I met Rick Compton, the personable and knowledgeable general manager of Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, about a year ago.
He’s passionate about wine and well-versed in the varieties, regions and producers. I’ve spent much of the last 25 years learning about wine, traveling to wine regions and, of course, drinking wine. So it’s no big surprise Compton and I hit it off right away.
On my visits to Jax, which are not nearly as frequent as I’d like, Compton and I have had the usual wine geek conversations about our favorite wines, producers, grape regions, so I knew the guy was well-versed in all things vinous. In fact, he’d told me he was a certified sommelier, a little “somethin’ somethin’” he picked up along the way in his 25 years in the restaurant business. It’s impressive, but not unprecedented. There are quite a few certified sommeliers in the metro. But imagine my surprise when I read Compton had just become a certified cicerone, an expert in beer.
“I find it exciting on a personal level, as I love to continue to learn,” Compton told me on a recent stop at Jax.
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Turns out Compton had a long affair with malted beverages. Growing up in Colorado, he was one of the early participants in the United States’ craft beer renaissance. Beer was his first love.
“I’ve been a shoulder tapper for beer since I was a teenager,” Compton said. Shoulder tapping refers to standing outside the liquor store and tapping folks on the shoulder to see if they’d be willing to buy you a six pack because you’re not yet of legal drinking age.
“I even had a tapper in my apartment in college,” he said. “I was old enough by then. I had all sorts of good beer all of the time.”
Cicerone, taken from Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, is a beer education program started about five years ago by Chicago brewer Ray Daniels. Wine had its sommeliers, so why not an official classification for beer experts? Good question. Daniels’ answer was the Cicerone Certification Program.
There are three levels to the program: certified beer server, certified cicerone and master cicerone. Compton studied for and passed the certified cicerone level.
“The bulk of the test is the written portion,” he said. “It takes about four hours, and it is extremely comprehensive, covering style, theory, mechanics and history.”
There’s also a blind tasting portion, which Compton said involved not just identifying beers, but finding flaws in them as well.
“Americans drink a lot of flawed beer and don’t even know it,” he said. “The cicerone program helps you identify those flaws. Hopefully that means we serve fewer of them.”
Compton is in relatively uncharted waters with his dual classification. There are only a handful of dually classified sommeliers and cicerones. But this isn’t about bragging rights for Compton. It’s about continuing his education in a subject he loves and sharing his knowledge and passion with customers, not to mention the staff at Jax.
“Three of our workers are studying to become cicerones right now,” he said. “So if my efforts inspired them, that’s great.”
It’s great for customers too. Armed with his knowledge and title, Jax has quintupled its beer list to include more local, national and international favorites.
I’m happy for him and for Jax, but I was worried I was losing one of my wine buddies. I needn’t have been concerned. By the end of my time at Jax, Compton and I were discussing the virtues of a well-aged premier cru Chablis, and how well it pairs with oysters. Yes, Rick, we’ll always have Chablis.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.