Sommeliers and mixologists may come a dime a dozen at Strip eateries, but a cicerone—a certified beer expert—is a lot harder to find. Mandalay Bay’s director of food and beverage, Sarah Johnson, recently earned the title after a grueling three-hour exam, making her Nevada’s only female certified cicerone and one of just 611 cicerones in the world.
What inspired you to get certified as a cicerone?
I went to culinary school in Portland, Ore., so I always dug beer—drinking beer and brewing beer and pairing beer with food. When Sean DiCicco, our current vice president, was promoted ... he knew I needed a kick, something I could be passionate about and get me more engaged in food and beverage again. So I brought back to him the idea of beer, because as much as I love it and am passionate about it, I also think there’s a real opportunity that we’re missing out on at Mandalay Bay specifically and in Vegas generally. So I put together the plan to get my certification, and I spent a good year just studying and drinking and traveling and talking to people about beer.
What does getting certified mean?
A certified cicerone is a rough equivalent of, like, the advanced sommelier. It’s someone who has been tested and proven to be an expert in all things beer. Notably for me, my focus was on pairing with food. Knowing about service, as well, history, brewing technique.
How do you plan to incorporate that into Mandalay Bay?
The first thing we’ll do is just expand the scope of our menus. So we’re going to drop in some craft beers throughout our bars and lounges. But we’re also going to have events, bringing in some brewers. I’d love to have a food and beer weekend. I’ve reached out to chefs; I’ve already gotten great reaction from Hubert Keller, Charlie Palmer, Michael Mina.
Are you planning to include offerings from local breweries?
We’ll definitely support the local community. And that’s one of the great things about beer—it’s really approachable. The community that surrounds it is just fantastic; beer people are just good people. There’s no pretense. Everybody at some point can kick back and drink a beer. It’s just very comfortable.
Part of the cicerone exam involves doing blind taste tests and naming different styles. What was that like?
There were 12 different kinds. It was style-driven, so from a hefeweizen to double oak barrel-aged stouts to a sour. It was just all over the board. There’s also off-flavor detection, where you have to determine if there’s an off-flavor in the beer, what it is and where it possibly could have come from. I really dug that a lot. An example would be diacetyl, which is a butterscotch-y flavor. It’s actually what they use to butter popcorn at the movies. There’s a lot of debate, too, over whether there are acceptable off-flavors or not.
There’s a two-hour written portion, as well. Short answer, essays, it covered everything from history to brewing technique to style identification and pairing with food. That was really intense. I’m glad that’s over.
There are only 611 certified cicerones in the world. Is that because the value of beer is still relatively new in the culinary world, or is it just really, really hard to get the title?
I think a little of both. Definitely, it is really hard. Last I heard, I think the pass rate was right around 55 percent. So those that are taking it are bombing at a pretty alarming rate. But it’s also been the growth in the industry. The certification program has been around since 2008, so it’s taking some time to catch on, too. But the growth in sales and in breweries around the U.S. has definitely elevated the status of the product. There had been a need for it. We don’t have to be the cast-off second cousin of wine.
What about beer’s gendered reputation? It’s not really marketed for women; we’re told to like these sweet drinks. I think a lot more women think they don’t like beer rather than actually dislike it.
That’s true, yeah. You can also think of that in the same way that people tell me that they don’t like beer, they like wine. “You can’t drink beer, it has too many calories.” The experience they’ve had is with their lawnmower beer that their grandpa drank, you know? I get excited when I talk to those people because then it’s a challenge for me. I feel, as an ambassador of beer, I can find something that everybody likes.
What are some of your favorite beers right now?
I’m definitely a self-identified hop-head. So any IPA, double IPA you put in front of me is great. I’m really digging Tenaya Creek and what they’re doing. They make some great stuff locally. And whatever Lagunitas is doing, I’m a fan of constantly … If you’re new to beer, the gateway beer has probably got to be an IPA.