A Q&A with the newest MillerCoors Master Cicerone

Brian Reed, a MillerCoors trade brewer, last week achieved the most-exclusive status in beer: the title of Master Cicerone.

Reed is now one of just 16 people worldwide to earn the title. He joins fellow MillerCoors employees Jason Pratt, senior marketing manager, and Daniel Imdieke, beer education manager, as the third Master Cicerone at MillerCoors. (He’s also the first person from Pennsylvania to earn the honor.)

The Master Cicerone title is the fourth and highest level of certification issued by the Cicerone Certification Program, the beer world’s version of the wine industry’s Master Sommelier program. The test is administered just once per calendar year.

The grueling, two-day exam includes six hours of written essay questions, two hours of oral examination from 12 industry experts and two hours of tasting and evaluation covering more than 40 samples of beer. Candidates need an overall score of 85 percent to pass.

Reed, a native of western Pennsylvania who now lives in Pittsburgh, started homebrewing while studying advertising and public relations at Youngstown State University. After a stint working with a cellular phone service provider, he moonlighted at a handful of breweries while completing a graduate program at Point Park University. Reed joined the MillerCoors craft arm Tenth and Blake in 2013 as a distributor beer merchant, and later was promoted to a trade brewer for the Great Lakes region. He’s now the trade brewer supporting the national chain team.

We caught up with him today to discuss the honor.

Q: What spurred your interest in brewing?

A: My uncle started homebrewing while I was in high school, but he lost interest in it. Even so, people would buy him little kits for Father’s Day. When I got a little older, my cousin and I started trying to make them, and it was always terrible. Then my dad and I started doing it. We got a turkey fryer (a large pot that can double as a brewing kettle) as a gift one year and started making batches in the garage when I was home for breaks and whatnot. And like many hobbies, it turned more serious, and I just kept going.

Q: You’re a trade brewer for MillerCoors. What exactly is that?

A: A big part of what we do is beer education, promoting beer culture and getting people excited about beer in general, and our brands, specifically. We support sales and marketing teams across a region, as well as help our distributor partners with their educational needs. That could be creating food and beer pairing programs for a regional chain, helping our craft partners in that region or hosting beer dinners. I support our national accounts, which include our larger retail partners. I’m traveling most weeks.

Q: Why was it so important to you to be a Master Cicerone?

A: I guess I’m a competitive person. And a little stubborn, maybe. (Fellow MillerCoors employees) Jason Pratt and Daniel Imdieke and I all studied together and made it a point to go for it. The first time I took the exam, I got 83.6 percent. You need an 85 to pass. I was super-close. The second time, I got an 82.8. When you come that close and not walk away with (the title), it’s a tough pill to swallow. So I kept sticking with it and I got an 87. It’s a huge weight off my shoulders.

Q: What did it take for you to get over the hump?

A: I have been hitting it really hard, studying virtually every day for six or eight months. It’s literally been every spare moment. I had a lot of note cards — enough to fill one of those Rubbermaid totes where people store holiday decorations.

Q: What was the most difficult portion of exam?

A: Probably the essay because of the time-management aspect to it. I think last year I wrote 80 pages, hand-written for the essay over the course of two days. You have to strengthen up your hand just to get through it, physically.

Q: So you’re a certified expert on all things beer now. Build me a beer fridge.

A: The first beer I’d have — because in my mind it’s one of the three I go back to over and over again — is Pilsner Urquell. With changes we’ve made to packaging and shipping, that beer is now in great shape here. It’s supremely drinkable, food-friendly, balanced and has moderate alcohol.

Next, you’d have to go with Miller High Life. It’s clean, crisp and super drinkable. It’s spritzy, effervescent and refreshing. A go-to for sure.

I’m also a big fan of Duvel. It’s a gorgeous beer with a little more oomph to it. Even though it’s got an elevated (alcohol-by-volume), it’s pretty hop-forward when it’s fresh, and it finishes dry.

Every beer fridge needs a fruit-forward beer on hand. Here I’d either go with a Leinenkugel’s Grapefruit Shandy or a Blue Moon. They’re both great for pairing and have a subtle sweetness.

For a sour, I’d add Omer Vander Ghinste Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge. I love Flanders-style ales. I enjoy the complexity of malt character that accompanies the tartness and funk in this one. Plus it goes really well with red meat.

For something a bit darker, I’d go with the Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel. It’s really toasty with a Maillard-driven, bready malt.

Last you’ve got to have an English bitter. Here I like Fuller’s London Pride.

Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes consumers make with beer?

A: The first thing is writing off beer. I can’t tell you how many times people tell me ‘I don’t drink beer, I don’t like beer, beer gives me a headache,’ or some other reason. Then you find a beer for them that they like, and they tell you: ‘I didn’t know beer could taste like this.’ Beer is incredibly diverse, and there’s something for every taste.

Q: What advice do you have for the beer drinkers out there?

A: Be aware of quality and freshness. Drink beer fresh. With all of the brands and new breweries popping up, there’s a lot of old beer out there. You’ve got breweries putting beer in packages that aren’t good at putting beer in packages. Our breweries and other proven brewers, like Sierra Nevada, are obviously very good at putting beer in packages. Unfortunately there are others that don't have the same quality standards, so if their beer is more than a month old, I’m just not going to pay my money for it.

Q: There’s a fair amount of debate on glassware out there. What’s your take on the shaker pint?

A: Not a fan. I’m a bit of a glassware nut. Maybe to a fault. Appropriate glassware has such a huge effect on the entire experience with beer, and in turn, in the flavor of the beer. I think there’s a psychological element of having the right beer in an appropriate glass for the proper occasion that cannot be overstated.

Q: A glassware nut? How many beer glasses do you own?

A: (Long pause.) Hundreds. Maybe a couple hundred. I would say I use five on a regular basis, but yeah, I’ve got a bunch of glasses in storage.

Q: OK, last question. I hear you play a role in an upcoming documentary called “Brewmaster.”

A: Yeah. It was an interesting ride. I’ve never been on camera and it was pretty stressful at first, but I became more comfortable as time went on. The story started out as something focused on the origins of pilsner but has evolved into a study of the culture and evolution of beer culture in general in the United States. There are two side stories, and one of them is about me and my journey (to pass the Master Cicerone exam) last year. Spoiler alert: I didn’t pass. But I just talked to the director on Friday, and they’re planning to explain I went on to pass (this year.) It was hard to watch at first, but now that I’ve passed, I’m interested to see it through a slightly different lens.