Sommelier Michael McAvena of The Publican

Sommelier Michael McAvena of The Publican
April 2011

In early 2010, Michael McAvena became one of the first 150 people in the United States to hold the title of Cicerone, a considerable accomplishment even if most Americans aren’t familiar with the term. While the term “Cicerone”—a level of beer certification—may take a while to tap into mainstream USA, Americans have been tapping into the Cicerone’s bread and butter—beer—since Samuel Adams downed his first frothy tankard.

An Ohio native, McAvena graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But art school has a way of solidifying creative urges, and for McAvena, one of these became brewing beer at home.

McAvena spent time at The Violet Hour before taking a year to hump cases and stack coolers in the heady world of Chicago beer retail. During this time—at Binny’s, a Chicago beverage mainstay—McAvena cultivated his knowledge of all things foamy: from big league beer retailers to tiny, obscure boutique brewers around the globe. This experience, combined with his ongoing home brewing, compelled Chef Paul Kahan to draft McAvena for The Publican.

In 2008, McAvena became The Publican’s beer director, although the 25-year-old, loathe to accept flashy titles, answered more readily to "Beer Boy.” Whatever he’s called, McAvena brings a keen palate and encyclopedic beer savvy to The Publican’s beer list, a list that’s already gaining notoriety in Chicago and beyond. Since earning his Cicerone certification, McAvena has implemented a training program for The Publican’s staff. And when he’s not spewing beer knowledge for his colleagues or pairing brewskies, he can be found at home—brewing, of course.

Interview with Beer Sommelier Michael McAvena of The Publican - Chicago IL

Emily Bell: Beer sommeliers are definitely specialized within the beverage pairing world. How did you get into the industry in the first place?
Michael McAvena: I started in college. I was waiting tables at random restaurants, like a Vietnamese pho restaurant. I was probably like 20. And then I started to get really interested in food. I found a place called Saltaus, a local restaurant, owned by Michael Taus. It was a very unique place; the food was of very high quality. The chef at the time was Bradford Phillips; he had a lot of connections with guys like Donny Madia and Paul Kahan at Blackbird.

EB: How old were you when you first got into beer?
MM: I was still in college. I started getting into drinking high-quality craft beer. I didn’t know what it was, but I really liked it. I was kind of obsessed with it. I started reviewing and reading about it. And the chef was really responsive to me; I was asking questions about the food. He said, “What do you want to do?” And I said I wanted to do something with beer and food. And he said, “Paul [Kahan] is supposed to be opening this gastropub place, and I’ll tell him about you.” That was two and a half to three years before The Publican came to fruition. So he introduced me to them. Nothing came of it initially. But I started working at Binny’s Beverage Depot in the beer department. They opened this flagship store with this beautiful beer department that they put me in. I was relatively excited at the time.

EB: What was the point of no return? When did you know beer was more than an interest?
MM: There was a point in time when I was going to school and they’d ask us to open a book in class, and the only books I’d put in my bag were brewing books. I finished school and started working at The Violet Hour. I worked for a year to get in with the company. And I just kept on [Terry Alexander] about my interest in beer and the new place opening up. He would be doing the beer list but he also had no time. He said, “If you put together a list, I’ll look at it.” So I put together a list of 300 beers that were amazing and available in the local Chicago market.

EB: What was his reaction?
MM: He was surprised. He sent the list around to everybody. Eventually it went to [Publican co-owner] Eduard Seitan. He started talking to me, and we began a more in-depth dialogue about what products to use and how to showcase them on menu and price them. Then it all kind of fell into place. I ended up doing training. It was my menu that was presented as the list for [The Publican]. Obviously it had to be pared down a little bit. Then the place opened. I was doing the buying for beer and obviously had to do stocking. I was still waiting tables. It was probably one of the most exciting, scariest times.

EB: Do you have any certifications?
MM: Last year I became a Certified Cicerone.

EB: What is the Cicerone certification?
MM: It’s headed by Ray Daniels. He’s really well known in Chicago; he writes about beer. This program really got its wings in the past year. It’s the equivalent to the wine sommelier certification program. It’s a three-level certification by exam. There are probably a couple thousand first levels at this point. You can take an exam online. You have to get above a 75. There are something like 90 questions relating to all elements of beer service: alcohol, history, beer styles, draught maintenance, glassware, proper service techniques, and so on. I finished the next level. It’s a three hour exam with a demonstration, a tasting portion, an essay, a short answer section, and multiple choice questions. There are probably 150 or more certified Cicerones. The Master exam is three days in front of a panel of judges. But that is definitely in my sights. Maybe this year? There are fewer than probably five of them now.

