It was the two-hour bus ride to and from his previous job at Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif., that gave Chris Leguizamon time to become one of only two Advanced Cicerones in San Diego. Armed with a collection of beer magazines and books like Randy Mosher’s “Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink,” Leguizamon honed his expertise as a craft beer expert, eventually becoming the education program manager at Pure Project, a 1% for the Planet Company and certified carbon and plastic-neutral organization known for ultra-complex and highly sought-after brews. He shares his knowledge with beer drinkers of all levels through an Instagram livestream series under his account @chris.thebeereducator, with a goal of helping San Diego become home to the most Cicerone-certified front-of-house staff anywhere else in the world.
Sharing knowledge comes naturally to Leguizamon. As a former brewery tour guide for six years, as well as a first generation Latino/Hispanic American with a degree in physics and passion for renewable energy, he’s as well versed in discussions about the diversity in beer styles as he is about diversity and social justice. After the #BlackoutTuesday initiative permeated Instagram last June, Leguizamon says he found himself avoiding discussions about beer in order to focus on conversations around equity (and the lack thereof) outside the beer industry.
“I could not fathom educating people about anything that pertains to this fizzy carbonated beverage without addressing real social issues, because that’s what the world is going through,” Leguizamon says. When responding to critics who say breweries should “stick to beer,” he says, “If you just think that life is about beer, you’re missing the point … Beer is made by someone with hands, that’s working, that also has three kids — there’s more to it [than beer].”
With Pure Project’s backing, Leguizamon shifted his educational efforts online. (He calls his employer “the best leadership company I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”) In the following interview, Leguizamon discusses his entry into beer, his upward trajectory, and his desire to empower others to make their own impacts.
Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How, when, and why did you get into beer?
When I was 15, I was visiting my uncle in Bogota, Colombia. I’d never really had beer besides like, family gatherings when you’re like two years old (laughs). He brought in a mixed 6-pack, sits it right down in the living room, and says, ‘Chris, today we’re gonna drink the products of our country.’ He presented one — Club Colombia, which has won a bunch of awards — and told me to look at the color (yellow, fizzy, straw-like), smell it, and then I tasted it. It was nothing like soda, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, God, this sucks!’
The second beer was Poker, and it had this attractive amber hue to it. The two didn’t look the same at all, so I tried it and it had this recognizable toast that reminded me of breakfast with my mom, and a touch of caramel. Colombians are attracted to caramel because of our obsession with arequipe. We put that on everything, so right away I thought it was way better than the other one.
At that point, I went down a rabbit hole of: Why does beer taste different? There are cultures behind this. There are centuries of science and art. I began wanting to read, wanting to learn, and indirectly change the stigma of what a Latino or a guy that looks like me is in beer. I’m a brown-skinned kid from one of the poorest cities in the nation (Reading, Pa.) and I want people to have a ‘Oh, holy smokes, this kid knows his stuff!’ type of mentality.
2. So when did you formally enter the beer industry?
In 2014, I worked at a brewpub in Pennsylvania called Chatty Monks, and at that point I was the only non-family member that was on staff; it was just a staff of six, including the three owners. I was this bushy, big-eyed 21-year-old, excited to finally be in craft beer and I would sing praises about flavors, pairings, and there came a point where like the guests were looking at me and they’re like, ‘Dude, it’s just beer. Why do you have so much passion behind this?’ It got to a point where I became an outlier in my own industry-slash-town. So I thought, ‘I’m gonna move to the place I like to vacation, which is San Diego,’ and I did in 2014. I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit, these people get it.’ I worked at Mission Brewery as a tour guide until 2015, moved to Stone Brewing until 2016, and then AleSmith Brewing Company until early 2019.
3. You’ve worked at a few big name breweries in San Diego. But you’ve talked about getting burnt out on the industry after a couple of negative encounters. What kept you in beer?
In 2019, I wanted to leave the beer industry, defeated. I was like, ‘Maybe I could get into bourbon, maybe get into coffee’ … but Kira Bouchard [currently the regional manager at Pure Project], who is my saving grace, was having coffee with me and asked what ‘beer adventures’ I was having. When I told her I was considering leaving the industry altogether, she encouraged me to apply to Pure Project, despite there being no open positions at the time.
Things fell into place: Someone left, I applied. I went through the whole interview process and the rest is history. I went from not wanting to smell a beer or talk about it to signing up for the Advanced Cicerone exam three months later.
