It takes years to train your palate to detect the subtle differences in beers. To separate the supposed experts from the real ones, there’s an exam. For $395, you can test to be a Certified Cicerone, acquiring a “deep and well-rounded knowledge of beer and beer service as well as competence in assessing beer quality and identity by taste,” according to cicerone.org. (There are several different levels, including Advanced and Master Cicerone.)
The test is hard. Some people take it multiple times, and those who pass often get jobs in beer stores or restaurants. Neil Quigley, bartender at Cambridge’s Ames Street Deli, was 20 years, 6 months old when he passed, old enough to drink legally in Canada, where he took the test and retains citizenship (his mother was born there), but not old enough to drink at his current place of employment. He is, unofficially, one of the youngest Certified Cicerones in the United States. (In an e-mail, the program says it does not keep such statistics, but Americans taking the test must be 21.)
Despite his age, Quigley was quickly gobbled up by Sam Treadway, owner and manager of Ames Street, as well as backbar in Somerville, to be a bartender.
“He does appear to be a prodigy in the beer world,” says Treadway. “Although the youngest bartender, right now he is the most veteran on our staff and definitely leads by example.”
Quigley has had to get creative when training his palate. He started brewing beer as a junior in high school, planning his batches when his older brother came home.
“My parents weren’t having it too much,” says Quigley. “But they were OK with it, because he was the responsible one. Eventually, they loosened the grip because they realized it was something I really like; I wasn’t just having a kegger with my buddies.”
Quigley attended the University of Vermont but took a leave. He went to England and studied at Brewlab, a training center for brewers. When he came back, he became the head brewer for Cape Cod’s Farmer Willie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer. Quigley’s depth of knowledge was immediately apparent to Treadway.
At Ames Street, Quigley curates the beer list the way he likes it: classics, readily available, and reliable. He stacks the list with beers like St. Bernardus Prior 8, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, and North Coast Brewing’s Old Rasputin. On the menu are accompanying written descriptions like the one for Boulder Shake Nitro Porter: “ever mix Yoo-hoo and Guinness together?”
“I was taken aback by his ability to conceptualize a whole menu instead of just focusing on the esoteric things,” says Treadway.
I ask Quigley: If all goes perfectly, what do you want to be in five years?
“What I think of probably seems unrealistic for a 25-year-old, because I know I’m still young,” says Quigley, who says that at this point he doesn’t want to start his own brewery. “I’d like to be consulting or helping startup breweries, spreading the knowledge.”