is, quite literally, a master of the beverage.
Reed, 33, is one of 16 people in the world, and the only Pennsylvanian, to earn the title of Master Cicerone, making him essentially the beer world’s version of Yoda. Hailing from Pittsburgh, he travels the nation with Miller-Coors’ “Know Your Beer” initiative, performing blind taste tests to find out what consumers like when they take a sip – without the influence of branding.
Philadelphia Weekly sat down with Reed at Strangelove’s, a local bar he hasn’t been to since a National Homebrewers Conference just five years prior, the last time he was in Philly to chat about his favorite topic on the menu.
What are your favorite bars to go to in Philly?
I admittedly haven't spent as much time in Philadelphia as I would like. I remember one of the first beer bars that I immediately fell in love with in Philadelphia was Monk's Cafe, which is a long-time Philly standby. Obviously, anybody who drinks beer in Philly, probably knows about this bar. They would just get crazy things that no one else could get as far as rare beers and just a tremendous selection. It's dark, it's crowded, it's loud, like all the times I've been in there, that's what it's about. But it's very much an experience to be there and take in the history of that place. It has its own kind of unique feel and charm.
How do you view Philly in the beer world?
It's the grandfather of craft beer scenes on the East Coast. Philly was really and truly the first city of craft beer on the East Coast, before New York City. Boston's obviously had a great scene and like Chicago, had a lot of imports. It’s the home of Sam Adams. But when I think about the first East Coast city that really stood up to Denver and San Francisco and San Diego, in terms of the most notable beer cities in the country, Philly would be the first one to do that.
When did you have your first beer?
Well, it was definitely a Yuengling because that was what my dad drank when I was little. I was eight or ten, and it was probably me just asking, “can I take a sip of this?” and him being like, ‘yeah, sure,’ type of thing. I remember just hating it and then not wanting to try another beer for a long time after that.
When did you come back to beer?
I remember the first time being like, ‘Oh, beer is kind of a cool thing,’ in high school. My dad and my uncle, either on Christmas or Christmas Eve, had a holiday mixed variety pack of Samuel Smith Beers, which is a British brewery from Yorkshire. I remember trying those beers and thinking, ‘Oh, that's not what I thought beer was.’ My uncle got into home brewing, briefly…he lost interest, but he would have the [home brewing] kits lying around. Me and my cousin, we were like 16, we would brew them and they were terrible, but we obviously drank them. We didn't care. And then that's when I started getting really into it.
It took you three tries to pass the Master Cicerone exam. What made the third time the charm?
My mindset, I think I came in from a more confident place. The first time, I really didn't know what the hell I was doing. I didn't have anybody really to help me or to set my expectations. I spent a lot of time on things that in retrospect really weren't going to be on there, like hop cultivation and breeding. I spent like ten hours study that, and it turns out nothing on that was on there. But that's going to happen no matter what. When you have a test like this where anything is on the table, you just try your best and you have to rely on your experience. Well, the second time, it was a disaster, a ball of nerves. We were shooting a documentary that was following me around preparing to take the exam. That was a punch in the gut. The third time was me not leaving anything up to chance. ‘I'm going to spend literally hundreds of hours and I'm just going to make it happen.’ And I really focused, just going in, being calm and competent, not freaking out.
Out of the 16 Master Cicerones, how many are women?
There are two currently. I would venture to say that is going to change in a significant way. There are a few people that I know, either personally or have interacted with, that are preparing or leaning towards preparing to take the exam and are very promising candidates. So I would expect that number to go up in the very near future.
Why do you think there is a sex disparity in the beer world?
Beer has suffered from a bit of a stigma over time that it's a dude drink. I can't tell you how many beer dinners I've either been a part of or been asked to be a part of that are titled ‘He Said Beer, She Said Wine,’ like some weird battle of the sexes. This old, outdated sexist approach of beers are for dudes and girls don't like beer is absolute bullshit. Organizations like Pink Boots Society are doing a lot to bring female brewers into the fold.
For those who aren’t beer experts, what advice would you give someone who gets confused choosing a beer from the menu?
Knowing a little bit about beer styles goes a long way. Whenever people talk about the value of doing the first level of the Cicerone program, the certified beer server, people will be like, 'well I don't work in the industry, I'm not a beer server. I'm an accountant, but I like beer. So, what's the value in [a program like] that?' I will tell people you have to have a pretty solid understanding of beer styles to pass that exam. So when you look at a menu, you can go 'I know American IPA, I know what a Belgian Witbier is going to deliver on roughly, I know what an American porter is going to deliver on roughly.' So knowing about beer styles is going to give you a lot of context clues on [on a beer] list, and that reduces a little bit of anxiety around picking a beer. Also, don't hesitate to ask for a sample. Most places will just do that. They don't care. It's just an ounce of beer and they want you to be happy with the beer that you pick.
What advice would you give to self-proclaimed non-beer drinkers?
A well-trained staff can go a long way to help somebody like that. The first question you want to ask them is 'what do you like, what do you drink?' And a lot of times I’ll tell [non-beer drinkers], 'what do you like outside of beer?' And they'll start to tell me about how they like chardonnay or they like bourbon or they like a particular cocktail. Somebody may say, I really like a greyhound, which is gin and grapefruit juice. So, I will say 'you obviously like things that have a bit of an herbaceous to it, you don't mind perfume-y flavors, and you like the taste of grapefruit. So [I would recommend] this grapefruit Saison or grapefruit Witbier. You can usually match flavors without having to know much about the individual.
On the other side of the beer isle, what do you think is a misconception or a problem among those who think they know beer?
People who think they know beer are immediately snobby about it. I think that there is a culture that has kind of cropped up with beer in recent years that we jokingly refer to as the 'wine-ification' of beer. If you're into beer and you love beer, you have to be really snobby and you have to make hot takes for days and you just have to be pretentious about it and shame people for the beers that they drink and things like that. And that's bullshit. I hate that. What I like about beer is that it is unpretentious, it's utilitarian and there's a beer for every occasion.