4. What was the [Advanced Cicerone] exam study process like?
I studied for five hours a day. I would wake up at 5:30 a.m., put a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich in the microwave, and then coffee. I’d just sit there every single morning and by 6 a.m. the books were open. I sacrificed a lot. I’ve missed out on a lot, but that determination kind of got me back into the rhythm.
5. Why is beer education so important to you?
I’m very team-oriented, and I hate when people talk down to beertenders or try to stump them, mainly because of gender. That ticks me off. A lot of people try to stump [female bartenders] and I can’t stand that, so I want to empower everyone to be able to hold their own.
6. After you achieved Advanced Cicerone, how did you start to share your knowledge?
We at Pure Project all push each other to be better, and the way that it evolved was I was homebrewing this BrewDog beer through their DIY Dog program [an annual compilation of open-source homebrew recipes], and I asked Mike Czech [Pure Project director of distribution], ‘What if we do something like this at Pure Project? We’re releasing two new beers every two weeks. What if you announce the title, the ABV, and three important keywords the beertenders can use?’ But Mike tailored it so well; he cut out the fluff. I’m very raw with my ideas and I need someone to edit, and Mike made it happen.
At the same time, Matt [Robar, Pure’s co-founder] saw potential in me because I was a tour guide for so long. He asked me to jump on an IG Live, since we were about to release Hazelsaurus Rex and a barrel-aged sour. It was one of the rawest IG Lives ever, I’d never had the two beers and Winslow [Sawyer, Pure’s head brewer], who is like a foot taller than me, pours the beers and my face lights up. I’m just geeking out. When we cut, they thought I did a pretty good job, so they asked me to do it again the next week. And it went from there!
7. How did that segment on Pure Project’s Instagram transform into what you’re personally doing, and how did it change during Covid-19?
I started a beer account called Chris the Beer Educator, and the first video you find is literally me in the back of my girlfriend’s backyard, laying out the intention of this whole virtual education thing. It was literally just to highlight everyone who got me to the point where I’m at now — never to focus on me; it’s to highlight other people and what they’re doing.
Then Covid hits and I’m sitting there antsy, wanting to keep teaching people about beer. So this spawned off that IG Live that Pure Project had me do for a couple months. I thought if I can convince people to read one of the most fundamental books, which is ‘Tasting Beer,’ then hopefully people will follow along. It made me want to read that book again, and it kind of grew into its own beast.
Weirdly, people have told me I built a brand. I didn’t mean to — I literally just wanted to empower people that were just at home during quarantine, not knowing what the world is gonna look like, to read ‘Tasting Beer’ and show how amazing San Diego beer professionals are. It’s San Diego craft beer in its rawest form.
8. What’s one episode that stands out to you?
When George [Thornton, owner of Home Brewing Company] and I were talking, things were flowing, and we were talking about Black is Beautiful — that was just the most human side of me, and George. There was a lot of frustration with what’s happening in the world, a lot of ‘How can people not just want to listen?’ George and I had that one moment where we both had pain, we both had frustration, and this was the least we could do being beer professionals, just being human, is telling people, ‘Listen, we know that you feel attacked, but just stop yelling back — just listen, learn, read a book about what’s happening. Try to understand people’s perspective that you don’t understand. They’re not part of the same walk as you. Celebrate that diversity as we like to celebrate diversity in beer styles.’
9. Ultimately, what’s your goal in the beer industry?
The main goal of Chris the Beer Educator is to have everyone pass their Certified Cicerone and to get that Level 2. I’ve always, always, always wanted to have people go from Level 1 to Level 2 and say, Chris was that person when everyone else says ‘Just do it yourself,’ he didn’t mind that I messaged him and said, ‘Hey could you clear up this section for me?’
I asked a lot of people for help during the Advanced Cicerone studying, and I got a good amount of ‘nos.’ Then there’s those people that mentored me, and I want to be that person for San Diego, so that we have the most Certified Cicerones, the most [Advanced] Cicerones, and ideally the most Master Cicerones in the nation. Imagine San Diego not just having the most amount of breweries — that’s nice — but the most educated staff anywhere, where everyone’s really on top of their game. Making it both female and male, Latino, person of color, Black, Asian, whatever it may be to diversify. That’s the dream, honestly.
Published: January 4, 2021