Growing up in the self-described beer wasteland of central Florida, Cliff Mori knew he liked more complex brews but didn’t know why. After moving to Asheville in 2006, he started finding answers while working at The Thirsty Monk, exploring his tastes more seriously in an environment that encouraged such interests.
Working at the Patton Ave. establishment for four years, Mori saw it go from, as he puts it, “five middle-aged guys at the bar” to attracting all ages. As the clientele grew, so did Mori’s interactions with these patrons, and through these conversations he began to entertain more ambitious thoughts.
“I mostly enjoyed talking to people about beer. That got the wheels turning about a job, and not one that would keep me up until 3 a.m.” Mori said.
Inspiration first struck on a quiet February night at the Thirsty Monk the day after a Bell’s Brewery tap takeover. Bell’s founder Larry Bell was having an intense conversation with Mori when, all of the sudden, he put Mori on the spot and asked, “What are you doing with your life?”
Stunned, Mori considered the question. Though he enjoyed his job, he didn’t want to tend bar forever, a path Bell seemed to sense. With an eye on Mori’s future, Bell talked about his friend Ray Daniels, who’d recently started the Cicerone Certification Program, setting industry standards in the suddenly booming beer community, similar to the wine world’s sommeliers. The commitment to quality service instantly resonated with his new friend, who was quick to follow up.
“I want to do a good job and feel confident in what I’m doing,” Mori said. “It’s the same with any job.”
Soon thereafter, Mori took the initial online test and became a certified beer server. The next step, to become a certified Cicerone, required sitting for an exam. As luck would have it, the exam would be offered at the Thirsty Monk in two months, one of only a few given each year by the then fledgling program. Thinking it unusual for one to be offered in Asheville at his bar, Mori studied and passed the test (which carries a 30% pass rate) on his first try, becoming the first certified Cicerone in Western North Carolina.
The more Mori learned, however, the more interested he became in sharing these standards. More specifically, Asheville’s growing reputation as “Beer City” got him thinking about ways that its many restaurants and bars could live up to that esteemed title for years to come. Just as consumers expect wine servers in the Napa Valley to be knowledgeable about their offerings, with Asheville increasingly becoming a beer destination (an additional 800,000-1,000,000 beer tourists a year are expected to visit by 2015), Mori believes that local servers need to be ready.
“Asheville is headed that way,” Mori said. “Right now, if people want a beer holiday they either head to Fort Collins [Colorado] for New Belgium or Chico [California] for Sierra Nevada…or, pretty soon, they can come to Asheville for both.”
Mori’s new one-man company BREW-ed offers an array of services to help produce better educated consumers and service staff, the combination of which encourages higher ideals in the local beer industry. With the craft beer boom less than 10 years old and the Cicerone standards still taking hold, advice like the kind Mori provides is the kind of guidance the young industry needs.
In March, the entrepreneur spoke at an Asheville Independent Restaurants event at the Grove Park Inn with Scott Jennings, the head brewer for Sierra Nevada’s Mills River location. Mori subsequently trained the GPI staff for the opening of their Edison bar and restaurant and advised servers at Wicked Weed, where he also briefly worked. He expects the demand for training to step up as tourist season winds down, which has already included a recent meeting with a new West Asheville restaurant whose goal it is to have all of their front house staff achieve first-level Cicerone certification.
“Everyone in the beer community raises each other up,” Mori said, noting that a mere 10% of the industry’s jobs are in brewing. “It’s not competitive.”
Informing the public on Asheville’s beer offerings is also key to Mori’s work, an aim that has so far taken two different forms. The first are a pair of three-hour afternoon walking tours that combine brewery visits with Mori’s fascination with the city’s history. (Friday tours cover Asheville Brewing Company, Burial Beer, and Wicked Weed while Saturday’s stop by Wicked Weed, Hi-Wire, and Green Man.) Calling his walkabouts a “nerdier beer tour,” he shares Asheville’s interesting stories while on foot, but shifts the focus to the brews once inside the taprooms.
Inspired by the success of Josh Bailey’s Asheville Brewery Tours, Mori tailored his own tour to focus on the brewing process and how to taste and describe beers, helping people put words to the experience in order to best share their legitimate reaction to a beverage. Wary of the power of suggestion, he encourages his groups to write down their thoughts on a beer, then share them once everyone’s had a chance to do the same so as not to muddy that original sensation.
“I don’t see beer as snooty, like wine often is, and it’s my goal to keep it that way. I want people to feel part of it,” Mori said.
The second public offering involves Mori’s continuing education courses at AB Tech. Given free reign by the program’s directors to write and teach anything, he developed over 60 hours of material. Students learn about regional beer styles and ingredients through such means as a hops class designed by a continuing ed. colleague. Mori is also working with Asheville-based Riverbend Malt House on a malts class, though the catalog’s highlight may be the occasional Brew Days in which, with the assistance of brewers from Wicked Weed and Hi-Wire, students get to brew a commercial batch of beer. Regularly adding new classes to the existing offerings, Mori is excited to take topic suggestions from people in the community who are interested in learning more about beer.
With so many local industry offerings and more on the way, Mori’s BREW-ed services seem like the right counsel at a crucial juncture. And while it feels natural to wonder how much Asheville can ultimately handle, Mori for one is not yet concerned about over-saturation.
“So far, just one brewery has closed and many more have opened,” he said, noting that Craggie Brewing’s 2012 closure stemmed from lack of consumer interest, not the quality of their products. “Generally, if you’re making good beer, you’re going to be OK.”
As for his own education, Mori consistently works at describing flavors and putting more confidence in his senses. (“It’s the same as anything else: you’ve got to practice.”) At the same time, he’s learning about getting the word out about his business and having BREW-ed show up more prominently in Google searches for beer tours.
“With Asheville Brewery Tours and the Brews Cruise, I assumed I would be number three,” Mori said before shaking his head. “Nope.”
There’s also the third level of the Cicerone program, that of Master Cicerone, a designation currently held by a mere seven people worldwide, four of whom Mori knows “very well.” That process involves two 10-hour days of testing, and while Mori has his sights on that level down the line, for now he has more immediate concerns.
“I say I’m preparing, but…” Mori said with a smile. Perhaps another pep talk from Larry Bell will do the trick.
Hooray for Cliff! I look forward to taking the tour. Good luck on your new venture!
So happy for Cliff! He is such an amazing guy and does Asheville proud. Continued success!!
Cliff served me my first beer at the Monk South when I moved here four years ago. Great guy, and so happy for all his success.
Cliff is tha beez kneez! Great story!