The Cicerone® organization is a wondrous thing for the beer industry. Founded in 2007 by Ray Daniels, it does for beer what sommelier accreditation does for wine. In the past nine years a whopping 76,985 people have become accredited: 74,403 have passed the Certified Beer Server® exam and 2,551 are now proud Certified Cicerones®.
That last number includes yours truly, who has, quite foolishly, opted to take the new Advanced Cicerone® exam in just two weeks from now. There are but 20 Advanced Cicerones® to date (this qualification, between Certified and Master level, is less than a year old) and by all accounts the drop off rate is north of 85%.
So I figured I might go recce the venue for my exam, which is leading edge Orange County brewery, The Bruery.
(Read that last sentence out loud, go on.)
Which is more than appropriate, as The Bruery’s founder, Patrick Rue, is one of only 11 people ever to have passed the Master Cicerone® exam, a gruelling two day marathon of tasting and writing about beer that allows only true all-round beer experts to claim its prize.
“I took the Master Cicerone® to prove to myself that I could excel at something exam-based in a subject I’m passionate about,” Rue told me, when I met him at his offices. “I’ve never really been a great student – despite going to law school, which I wasn’t that good at – but I do think I’m a pretty good brewer. I wanted to show myself that I could combine my passion for beer with something more academic and do it well.”
“I’m really glad I did it,” he continued, “if only because I wouldn’t ever want to do it again! Having done it helps give our brewery a bit of credibility, and show that we respect classical styles. It helps me coach and mentor members of my team who are going for Certified Cicerone®, or Advanced Cicerone®. And I’ve met some great people through the Cicerone organization. It’s like a big family.”
The reason Rue mentions classical styles is that he’s famous for niche, highly experimental beer. The Bruery only sends beer out the door in kegs and 750ml bottles, which often carry pretty punchy price tags.
And the beers they release run the gamut of the unexpected and extraordinary. On the day I visited, the taproom was pouring such oddities as The Traveling Plum, a wild ale brewed with prunes, plums, salt and spices, and So Happens It’s Tuesday (check the acronym), a ludicrously flavorful but slightly smaller version of the famously rare Black Tuesday, a 19% ABV bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout.
“When I started I was really just looking for fulfilment in life and doing something I was passionate about. Which is why I made unusual, delicious beers. I never thought there would be enough demand for them to grow my business into what it’s become today,” Rue reflected.
“But the market for high end beer has taken off and helped us up our game,” he said. “It’s not so much that we need to grow, but growth gives us profits, which enables us to invest in quality, which helps our beers reach a wide audience tasting the way I want them to.”
As Rue showed me around the facility we happened upon a great example of the investment in quality: his relatively new pasteurization unit. Given that pasteurization is a curse word in some parts of the industry, I was curious how it came to be there.
“We were getting ready to package White Chocolate [an offbeat wheat-based barrel-aged barley wine with added cocoa nibs and vanilla] last year. Every sample from every barrel we tested was clean, but then we tested beer in the brite tank and it indicated lactobacillus was present. We kept the beer cold in the brite tank and I ordered the unit that day,” Rue explained.
“Four months later it arrived, we pasteurized the beer and it tasted great. We now use it on all clean barrel-aged beers (i.e. non-sour beer) that are under 15% ABV,” he said.
Patrick Rue is on record saying he’ll never want sales people, as he wants his beers to be in sufficient demand (and be sufficiently scarce) that they won’t require pushing. With labels and a logo originally designed by beer legend Randy Mosher, and an impressive 4.15 average on BeerAdvocate, Rue’s bottles should sell themselves.
He laughs when I mention this. “Don’t get me wrong, I love sales people! It’s just that I want to make sure we’re selling a product whose intrinsic value people recognize. I don’t ever want to put our beer where it doesn’t belong. You won’t see it in 7-11.”
“But who knows, if the market keeps getting competitive and with more great beers out there every year, maybe we’ll need sales people just to get our beers where they should be,” he said with a smirk.
“Who’d have thought we’d see the day when specialty bottle shops with expert staff would get called on by sales people?”
Thanks Patrick, for reaffirming why I need that Advanced Cicerone®. I’d better quit typing this and hit the books…
10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Patrick Rue, Founder & CEO, The Bruery
- Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?
We make craft beer at what I believe to be the highest point of craft beer. We make beers that most breweries would see as impractical, annoying and not worth their time!
I think we’re the definition of niche.
- How long have you worked here?
The brewery has been open eight-and-a-half years, and I home-brewed for five years before that. I call it 13 years of brewing.
