published Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

Software engineer now a cicerone, the beer equivalent of wine sommelier

Tony Giannasi has turned the garage of his Signal Mountain home into a brewery. A competitive brewer for years, he recently passed the test to become a certified cicerone, an expert designation, after studying for the exam for more than a year.
Tony Giannasi has turned the garage of his Signal Mountain home into a brewery. A competitive brewer for years, he recently passed the test to become a certified cicerone, an expert designation, after studying for the exam for more than a year.
Photo by Alex Washburn.
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Tony Giannasi doesn't claim to know more about beer than anyone else in Chattanooga, but he could make a strong case for the title.

A software engineer, Giannasi began making beer at home shortly after his family moved to Chattanooga from New Orleans in 2005. He is now the president of the Barley Mob Brewers, a local home-brewers association.

With about $10,000 invested in his brewery, Giannasi has made more than 100 varieties of beer in the garage of his Signal Mountain home.

In September 2009, he passed the Beer Judge Certification Program exam. After working the Strong Beer Competition in Atlanta on Oct. 8, he will have attained enough points to judge national competitions.

Giannasi also founded BeerChatt, a blog discussing beer-related events and topics for Chattanooga's burgeoning community of enthusiasts.

In March, Giannasi tacked on another title by passing a rigorous exam to be the Scenic City's first cicerone, the beer-world equivalent to a wine sommelier. According to the Cicerone Certification Program website, it's a distinction he shares with only two other Tennesseans.

"Anybody can be a beer sommelier, but you have to sit and study and take that exam to be a cicerone," Giannasi said. "Saying someone is a cicerone versus a beer sommelier, you know that they've been tested by a third party and that their knowledge was correct and validated."

Q: What was the first beer you brewed?

A: It was a wheat beer [from a] ... recipe in Charlie Papazian's book ["The Complete Joy of Home Brewing"]. I did it because there's a brewery in New Orleans called Crescent City BrewHouse that makes an excellent wheat beer that has a taste of bananas and cloves without being overly sour. I've never been able to hit just what they have there, but I've gotten close.

Q: How long did it take you before you were happy with your beer?

A: There were two big learning curves. When I [started] making beer with extracts, they were good. Over time, my extract brews got better and better and better. When I switched over to all-grain brewing, my first all-grain beer was weird. It had a weird ham taste that no one could explain. They got better after that.

Q: What do you enjoy more, the drinking or the brewing?

A: Brewing. I'm an engineer at heart, and I get energized by being able to point to something and saying, "I made this." That's really hard to do with software.


  • Age: 35.
  • Family: Wife Katie, 33, and sons Tommy, 7, and Jimmy, 4.
  • Occupation: Independent software engineer.
  • Education: Bachelor of Science in computer engineering with minors in electrical engineering and math from Tulane University in New Orleans.
  • Hometown: Elmhurst, Ill.
  • Blog:
  • Favorite movie: "Blues Brothers."
  • Favorite book: "Dune" by Frank Herbert.
  • Desert island beer: Sam Adams Boston Lager or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
  • Favorite beer/food pairing: Double India pale ale with carrot cake.
  • CelEbrity he'd like to meet: Groucho Marx.
  • Pets: Four cats, Boudreaux, Calzone, Hops and Cherish, and a dog, Oreo.
  • Tool he can't do without: Crescent wrenches.

With beer, you have a physical product you made, and that's just cool to me. I drink less now, but I drink more craft beer, more beer that costs more than I should be spending on it. [Laughs.]

Q: Craft beer seems to be gaining in popularity. Why do you think that is?

A: A lot of it has to do with flavor. American light lager is an inoffensive beverage. It will appeal to people who want to drink it and enjoy a slight buzz, and it's available everywhere. It's cheap, but at a certain point, people say, "I drank this beer and girls in bikinis didn't jump out of my pool, I didn't get cooler and no frogs are talking to me. Enough."

Someone saying, "Here, drink this. It's easy to drink" doesn't sell me as much as, "Here, drink this. It is chocolatey and malty and refreshing, and it smells like leaves in the fall."

More and more, people are starting to see these [craft] beers show up in their grocery stores and in their local pubs. They say, "What's the big deal?" so they try one. Then, they say, "OK, I get it. What else do you have?"

Q: What's the most challenging aspect of home brewing?

A: Time. You have to really want to do it to set aside the time. Aside from that, it's not hard to throw hops in a kettle in a timely fashion after weighing them out. It's just like cooking. If you can follow instructions and make soup from a can, you can make beer.

Q: People automatically accept the idea of wine and food pairings. Why don't they think the same of beer?

A: It's changing. Most people aren't exposed to [beer and food pairings], and they're resistant to change, but it's gaining a foothold. Opening up people's eyes to what beer can be helps open their eyes to a cicerone helping them with beer choices and food pairings.

Going to the beer store is not as simple as it was 10 years ago. It's harder to buy. That's one of the things a cicerone would do. They'll ask, "What do you want out of a beer?" It's always interesting to chat with someone and say "What do you feel like?" When they tell you, you can almost find a beer that goes with their mood.

Q: What prompted you to take the cicerone exam?

A: I've always enjoyed beer and food pairings. I've been fascinated by tasting a beer and saying, "You know what I'd like to eat with this?" It's not an innate sense; it's a passion. I love food and thinking about beer that would go well with it. It sounded like fun.

Q: Why bother with being certified at all? Why not just call yourself a beer sommelier and save yourself the trouble?

A: It's serious. It's like saying you have a sommelier and someone who has a lot of experience with wine and loves wine. They both recommend wines to drink with dinner and [the wines] cost the same. Whose recommendation would you pick?

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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