Courtesy of Boulevard Brewing Co.
Neil Witte is one of nine.
There are nine Master Cicerones in the world.
The distinction is the highest level one can reach in beer knowledge, not unlike a Master Sommelier, the highest education level to be reached in wine. (There are 229 master sommeliers in the world, to put things into perspective.) The exam to be named a Master Cicerone is grueling; several have tried, most have failed, but tonight, June 2, you can meet one of the few who passed. The Answer Brewpub is hosting Witte during its tap takeover with Duvel and Bouelvard Brewing Co.
If you have a burning beer question, this is your chance to get the answer from a master. Of course, we had a few burning questions of our own, so we caught up with Witte to chat about his journey to becoming a Master Cicerone, his must-try beers and what he does in his free time.
Richmond magazine: Tell us about you, your background, etc. What drew you to beer ultimately?
Witte: I graduated from the University of Missouri in 1993 with degrees in German and Philosophy. After a trip to Germany in 1993, I decided to start home brewing. My interest grew and got me in with a friend who was (and still is) the head winemaker at a local winery. I worked a couple years there on the bottling line, working grape crush and managing the bar. From there I hooked up with a local Kansas City brewpub company, landing an assistant brewer position in early 1997 but by the end of that year, I had gotten a job brewing at Boulevard Brewing Co. After brewing for about three and a half years, I moved into a Field Quality position, which ended up evolving into a more broad-based education and field quality position. I still hold that position today. Duvel acquired Boulevard Brewing Co in January of 2014.
RM: You passed your Master Cicerone in 2012. Tell us about the exam, what it entails and your experience with it.
Witte: The exam is very intensive. It’s two days of essay, oral exam and tasting. It’s the hardest exam I’ve ever taken in my life (and I have degrees in Philosophy and German). It covers process and ingredients, beer styles, beer and food pairings and storage, and serving and draught systems. It requires comprehensive knowledge of all topics. I prepared for around four years to ultimately pass the exam.
RM: What do you suggest aspiring beer "nerds" should get to know especially if they want to follow in your footsteps with their education?
Witte: Get to know some of the great examples of some of the classic styles. Get to know fresh beer. When you have a fresh example of a classic style or brand, you can really start to learn what great beer is.
RM: What do you see emerging in the beer/brewing world now?
Witte: It’s hard to keep up with these days. Sour ales are getting bigger. American brewers are really stepping up their use of more aromatic yeast strains (“Belgian” or “Farmhouse”). The use of Brettanomyces strains is becoming more common as well. All of this is adding to the complexity of beers. This is the same thing we’re seeing with hops. Everyone is trying to create new flavors in their beers and they’re using all the tools at their disposal: acidity, fermentation, new hop aromas and flavors. It’s all very exciting.
RM: Have you been to Richmond? Are you familiar with our beer scene? Have you tried some of our beer? We have over 10 breweries that have popped up in the last three years; to you, is that good growth? Do you see this happening other places?
Witte: I have not been to Virginia except as a child and I am very much looking forward to trying what they have to offer. Multiple breweries emerging is a trend I see almost everywhere I go now.
RM: Other than beer, do you have beverage preferences?
Witte: I appreciate good beverages in general, but I have a particular affinity for bourbon and rye whiskey.
RM: Can you name five beers that you think everyone should try a least once?
Witte: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – American craft beer wouldn’t be the same without this beer.
Boulevard Saison-Brett – The perfect vehicle for beautiful Brettanomyces aromas and flavors.
North Coast Old Rasputin – Everything a big, rich stout should be.
Rodenbach Grand Cru – A great, classic sour ale.
Pilsener Urquell – American beer drinkers should know the history of American domestic beer.
RM: Where do you go from here? You are one of nine. What is the next step?
Witte: I don't know. I’m seeing where things take me. I am in an exciting place with Boulevard and Duvel. There is tons of opportunity. I am basically responsible for training and education. We have a huge sales team, and I want to make sure they know everything beer-related. The boom isn’t slowing down. I still get lots of requests to talk about beer.
RM: What does your family think off all this brew stuff?
Witte: I have three kids: [ages] 10, 12 and 17. The cicerone thing didn’t mean a whole lot to them, I don’t think. My daughter has a friend that has a local brewpub and it didn't even occur to her to tell him that I am in the beer business. I think they saw me on Bar Rescue a month ago and got a kick out it. They understand, but I am not sure they are overly interested.
RM: Being in the alcohol business is interesting. When everyone is getting off work to head for a drink or talks about their hobbies and they include beer, where do you spend your free time?
Witte: There are so many beers, so little time [laughs]. My free time is fairly pedestrian. I am a runner, I play racket ball when I can. I love food, so I try lots of good restaurants.
RM: We have some insanely good restaurants in Richmond. Will you visit a few while you are here?
Witte: I hope to. It really is up to my "handlers." My schedule is pretty packed while I am there. But we have to eat, right?
Find Neil Witte and a host of Duvel and Boulevard beers on draft at The Answer Brewpub tonight, starting at 4 p.m.