Five Questions for the Cicerone: Robyn Schumacher
"If you put a fence around me anywhere outside, gave me a beer, and called it a beer garden, I’d be happy." Amen, sister.
Newly minted Cicerone Robyn Schumacher jumped into beer after 13 years teaching high school biology (“of course my favorite unit was fermentation”). Now she works for Marination Nation, both on the truck and at the restaurant. However when owners Roz Edison and Kamala Saxton open their new Alki Beach location later this summer, Schumacher will oversee the beer program, which will include a sessionable house beer brewed by White Center’s Big Al Brewing.
One year ago, Schumacher hadn’t even heard of the term Cicerone (basically the beer equivalent to wine’s sommelier certification program, but a few decades newer). But an internship at Big Al Brewing clued her in to the program, and she started the massive preparation process in November 2011. She took her exam (which includes multiple choice questions, essays, tasting, and a videotaped demonstration) at Fremont Brewing Company on April 11; perhaps it was a good omen that the proctor was Nicole Erny, the first woman to become a Master Cicerone.
Here, five beer-related questions for Robyn Schumacher.
How was the process of studying for and taking the exam?
There’s a good portion of the test that can be learned through pure academic means, there are also parts that can only be learned by doing and experiencing. I’ve been brewing my own beer for a few years now so that experience was really helpful. The hands on experience and working with brewers at Big Al Brewing (wonderful people, by the way) was invaluable.
To study for the tasting portion of the test, I prepared by tasting lots and lots of different styles of beers. I made flash cards for each style of beer and downloaded the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines app on my phone. In the evenings, my partner and I would sample a specific style of beer, write down our impressions and then discuss them together. We would then look at other people’s impressions on sites like ratebeer.com and beeradvocate.com. I’ve been drinking beer for a long time, but I hadn’t been as thoughtful in my tastings in the past. I found that reading about the history and origins of the styles while at the same time tasting them was a really fun way to study. I understand now, better than ever, why beers from certain regions taste the way that they do. I also found that I enjoyed certain beer styles more than I had in the past.
What are some of your favorite local beers?
That’s a tough one because I’ve tried so many delicious beers from so many local breweries. I attend a lot of beer festivals and it’s always fun to be surprised by a great beer that a local brewery is presenting for the first time. I’m a big fan of Elysian Brewery, for one. They make consistently great beer. My favorite is the Avatar Jasmine IPA. Their seasonal Bifrost winter ale is definitely something I look forward to every year. Maritime’s Dry-Hopped Islander Pale Ale is a favorite, also. I recently tried Sound Brewery’s Belgian-style tripel, Tripel Entendre, at the Washington Brewer’s Fest and it was outstanding! Some of my other favorites are Big Al IPA, Schooner Exact’s King Street Brown Ale, Two Beers Trailhead ISA….I could go on and on.
If you extend “local” to the Pacific Northwest region, the list gets even longer. I’ve always been a huge fan of Deschutes beers. I even named my now 10-year old dog Porter after their Black Butte Porter. Ninkasi’s Maiden the Shade is another favorite. Cascade Brewery in Portland puts out some delicious sour beers. I also recently made a trip to Leavenworth’s Icicle Brewing and had their Priebe Porter. So delicious!
What about area places to drink beer?
My favorite place to drink beer is outside. I swear, if you put a fence around me anywhere outside, gave me a beer, and called it a beer garden, I’d be happy. The words "beer garden" are like a siren song to me.
As for established places to drink, I really like Brouwer’s Cafe in Fremont. I know that’s an easy answer, but I really appreciate the knowledgeable staff and the respectful way that they treat their beer. I also really love to drink beer at Quinn’s on Capitol Hill. They have a respectable beer selection and the bartenders are always welcoming and helpful.
Besides the outdoors, my other favorite places to drink beer are the breweries themselves. I love the smell of beer brewing and just looking at all of the equipment hard at work. Brewers are some of the most passionate and helpful people I’ve ever met and I feel very comfortable in their breweries.
Most underrated beer style?
Flemish brown ale (or Flanders oud bruin). I wouldn’t say this style is underrated, but I do think it is “undiscovered” by people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as beer drinkers. When someone says they don’t like beer, I just think they haven’t experienced the right one yet ☺ I’ve found that when I give a non-beer drinker a beer like Bellegems Bruin or Liefmans Oud Bruin, their whole perception of what beer can be is altered.
Do you have any beer pet peeves?
My greatest pet peeve (besides the crazy PBR fad…don’t get me started on that) is when the people who sell beer speak down to consumers. Nobody wants to feel like they are being “schooled” when they order a beer. They want to be informed about their choices and maybe learn something new, but mostly they want to just drink a great beer. That’s why I like to drink at breweries. They’re not trying to show me up with their knowledge; they’re just excited to share what they’ve created. There’s just something so appealing to me about the joy brewers express when they’re serving their own beer.