EB: Do you think interest in beer is still building in Chicago?
MM: I think the most interesting thing that’s happened during the past couple years is restaurants and chefs in general learning to appreciate beer, putting it in on the table and wanting to have it in restaurants. A lot of restaurants already have established wine sommeliers, and it’s either demanded or becomes clear that they need to understand and taste more beer and accept it. Or you have this kind of young guard; I guess I’m a part of it, where the specialization is beer, putting beer on the table with food.

EB: So at this point is it necessary to have at least baseline knowledge of beer and wine as a sommelier, whatever your specialty?
MM: Definitely. There are still a lot of people in restaurants that are putting these beer-centric sommeliers at the table and they don’t really have an understanding of the history of wine. So they’re not really able to aptly balance the experience and make a really positive and strong statement. It’s important for me to understand how wine functions on the table to better understand a beer. I’m not a wine sommelier by examination. But that’s something I’m interested in as well. I think any sommelier that doesn’t give beer or other alternative fermented beverages a chance and try to understand how they work and how great they can be is missing the boat.

EB: So you had an interest in fine cuisine and pairing. Why do you think you got into beer and not wine?
MM: In college that’s all we drank. There was so much of it around and such a wide open world of it, and it wasn’t crazy expensive. I could go to a store like Binny’s and walk these aisles of crazy beers. I had no clue what they were and I wanted to know what every one was like.

EB: So your beer knowledge is based on a lot of personal exploration?
MM: Yeah definitely. I used a site called I didn’t really know what beers were stylistically, so I’d look at Beer Advocate. I’d read its reviews, and I’d read about other beers in a style and I’d write reviews on each beer within the style and just keep notes. I went through other forums and read books and started brewing beer. And I was still very involved in high-quality food and cuisine.

EB: Do you think that’s uncommon? For a budding beer enthusiast to care about food?
MM: A lot of people who are into beer don’t care about food. They’re happy to eat nachos and chicken wings. It should really be totality for all fermented beverages. Food and drink is what it’s all about.

EB: So what are some of the properties of beer—obviously a vast category—that make it so food friendly?
MM: The great thing about beer—it can be almost anything. You can have a beer that’s roasted or smoky. And that beer can be bitter. It can be sweet. It can have a hop character, but it doesn’t have to. It’s all determined by the maker. It’s a completely open type of beverage. We have beers that have high acidity. We have beers that have almost no acidity. We have beers with high bitterness.

EB: How do you play around with so much versatility when you’re creating pairings?
MM: When I’m looking for elements to pair I know there are certain tricks I can use. For instance, playing with salt versus bitterness; that’s one of my favorite things. A lot of people say stout and oysters always go together, but that’s one of the most ambiguous things in the world. That’s there’s a whole range of stouts. And oysters have as much terroir as wine. So with that we take an oyster that has high salinity like maybe a Kushi and pair it with a Saison. You can just do a Saison Dupont; it’s this great yeasty beer, with notes of pepper and an appetizing herbal green spicy bitterness.

EB: How do the flavors interact?
MM: Something with medium salinity like an oyster can be too much on its own, but the bitterness of the beer mediates the salt, and the salt mediates the bitterness of beer. There’s this kind of wowing effect that goes on in your mouth. There’s the intensity of salt, washed with the beer, and that cucumber, ocean-y character of the oyster comes back. It’s this amazing oscillation.

Sweet and heat is also a really good combination. For some reason, people think IPAs go with everything. They love to put it with heat, like a curry. It makes no sense to me. You need something with sweetness, that malt character for balance. And there are beers that have great acidity so anytime you want high acidity you have those at your disposal.

