Boulder County has been dubbed the “Silicon Valley of beer” for good reason. There may be more beer tasting knowledge per capita on the Front Range among brewers and sippers than almost anywhere else in the nation.
We think we know beer here, but one local beer nerd has risen above us all. Patrick Combs, Colorado’s first Certified Master Cicerone, (pronounced “Sisser-own.”)
Not only is he one of most beer-savvy experts in the state, Combs stands out as one of only 28 people on the planet who have passed the master level test since it was created in 2008.
Combs has the title of Director of Liquids and is in charge of everything drinkable at Stem Ciders’ three locations – Acreage by Stem Cider and Ghost Box Pizza, both in Lafayette, and a Denver tasting room.
You are forgiven if you’ve never heard the word “cicerone.”
It’s much more than the bar exam of beer — it’s like earning your way onto the Supreme Court of Beer or becoming an ale Jedi. Master Cicerones must have an exceptional understanding of brewing combined with a great palate and an encyclopedic knowledge of every beer style in existence.
It may sound like Homer Simpson’s dream occupation, but becoming a Master Cicerone is more expensive and much less fun than you might think.
“In 2023 alone, I spent $4,500 on single bottles of beer,” Combs says. “I tasted two ounces of each, and the rest [went] down the drain. There’s way too much to actually drink.”
The international Cicerone Certification Program was sparked by a famed brewer Ray Daniels, who was frustrated at the low quality of the beer service and knowledge he encountered when he ordered an ale at a brewery or restaurant, according to Combs.
Wine was being treated reverentially by sommeliers. The same was true of spirits by bartenders and mixologists. Beer was not being taken seriously. It was just suds.
“The certification program was designed for people that wanted to understand beer better, have the ability to describe beer and figure out what kind of beer they should recommend to a customer,” Combs says. “That’s the level of service that I think most of us would expect and deserve, especially when we’re paying up to $10 for a locally brewed pint.”
Cheerios and dead flowers
Master Cicerone is the top honor of the Cicerone Certification Program, requiring applicants to pass an intensive two-day exam involving written and oral elements as well as tasting challenges.
“You are expected to write an entire dinner menu and pair beer with it and justify the pairings,” according to Combs. “You may be asked to write an essay on German Pilsners where you’re expected to know the entire history of that style.”
Much of the test material concerns important technical knowledge, i.e., keeping beer cold.
“You may be asked to write about setting up a beer festival and how you will assure the cooling requirements and draft beer line pressures,” he says
In other words, you do not want to play Beer Trivial Pursuit against this guy. Combs’ long and winding path to brewing wisdom began when he was just a child.
“The first beer my parents let me taste was a Heineken when I was seven years old,” he says, noting that his mom and dad were mainly into fine wine, not beer. “I remember very distinctly that to me it tasted like Cheerios and dead flower buds – basically, grain and hops.”
Combs’ epiphany came when he was a marketing undergraduate at Oklahoma State University.
“I think I just hadn’t had fresh beer as a student since it wasn’t stored properly cold,” he says. “My real eureka moment — the lightning strike — was tasting a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I learned there’s such an incredible difference between something that is fresh and something that has been mishandled.”
That taste changed his life, Combs says. “I decided to try to find a career in the beverage industry, because I really liked everything about it.”
The only problem was that the beer industry was initially less than interested in him.
“Without experience, beer people wouldn’t give you the time of day, even for an interview,” he says. “I was applying to do whatever job would get my foot in the door. I was met with so much resistance that to make my dream a reality, I had to create my own path.”
Before he became the Director of Liquids at Stem, Combs also worked at WeldWerks Brewing in Greeley and Boulder’s Avery Brewing.
“It’s been a 10-year journey of studying to get to this moment, and it’s been very challenging,” he says, admitting that his obsession and study schedule negatively impacted some of his relationships. “I just wanted to prove to the world that I had achieved that level of knowledge, that I had that skill set.”
Combs works for an award-winning cidery that serves only a handful of local beers at its three locations. But much of the Master Cicerone knowledge also applies to cider, especially when it comes to service.
“Right now, we’re going through the same sort of renaissance in cider, but we’re 20 years or so behind beer,” he says. “We have a lot of people that come into Stem Ciders who say, ‘I’m not a cider person.’ We say: “OK, what do you normally drink?’ If they say IPAs, we offer a sample of our Apricot Haze cider with three types of hops.
“It’s evangelizing. It’s getting that liquid into people’s mouths so they can make that big discovery.”
Local Food News: CHUBurger Revival
The apple strudel at Boulder’s Bohemian Biergarten (2017 13th St.) was recently featured by Guy Fieri on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Oskar Blues’ CHUBurger has reopened after four years as a permanent food truck at 3rd Shot Pickleball, 20 S. Bowen St. in Longmont.
Shin Yuu Izakaya has opened at 917 Front St. in Louisville, former site of Sushi Yoshi.
La Belle French Bakery is dishing pastries at a new location at 1170 US-287 in Broomfield.
The last remaining local T.G.I. Fridays has closed at 125 Ken Pratt Blvd. in Longmont.
Coming soon: Ruzo Coffee, 3980 Broadway, Unit 104, Boulder.
Words to Chew On: Exquisite Cardboard
A customer at Poulette Bakeshop in Parker recently made the following comment on Instagram.
“I got an eclair here once, paid $10 or something for just one, it tasted like cardboard. Whole Foods has better eclair’s (sic),” the commenter wrote.
Poulette Bakeshop then responded: “Here at Poulette, we pride ourselves on using only the highest quality cardboard for our eclairs. This commitment to excellence is characterized by our use of only the best ‘freshly corrugated’ cardboard available from our local cardboard manufacturers. … Thanks so much for taking the time to write.”
John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles Thursday mornings on KGNU-FM. Podcasts: kgnu.org/category/radio-nibbles