upper west side
A passion for food and drink lead Cherisse Ketchum away from a job in politics and strategy to a career in beer. Now a certified cicerone, Cherisse has succeeded in making a name for herself in a previously male dominated industry - and is even creating her own brews.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
Does it count if I didn’t know it was my first week? I came to New York on September 20, 2001. It was right after September 11, and I was technically living in San Francisco at the time. My boyfriend (now husband), Scott, was meant to move to New York on September 12, and obviously that got postponed. I came to New York for a funeral, and I ended up staying.
A 9/11 funeral? I’m so sorry.
Yeah. One of my friends worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. It was pretty bad. Wonderful person. I know everybody says that about people that have passed away, but he really truly was. So I came back for the funeral, and that was my first week but I didn’t know it. Maybe in the back of my mind I knew I would stay. It was really weird here after September 11 for a while.
What was it like?
It was really strange. Nothing seems to faze New York, whether it’s the Superbowl being hosted here, or conventions. Everything is just kind of absorbed into New York’s energy. But September 11 zapped that energy for a period of time. It was a weird energy. Terrible.
You grew up not too far away, in New Jersey …
Basically about 33 miles away from here. I’ve always been coming into the city since I was little with my parents, my family, and when I got my driver’s license I would come in with my friends. Sometimes we would just come in, drive around and observe because it’s such a crazy scene. Other times we would be only 18 and go to a bar.
Was it easy to get into bars at 18?
Yeah! My 18 is way behind us, nobody really cared then. The city wasn’t cracking down on that stuff. They weren’t worried about some stupid 18 year old kid drinking, they were worried about the crack addicts down in the park. The subway stop near here (72nd St) used to be called ‘Needle Park’. The Upper West Side was completely different.
Are you parents still in New Jersey?
My parents have passed away. They had cancer at the same time in their mid-50s and died within a year and half of each other.
Scott and I had been dating for 2 years, and we knew that we would get married but we were waiting for my mom to stop her treatments. Then when my dad got pancreatic cancer, we thought ‘fuck, we better get married’. We literally planned the wedding in 6 weeks, so that both my parents were there. We got married in my home town in New Jersey. It was more important to me that they be there than anything else, and it happened to be a great wedding.
Were you close to your parents?
I was. Although I pretty much moved out straight after finishing college. I lived in DC for 7 years, then went to San Francisco and then moved back here. I was only here for 2 years with my parents being healthy. I never really had an adult relationship with them, but for 2 years I did.
My dad, he would have died with my current job. He would have been at every one of my events. He thought I was the cat’s meow. For one of my jobs I worked for the Republican Governors Association (don’t hold that against me). We did an event in New York while I was still living in DC, it was at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. My parents came, and they were like puffed up peacocks. They thought the job I had was so cool, my mom wasn’t much of a partier, but was very proud of everything I did. They would have come to every event, and have gotten such a kick out of seeing me talk about the industry.
Your dad would be at every beer event?
Every single one. It would probably be bad, he would get wasted and embarrass me [laughs]. Every kid thinks their parents are embarrassing, but my friends thought he was hilarious.
He sang a song to my mom at my wedding. My dad and I were the two drunkest people at my wedding for sure. He was doing shots with all of Scott’s college friends.
So when you eventually moved into Manhattan in 2001, that was the first time you had lived in New York City?
Yes. I had never really wanted to live in the city. I always thought I knew it because I had visited, but I never visited often enough to really know it. Things change though, and now I can’t ever imagine leaving. I can’t imagine another city with this kind of energy.
Is New York different to what you thought it was going to be like, especially growing up so close?
Yes. I grew up in the suburbs of New York, in a house. So I never really envisioned New York City living outside of what I already knew. Coming here, and living in a tiny place, not needing a car … the differences of living in this city compared to anywhere else … you don’t understand the impact until you actually do it. You think you know what it will be like.
I lived in San Francisco for a very short time, and when I first graduated college I lived in DC. DC was a drivable city, you also had the subway and cabs, you never had to worry about drinking and driving, but you could park, I had a nice apartment with my own bathroom (I lived with 2 other girls) and a walk in closet, there was a parking space.
Your eyes are opening so wide [laughs].
All these things that you couldn’t imagine having here.
And you work in the beer industry here in New York …
I do! I work for a distributor, and help train our sales force. We’re a very large distributor, one of the biggest on the east coast, we have a gigantic portfolio. We work with some of the more well known products … Sam Adams, Coors, Corona … and then we have a craft beer portfolio that’s mainly focused on New York State beers.
I help our team focus on our craft portfolio, I educate them and help them understand all of our beers. Giving them the knowledge to help sell our craft portfolio better. I also work with some of the craft beer bars around the city, doing a lot of sales.
How did you get into working with beer?
It was a really weird trajectory. I had always previously worked in government and politics. I started working on Capitol Hill for my local congressman, and then I worked for the State’s Economic Development Agency, which is the agency that’s responsible for the rebuild of Ground Zero and a lot of other major projects (the rebuilding of any train stations, Penn Station, The High Line). After that, like everybody does when they work in government, I went into consulting. You know, it was great and I worked on some really interesting programs, but I wasn’t totally satisfied.
I’m not a foodie, but I just love food. I don’t talk the foodie verbiage but I’ve always been passionate about food and drink. It fits my personality. So I decided to try something in beer. Ironically though I made contacts in beer through my government job. Brooklyn Brewery was in a zone that I was dealing with, I had programs that I was working for in that designated zone. So I went and visited them, and I was talking to one of the owners about beer and it was amazing and seemed liked something I was so much more interested in. He helped to set me up with some interviews.
How long have you been working in the industry now?
5 years now.
I always think that the beer industry would be a very male dominated, is it?