EB: What are some classic Publican beer pairings?
MM: We have staples that we love, like Saison Dupont. Another one is our charcuterie plate. We do it with a Flemish sour. Those are beers that are very unique. They have a little bit more acetic acid, more of a vinegary character. With our charcuterie plate, it’s wonderful. It’s the best thing in the world, especially with fruit and compound mustards. And pickles, obviously, because of the acid in both. And of course the fat. Acidity cuts any richness in head cheese, pork pie, and foie gras terrine. It also lends sweetness and softness to any fruit in the charcuterie plate. It’s not necessarily just “charcuterie means Flemish sour,” but definitely with how our charcuterie plate is set up, with all those different elements, the Flemish sour is a rock star. My favorite thing is when I give someone Flemish sour and they’re like “I don’t know about this” and you have them try it—you can always say you’ll cover the cost—and they’re like “Wow!” We’ve had great success with people not knowing about beer, trying it and liking it.

EB: So your position at Publican allows you to educate diners on beer?
MM: That’s the coolest thing about my position and our restaurant. You have a name like Paul Kahan with a wealth of other restaurants. People come who have no idea about beer or any interest in it. But because it’s a Paul Kahan restaurant and concept, they come to the restaurant and they have an open mind.

EB: What is your philosophy on beer and food pairings?
MM: The way I kind of go about it is I think of protein and how it’s prepared. And then obviously next thing would be thinking about its marinade or what it’s served with, its accompaniment, a starch or whatever else is on the plate. So you think about those three elements. But it’s an open book. I think, “Well, I have something salty on the plate. How can I play with that? Or something sweet and fruity. How can I find resonance?” Or if I have something smoky, what’s a way—without smoke—I can bring out that smoky character? I’m always shooting for a third element to come up, something that’s not actually there. You’ve just got to taste it. If you don’t taste it, you don’t know.

EB: How do you put together your beer list?
MM: It’s very much like a kid in the candy store. But at this point I’ve gone through most of the major brands, even small brands, especially in Europe. I kind of got to a point in year two where I think we’re well established with European brands and brands from really everywhere—Japan, New Zealand, etc. And we have a handle on them. Then this gentlemen, Brian Ewing from 12 Percent Imports in New York, brought all these new imports I’d never heard of. They all tasted way different. They all had their own terroir yeast composition. And I was blown away. I was so excited. It was sort of a breath of fresh air.

EB: And locally you have some great breweries, too.
MM: I always try to support local breweries—Metropolitan, Two Brothers, Goose Island, Three Floyds. They’re not all in Chicago, but they’re close to our local breweries. And a couple more small breweries are opening up.

EB: Is any brewery too small?
MM: For us it’s really about quality. If the beer’s awesome, you’re in. If the beer’s of a really high quality, we’re going to take it. It doesn’t matter what the price is. If it’s good and exciting and comes from a good place, it’ll make it on list. It definitely helps when we’re able to meet people and share stories and make beer with them. We love that it fosters a really unique and strong relationship. I don’t buy things because they’re cheap. I don’t buy them to help myself out with my costs. We’re trying to showcase the best beer.

EB: Is there any beer you’re really excited about at the moment?
MM: One of my favorite beers of moment is Christoffel Noble. It’s a very strong unfiltered, unpasteurized lager from the Netherlands. It’s malt, hops, water, yeast—no adjunct, no sugar. It’s almost 9 percent ABV but it drinks like a session beer. It’s completely blond, but it’s hazy. Its hop character is so refreshing. It’s got the hopping of an American IPA, but it’s all noble hops. Spalt, Styrian Goldings, Saaz—really prized hop varietals. Spalt has this wet cedar-y character, but then they throw it in with the other hops; the beer is stunning. It’s so drinkable and so wonderful yet it is special and strong. And it’s not strong just to be strong. And it’s so delicious on draught.

EB: How many beers do you have on draught at Publican?
MM: We have 11 beers on draught plus a cider, Aspall Demi-Sec Cyder. It’s great. It’s been around for a while, but they recently just brought it in on draught and it’s showing wonderfully. It’s relatively dry.

EB: What advice would you give someone interested in the beer sommelier life? It’s not yet a well-defined path.
MM: The cool thing is it’s not that hard to become adept. We have the Internet. You have great stores and great restaurants that are carrying awesome beer. In New York you have tons of places to go. Spuyten Duyvil, Beer Table. Getting adept isn’t the problem. At this point, it’s finding an outlet for it. I feel that the more people are looking at new ways to showcase beer and the less they’re doing the old format, standard brew pub where they serve nachos and sausage—the more they’re doing it in a unique way, the more people will be able to have work. If someone came to my restaurant and was a Certified Cicerone and wanted to wait tables I’d say, “We’re going to get you in here.”

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