- How and why did you come to be here?
When I graduated from college my dad made me do a career assessment thing, which told me I would be a good gardener, or a forest ranger, and that basically I had an underlying need to create things with my hands. But, ignoring that, I went to law school! I figured that if you have a law degree you have a lot of options.
Within the first month at law school I was driving my wife crazy, so she told me to get a hobby. A friend of mine had started home-brewing, so I gave it a try. I turned out to be pretty good and became quite obsessed. I would brew multiple batches in a week, try out a lot of esoteric styles and won a few competitions.
By the time I graduated I knew I wanted to work in beer. At first I thought I’d be an attorney for a brewery. Turns out not many breweries want an attorney, and those that do don’t want someone fresh out of school! I looked at becoming a brewer, but with tuition loans and so on, starting in a production role wasn’t going to work for my family and I.
The only option I really had was to open my own brewery, and thankfully it worked out. It’s a big call to take that sort of a plunge, but, especially with support from my family, I was able to convince myself to give it a shot.
- What is your daily routine?
Well, there’s a lot of email.
I usually work at home covering off on emails from about 6 till 9am, when I’ll come into the brewery and carry on here. There are a lot of meetings, a lot of time spent planning out our brewing calendar and thinking about what we should be doing in the future.
At least one day a week I try not to check email and take a day off. I’m starting to get to the point where I can give myself a bit of a break. And I travel a lot less than I used to – maybe six weeks out of the year. To stay afloat we had to open up about 14 states back in 2009, so that meant a lot of time meeting distributors and making sure the beer was selling. But thankfully there’s plenty of people who work here these days who love to travel and represent the brewery.
- What is the hardest thing about your job?
Managing people. When you’re in a small business, it’s mainly just you, and you only have to worry about what you think. As your business grows and you take on more people, you have to change your habits to see things from other people’s perspective. You need to work out how to motivate people and get the best out of them.
It’s a transition, and not necessarily one you plan for. And it’s definitely not something they teach you how to do in school.
- In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?
Really good hazy, hoppy beers!
The market’s so competitive nowadays you need to be able to anticipate the next trend. Which is sort of what we did. When we opened there wasn’t much demand for high end, expensive beer, but there is now. So we’ve been able to grow with that trend.
There’s no sure-fire bets you can make these days, but my advice would be to cater to your local market, be creative and dabble in some interesting styles. When it looks like one might take off, go after it.
- What is success for you?
Having happy employees, a happy wife and making delicious beer!
- If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
Wow, great question. This industry is so great, it’s hard to think of what I’d like to change. One area that is fertile for change is how beer festivals work in California. There are so many festivals and we’re expected to pour at a great deal of them. If we don’t, we become the stuck up, arrogant brewer.
Festivals are expensive for us to participate in— we should only do them if they make sense for us. There are a lot of festivals run by folks who put them on for-profit (with a non-profit receiving some proceeds to get the licensing), but they don’t often pay for the beer. I’d make sure that for-profit festivals pay for the beer. I think this would greatly change the economics, and there would be fewer festivals overall. The true non-profit festivals would continue to see our involvement and provide us a great platform to sample a lot of great people on our beer.
- Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?
This is a hard question. These will just be a flavor…
- St. Bernardus 12 was a beer I gravitated toward a lot in law school. Such complex malt flavors, like plum, prune, brown sugar. I love everything about quads, and I’d be split between this and Cuvee Van De Keizer Blue Label.
- Drie Fonteinen’s vintage lambic, the Oude Geuze, is incredibly complex without being overly sour. It just has everything going on: an incredible amount of funk, but it’s still balanced.
- The first double IPA I ever had is no longer made. It was just called Frank, made by Pizza Port – I think the one in Carlsbad [here Patrick disagrees with the internet, which says Solana Beach – but I’ll take his Master Cicerone® opinion over the internet’s any day]. I had just started home-brewing and the brewer, Kirk McHale, served it to me as I was geeking out on my first visit to the mecca that is Pizza Port. Trying a double IPA for the first time and getting to chat with an accomplished brewer was a big moment in my beer life. It was an amazing experience.
- Apart from the taproom next door, where’s the best place to get a beer in this part of Orange County?
There are a lot of options near here. Bottle Logic is a brewery about a mile and a half away, Noble Ale Works is about two miles away. Out Of The Park Pizza is a pizza joint that really champions Orange County beers. Chapman Crafted in Old Town Orange makes great beer. Oh, and Stereo Brewing opened last Saturday, you should absolutely check them out.