Definitely. There are a lot more women now which is absolutely fantastic. I have a lot of female colleagues, more than I think there ever used to be. Certainly more than when I started. I would like to see more women working at the distributors and in the breweries in higher positions. Maybe that will happen eventually, when the women in the industry now move up. I’d like to see more.
Are there any challenges being a woman in this field?
Not really. I think most bar owners and buyers are very serious about their business. It doesn’t matter to them whether you’re a man or a woman. They’re more interested in the product, in the value of your product and how you are servicing their account.
Every once in a while, someone will say ‘oh, it must be so easy being a woman selling beer’, but that’s not how it works. The women I know in this industry do not use their sexuality to do anything. Most of the people that we deal with are intelligent enough to not let something like that sway them.
I suppose that’s really the same with any industry.
You’re a certified cicerone … which is like a sommelier for beer, right? How would you describe it?
I think that’s the easiest way to understand it. It’s a pretty well known qualification in the beer industry, but outside the beer industry I don’t think people understand what it is. Not in the same way that people who aren’t in the wine industry still know what a sommelier is.
It’s has very strict testing. To be a cicerone you are tested on the brewing process, beer styles, keeping and serving beer. There is a lot of focus though on beer styles, so for the certified exam I had to know 67 beer styles inside and out. It’s a lot of sipping and drinking in preparation for the test. It was really really hard. I put myself on house arrest for the 3 weeks before the exam so I wasn’t tempted to go out and party. I was crashing the books. I don’t think I’ve studied that hard before, even in college [laughs]. It was a 4 hour exam.
The process sounds really intense … so what does that mean once you have your qualifications?
I think that in the industry people understand that if you are a certified cicerone you’ve gone through months of training, so I really know about beer. Instead of just spewing out facts and just acting like I know about beer. On the flip side though I don’t think it hurts you if you don’t have it. I just think the good thing about this industry is that people can see through the fake people.
Can you taste a beer and know what it is? Do you do blind taste tests?
That’s the hardest thing in the entire world. It sounds crazy, like it would be really easy to tell a classic Pilsner from an IPA. But when you start getting into some of the German styles of beer, lagers … the tests I did weren’t blind. If you become a Master Cicerone, it’s a blind tasting. That is the hardest exam. There are only 8 or 9 Masters in the world right now. I actually studied with a few guys who were doing blind tastings for that exam, just to hone my own abilities to taste and talk about what I’m smelling and tasting.
To be a Master you basically have to know how to put together a draft system, how to balance it. You have to know around 85 different beer styles, and blind taste. There is something called ‘off flavor tasting’. To be a certified cicerone you have to know 6 different ‘off flavors’, and to be a Master there are 16. For example if you’ve ever had a draft beer that tasted like butter, that’s an infected line.
I’ve just worked on a beer with a group of girls in the industry. We did a beer that is spiced with with 5 different kinds of chilli peppers and coco. It’s amazing, it’s called Sweet Fire. We’re going to do a big launch at The Blind Tiger. It’s with a couple of girls that are buyers at fantastic beer bars in the city, myself, and one of breweries that I sell. We all went up to Empire Brewing in Syracuse this weekend and brewed the beer.
The girls developed the recipe last year, and we followed the same recipe they did last year, and the brewing company obviously did most of the hard work. It was so much fun helping out though. It’s one thing to read about the brewing process but it’s another thing to actually be there and see it step by step.
So it’s like a limited edition beer?
Yes, it’s just brewed for Craft Beer Week. It will be sold at the bars that the girls who participated work at.
Awesome, when is this Craft Beer Week?
February 21st through March 1st. So they call it a week [laughs], but it’s really 10 days. Extending the drinking as much as possible.
Everybody likes drinking!
There are a lot of events, especially focusing on New York State products. New York State has around 250 breweries!
What are some beer bars that you would recommend in New York?
Why don’t I talk about the girls that I worked with on Sweet Fire, and where they work. George Keeley is on the Upper West Side, it’s a bar I’ve been going to since before I was in the industry. The Blind Tiger is great, Spring Lounge, The Pony Bar and Kiabacca (which just opened).
Do you find it hard to balance the huge social element of working in beer, are you out all the time?
Yes. But it’s something that I like doing anyway. My primary accounts are restaurants and bars. That’s what I was doing before, and now it’s my job! It gets exhausting sometimes, if you’re out 10 days in a row, particularly around the holidays when there is so much going on. Bars are having holiday parties and you want to go and see the staff. For the most part there is amazing camaraderie among the men and women in the industry. When somebody is launching something, there is a lot of support. Everybody will go out.
What are your goals for the industry?
I would love to keep building on what I’m doing now, and keep on learning more. There is a BJCP certification, which is a Beer Judge Certification Program. You would basically be somebody who judges beers at competitions. Even to get the certification is basically mastery of the beer styles, which is obviously a next step after having become a certified cicerone.
You seem like you love what you are doing now, do you have any advice that you would give to your younger self?
Looking back at college, I probably would have told my pre-college self to study something that was a bit more applicable in the real world, instead of political science. Maybe something where I actually leave with a skill. That’s what I tell people now.
What I would tell myself is not to worry, things will work out. Don’t stress about jobs, and the future. I’ve always been a really hard worker, and has shown through in everything that I’ve done. It’s always helped me get to the next level of where I want to be. Just be who I am. Continue on with that work ethic and not worry so much.
How do you like living in the Upper West Side?
I like it. It’s very safe. I’m only a block away from Riverside Park, and only a few avenues away from Central Park. In the summer there are great bars along the river where I can bring my dog, Lucy, and hang out and be by the water.
What do you think about when you think of New York?
The first thing always comes to mind is energy. Every kind of energy you could ever imagine, good, bad, exciting …. it’s there. It’s got it’s own life force.