Nicole Erny, Master Cicerone

Last Call by | Mar 2012 | Issue #62

Photo by Jon Weber / Beer Obsessed

Nicole Erny celebrated her 21st birthday at Toronado. She was the first bartender at The Trappist in Oakland, Calif., and then landed her current gig with Ray Daniels’ Cicerone program. It wasn’t long till Erny was poring over fermentation textbooks and doing blind taste tests, cramming for the Cicerone certification exams.

After passing the preliminaries, she sat through the grueling, two-day-long Master Cicerone exam, which includes 10 hours of essay writing, plus oral exams and tasting sessions. On December 16—her 28th birthday—Erny learned that she’d earned the title “Master Cicerone.” She’s the fourth and youngest person, and the first woman to pass the test, which means she’s got many years ahead of her along with the elite credentials to enact the changes she wants to see in the beer world.

How did you feel after the exam was over?
After the exam, on the first day, it feels like you’re in the trenches. You’re exhausted and you’re processing, and you can’t stop talking about it. I actually felt physically ill that night. … The next day after the exam, there’s this overwhelming feeling of relief that you don’t have to write any more essays. And you develop a camaraderie with the people you take the exam with, which is really fun.

How has the beer community responded to your success?
Really positive. … Actually, going into the exam, I was just kind of scared about that as far as, well, if I pass, people are going to say it was fraud, and if I don’t pass, people will say, “Well, she has no qualifications, why is she working for the organization?” … And actually that’s the reason I took the exam this year. … I was scared that Ray was going to ask me to come help, and I didn’t want any exposure to any portion of the exam before taking it and passing it.

What do you think about women’s groups in the beer industry?
I am a member of Pink Boots Society, and I think it’s wonderful it exists. I think it’s definitely getting easier for women in the beer industry, but … it shouldn’t be so unexpected that there are women that are working in all aspects of the industry. I think they do need a voice, because not every person is cut out to “rah-rah” advocate for themselves. … So it’s definitely an asset, and anyone who has a problem with women or a women’s organization like that in a male-dominated industry I think really needs to hear some of the stories women have about how differently they’ve been treated on the basis of their gender.

What changes would you like to see in the beer industry?
I just hope to see more and more well-educated people working at every level of the industry. … I’d like to see better adherence to line cleaning and glassware cleaning, industry standards. … It just has a huge impact on the consumer experience. I hope to see a wider range of products. … I’d like to see consumers really get used to the idea of having a similar stratification of prices of beer as there is to wine. … What that allows is for brewers to be infinitely more creative with what they do … and experiment more … and not having to worry that much about cost effectiveness. … I’m not talking about beer that’s expensive just to be expensive. …

I hope to just see higher-quality beer across the board. I think right now the American beer market is getting so flooded with new breweries and beer, and also so many breweries feel stretched on their output because they’re selling beer so fast, that quality has gone down a bit in certain markets … and part of [getting higher-quality beer] is having better-educated consumers and better-educated beer buyers.