Q&A with Angela Steil, Beer Director and House Certified Cicerone at Gravity Taphouse Grille.
Employing a Cicerone is kind of a new thing for restaurants. Typically they work with distributors. How did you wind up at Gravity?
Very rarely have I heard of a Cicerone being inside of a restaurant and working like a wine sommelier. It is all geared toward getting to the same status that wine has, but not with the same pretension. But with the same amount of respect. Any time I saw gigs like that they barely paid anything - about $20 thousand per year - but when Gravity came along (they approached Steil) I was pitching this idea, they kind of already had it in mind and they really thought this is going to work.
How did Gravity present to you the idea of having an in-house Cicerone as part of their strategy?
Apparently they had already had this inkling or idea. All I knew is they had heard about me via a Mitten Brew article and the editor of Mitten Brew was talking about me at an event at one of their other restaurants called Cork. They invited me out to lunch and I was already being courted by several people at the time. I went to meet them and was just blown away because everything I spelled out that I wanted to accomplish as a career… they said yes.
What does the fairly new concept of a restaurant having an in-house Cicerone say about the overall state of craft beer right now?
It says that we are a very excited craft beer culture. I came to Grand Rapids very specifically to propel the quality and education spectrum of the craft beer scene here, because I knew that we were ready for it, based on being Beer City USA. Technically, are we the best in the country? No. We are in what I call the infantile or toddler phase. But we have a very enthusiastic beer culture. One of the most enthusiastic ones I’ve ever seen and that’s incredibly inspiring and how could you not want to be a part of that? I came here to help be a catalyst for that change and to make sure we are propelling the scene in a positive and education-focused direction.
How do you view your job as a Cicerone?
“Cicerone” is Latin root for “Cicero” and it really means a “tour guide.” So you’re guiding people through the pallet experience. It’s like a beer steward of sorts. What I love about that idea and why I want to do it so much is it’s not about selling, it’s simply about suggesting. I love talking beer so much and I’m so enthralled with the actual styles and the history. I love working with people so much, it just seemed like the perfect gig for me. Not only can I create a brand new menu concept, but I can go and educate others. If (people want to ask questions) I’m here for that information.
How will a typical day look for you?
We are still trying to figure that out, but generally what it seems to be is that during the first portion of my day (usually around 2 p.m.) I would sit down and maybe meet with some sales reps and hear about what kinds of beers they are selling and create some contacts that way. There will be a lot of setting up beer events and beer educational events. That’s my next step. Then in the evening, going on the floor and acting as a Cicerone during the peak dinner hours. Servers and bartenders will let me know if customers have requested my services. I’d go over and ask them several questions to get to a flight or specific beer that would pair well with their food or just for sitting there.
What will some of the education and events you mentioned entail?
Starting in 2015 there will be a large push on my end for education. We can’t just have a venue with me suggesting beers. I’m sick of just the Beer 101 classes. I want to get very specific. I want to have a glassware class just talking specifically about beer glassware. Maybe have a local glassmaker come in? And it won’t just be me talking at these events. I want other people to come in. I have a hop farmer in Wisconsin that I think would be interesting to have come in. There would be different levels of classes. From very basic all the way to advance-level classes.
Interview conducted and condensed by Nick Manes. Edited by Lindsay Patton-Carson.