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What To Drink at Craft Beer Week: Tips From a Certified Expert

Ria Neri, the cicerone for Wicker Park beer restaurant Bangers & Lace, makes some recommendations—and explains why beer is such a big deal right now.

photo: Courtesy of Bangers & Lace

The Bangers & Lace cicerone, Ria Neri, wets her whistle.

To whet your appetite for the 11-day hop deluge that is Chicago Craft Beer Week, we chatted with Ria Neri, the cicerone for Wicker Park restaurant Bangers & Lace. Neri shares her current beer brand obsessions, her thoughts on the craft beer festival explosion, and explains how one becomes a cicerone in the first place.

So how did you break into the cicerone business?

About six years ago, I worked for a design company in the hospitality industry. I was looking for a hobby and I enjoyed drinking beer, so I picked up homebrewing. I was reading up on a lot of beers and I heard about the cicerone program. It’s sort of like a sommelier but for beer, so I thought, why not get a certification? You take a written essay test. There are three tiers—a certified beer server, a certified cicerone, and a master of cicerone. I’m a certified cicerone.

So what do you do at Bangers & Lace?

I run the beer program here. I pick out what goes on draft, I do all the buying, and I collaborate with the chef. A few years ago, if you had beer on draft, you never really changed them. We have 32 lines and I change them daily.  I’m also in constant communication with the chef. I tell him what the flavors are in this beer, he tastes it and makes a dish that goes with it.

Why do you think craft beer is so hot right now?

The rise of social media. The beer world got smaller. Beer went along with the whole gastronomy thing.

Is it overkill?

I think it’s starting to get saturated now, but by next year, it’ll start to dwindle. There’ll be a weeding out and the strong beer breweries will remain. You can only have so many IPAs. Also, you’ve got understand that some of these breweries, like Three Floyds, have been around for 15 years. They only really started getting popular 3 or 4 years ago.

What Banger & Lace craft beer week event are you most excited about?

On Monday [May 20], we’re doing a beer dinner with Perennial Artisan Ale, from St. Louis. It’s a sensory experience. [Pairings include Hommel Bier with kimichi sausage and house-made sriracha].

What beers and breweries are you really into right now?

I like Saison beers, they’re very dry, refreshing and earthy. As far as American breweries to watch out for, there’s Solemn Oath [Bangers & Lace is throwing a one year anniversary for them on Saturday, May 18] and there’s a brewery out of Oregon right now called Gigantic, a great American brewery, all their beers are solid.

Chicago Craft Beer Week runs May 16 to May 26. For a complete list of Chicago Craft Beer Week events, visit chibeerweek.com.

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