Name: Chris Rush Cohen
City: San Francisco
Position: Old Devil Moon bar owner, beer scholar
J.: You own Old Devil Moon, a craft beer and cocktail bar in San Francisco. Everybody knows a bar owner’s job, but you also are a Cicerone. What is that?
Chris Cohen: It’s a global certification program for beer, similar to the Court of Master Sommeliers for wine. Some people in Chicago who take beer very seriously started the program in 2007, and now it is the standard for certification in the beer world.
“Cicerone” means tour guide or tutor, and the word is an allusion to the eloquence of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman politician. You are an Advanced Cicerone, the third level of four. What does it take to get to that level?
You’re tested on several different areas, but what blows people away is the tasting. You have to smell and taste beers and then determine the styles. Some beers have been doctored and you have to identify the ingredient. You also have to use descriptors for the beer that you would use with a brewer or customer.
When did you first learn about the certification program?
In 2010, I met a Cicerone. The guy picked up a beer, swirled it, described what notes he was getting and compared it to a beer he’d had several years ago. I wanted to be able to do that.
You say part of your job now is to evangelize for the craft beer movement. How do you do that?
Learning to be a certified Cicerone gives you the skills to talk about beer in a way that excites people, encourages them to try new things and makes them care about what they drink. The idea that beer is just a blue-collar drink is nonsense — the breadth of flavor profiles in beer is far better for pairing with food than wine.
You’ve created study guides for beer scholars, you are founder and president of the San Francisco Homebrewers Guild, and at the bar you guide customers through flights of beer — yet you started out as a lawyer. What led to the change in careers?
I went to Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, and while I was in grad school, I visited Belgium, where I tried a lot of crazy beers. That’s how I got interested in the subject. After I graduated in 2005, I practiced law in New York. When I moved to San Francisco in 2009, it was with the idea that I would move out of that career path. I did go back into law for a while. I also ran Reboot here. [Reboot produces creative projects around Jewish tradition with appeal to young Jews.] As I got more into craft beers and home brewing, I started looking to open a bar.
How did that bar end up at the crossroads of the Mission and Bernal Heights?
One day I was taking out the trash when I saw my neighbor. He owned a bar, and I asked whether he knew anyone looking to sell. He told me he was ready to retire. After a year and a half renovating the space, my partners and I opened Old Devil Moon in August 2016.
Who are your customers?
Weekdays, we get families and people from surrounding neighborhoods. On weekends, we get customers from all over the Bay Area because the word is out that we have four Cicerones behind the bar, which possibly is unique in the world. We also host beer tastings. The Illuminoshi — Jewish folks in the food business — have been here.
The name of the bar — where did it come from?
It projects a certain vibe with a touch of the occult, like our décor. It’s also an old jazz standard, covered by the greats. And the name fits with our New Orleans-style food and cocktail theme, too.
How many different beers do you offer?
We have 20 beers on draught, which gives us great variety, but we’re still moving beer quickly, so it’s fresh. We try to buy direct from breweries and we change up the beer list all the time. Right now we have four different sour beers.
Do you have a favorite beer?
What kind of desert island am I on? What am I eating? When you learn a lot about beer, you appreciate the best versions of all the different styles and seek them out.