Tucked between the Mission and Bernal Heights neighborhoods of San Francisco arises the unmistakable and ornately decorated façade of Old Devil Moon. The distinct smell of aged wood and burning wax welcomes anyone who finds their way into this eclectic, beer-centric bar. Past the entrance and next to their famed “fortune teller photo booth”, you’re likely to find Andrew Kelley behind the bar, one of ODM’s several certified Cicerones, most likely engaged in a conversation about beer types, history, or brewing techniques.
We sat down with Andrew to pick his mind about all things beer; from the techniques of brewing specific types of beer all the way to proper tasting, and everything in between.
This week, we uncover a little more about Old Devil Moon, Andrew, and exactly what the process is to become a Cicerone.
Tell us a little about Old Devil Moon,and the space itself.
AK: My business partner came up with the name and the vibe, it was sort of his brainchild. He used to live in Florida, spent some time in Texas and went back and forth a lot to spend time in New Orleans. So he wanted a place that was...the adjective he used was “Swampy”.
That’s the perfect word to describe it. How long have you guys been around?
AK: We had our four year anniversary back in September. We’re working on five years now, but obviously the last was different than the first three.
You’ve definitely been tested over the last year.
AK: We had to completely reinvent ourselves, these days we've had to, to some extent, shift the perception of consumers. A lot of people used to come here to drink and not to eat. Now all sudden we're telling them they have to order food.
Luckily we have a lot of regulars who come to eat anyways. They’ve been our bread and butter before and during the pandemic.
Beyond the food, you have an extensive wall of beer taps and bottles too.
You know, when we first came together to think about opening a bar, we weren't looking for a space that had a kitchen or cocktails, we were just planning on doing a craft beer bar. My business partners and I are all certified Cicerones, one is an advanced Cicerone, and we also have a couple of certified Cicerones in our bar staff as well, so we really wanted to go all in on the beer side, but the kitchen has been a nice addition.
How does someone become a Cicerone, and what exactly does that mean?
AK: So the Cicerone program has been around for about 13 years now, it’s an independent program with their own certification process which has become sort of the industry standard. It combines style and historical beer knowledge, in addition to tasting ability. Knowledge of off-flavors, brewing process and proper service, it pretty much encapsulates everything in the beer industry, from the brewing all the way to the pouring of the beer.
So there’s some sort of exam? What does that look like?
AK: Yeah, the written portion alone takes around 3 hours and encompasses history and brewing knowledge. Then there’s the tasting portion which is three separate parts.
The first part is identifying off flavors. There are tons of different flavors that can be found in beers that are indicative of either brewing flaws or handling flaws.
What they'll do is they'll take a really light, low flavor beer and put a couple of drops of concentrated chemical compounds that mimic the common off flavors that can be found in beer, and we have to identify them.
What comes next?
AK: The second one is a style knowledge, so they'll give you a beer and they'll ask you to choose what style it is between two options. So for example, they’ll say, “Is this beer an English Brown Ale, or an American Porter?”, from there you inspect it, smell it, taste it and give them the answer.
You know, it’s funny how much looking at a beer affects the way that you think it's going to taste. You can have an amber ale, blindfold the taster and tell them that it's a pilsner, and they'll fully believe that it’s a pilsner.
It makes sense that appearance makes a difference in the experience of tasting a beer, it would be confusing to try a dark Guinness-like beer just to find it tastes like an IPA.
AK: People have a lot of conceptions about certain beer styles based on their appearance. Like anyone thinks, “oh if it's if it's a darker color, it's going to be strong and high alcohol”, but there are lighter bodied beers that use dark malts to add a roasty flavor and a dark color which completely throws people off.
What is the final portion of the exam?
AK: The third one is the fit-for-service portion. So they'll give us beers that they bought at the store, and we’ll taste them first to make sure there's no flaws. But then some of them, just like the first off-flavor test, will be spiked with specific flaws that are related to handling and service. For example, I was given one with a specific type of bacteria that can live in draft lines that aren’t dangerous, but tend to create off flavors.
Even with my lack of a trained palate, I appreciate the fact that I'm being served a product that is at the height of its quality, it's nice to know that and that you're being served by people who really care about what they're doing.
AK: You know, I'm happy that I've learned so much about beer and that I can like, seek out the best beers in the world, know what to expect, and serve them the way they’re supposed to be served. We taste all of our beers before we serve them, and will sometimes have very heated debates about if they’re okay for service based on the smallest tasting flaws that wouldn't otherwise be noticeable.
And you know, some flaws are perfectly acceptable in low levels for a specific style, like certain German pilsners can have a small amount of sulfur. Having that knowledge can help us tell what flaws are acceptable, and which require us to take them off tap to make sure we’re serving the best product.
Now I feel like I’m going to be fully aware of this anytime I have a beer that tastes a little...off.
AK: Luckily consumers are becoming more knowledgeable, not necessarily knowing the chemicals themselves, but what those off flavors are. Along with this comes the expectation that their local bars and taprooms are doing things right.
I think part of that is because so many small breweries have opened their own tap rooms. And obviously, a brewery is going to take care of their beer.. So people are more likely to taste the beer at the source and more easily recognize when it's not being handled properly at another establishment. We try to be true to the source and make sure that every beer we serve is at peak quality.
Next week, we move on to a deeper dive into off-flavors in beer, how to identify them (it’s chalk full of nuance) and where they come from.
In the meantime, pay a visit to Old Devil Moon at 3472 Mission Street, get yourself a beer, and take in the incredible atmosphere they’ve been able to create.
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