A Cicerone® is the beer industry’s standard for expertise and credibility in beer service and education. Similar to what a Sommelier® is to the wine industry. Cicerone is an Italian word that translates to English as “Guide.” The trademarked title of Cicerone® is designated by the Cicerone® Certification Program to only those who have passed the requisite test of knowledge and tasting skill. The five areas of testing are:
· Keeping and Serving Beer
· Beer Styles
· Beer Flavor & Evaluation
· Beer Ingredients and Brewing Process
· Pairing Beer and Food
There are four levels of certification: Certified Beer Server®, Certified Cicerone®, Advanced Cicerone®, and Master Cicerone®. As of May 2019, there are just 118 Advanced Cicerone’s® and 18 Master Cicerone’s in the entire world. To use the word Cicerone® in association with one’s title, or on any business cards and correspondence, they are required to pass the 2nd level of testing. A grade of 80% overall and at least a 70% on the tasting portion are required to pass. To say that the Certified Cicerone® exam is difficult is an understatement. The proctor told me that the passing rate for first-time test takers is 33%. By far the highest failure rate of any test I have taken, and I have taken some hard tests.
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon the Cicerone® Certification Program, however, once I learned about it and the credibility behind the program and title, I knew I had to pursue this goal. By no means would I call myself an “expert” of beer, but it was important for me, personally, to have some credibility and a certain level of beer knowledge before launching Tacos and Cold Ones™. I must say, there are plenty of people in the beer industry that know much more about beer and pairing beer with food than I do and are not Certified Cicerones®.
When I decided I would pursue the goal of becoming a Cicerone®, I was really excited, but also intimidated. My education and profession are in finance and wealth management while beer is basically science, chemistry, and biology, so, the learning curve for me was steep. Not only was I learning a foreign subject, but I was also learning words and concepts that I wasn’t familiar with. In the beginning, most of my study time was spent googling the definition of words like coagulate or denaturize which would lead me on a wild goose chase looking-up another word that defined the original word that I had googled. It was a long process and very challenging, but I didn’t allow the new challenges to discourage me.
I purchased the Road to Cicerone® coursebook, and the Certified Cicerone Program Provides a syllabus of the content that will be on the exam. Although a lot of the information is in the study material, it is not nearly comprehensive enough. There is a list of additional resources they recommend studying including:
· Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher
· The Oxford Companion to Beer by Garrett Oliver
· The Beer Judges Certification Program 2015 Study Guidelines
· The Brewers Association 2017 Draft Beer Quality Manual
· The Road to Cicerone Beer Style Cards
In my opinion, it is crucial to make the additional resources part of your regular study materials. As thorough as the Cicerone Certification Program material is, there are many areas of study that require a deeper dive. Additionally, it is beneficial to learn information from other perspectives and teaching styles. It is a lot of details and requires a diligent study process.
Since my time is limited, my typical study schedule was weekdays, in my office, from 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm, and on the weekends from 7:00 am – 11:00 am. Of course, I had taco breaks every now and then.
Fortunately, I had a study partner, my buddy Micah, who is also a Certified Beer Server and a Certified Sommelier®, which helped us keep each other accountable. Having a study partner and someone to dialogue with through some of the more challenging concepts was extremely helpful. Additionally, for the tasting piece, being that everyone perceives taste and smell differently, it was great to talk through the flavor profiles and perceptions with another person.
Our study regimen was simple, we studied independently throughout the week, and we studied together on Wednesday nights. Each week, we reviewed a specific section of the syllabus and a certain category of beer styles. We wrote fill-in-the-blank practice tests for each other and then graded each other’s tests. The more beer styles we studied, the more difficult it became. Beer styles have many overlapping attributes, so it was very imperative to have a memorization strategy in place. We always ended the night with a blind taste test of 3-4 different beer styles, usually with similar flavor attributes. Blind taste testing was by far the most fun part of the night but also the most frustrating as well.
One of the most challenging aspects about tasting beer, for the purposes of passing a test, is that you need to deconstruct flavor and aroma attributes of the beer, which can consist of hundreds of different flavor compounds. One of the cool things about studying for the tasting portion of the exam is that you get to taste many different styles of beers from different regions around the world. The Certified Cicerone® exam tests on more than 70 different beer styles, the qualitative and quantitative characteristics, and even the history. However, tasting beer and drinking beer are two different things. When you taste beer, you deconstruct flavor profiles through taste, aroma, aftertaste, mouthfeel, and appearance. After just a few tastings, your palate can become burnt-out, clouding your ability to perceive the flavor attributes accurately. As a result, most of the beer was just poured down the drain. I’ve never wasted so much beer in my life than while studying for this exam. It was an expensive study process, as you can probably imagine.
About a month before the exam, we began blind tasting for off-flavors using the Cicerone® Certification Program Basic Off-Flavor Kit, by Aroxa. Off-flavor identification is an essential skill because it allows you to identify beer that is not suitable for service, due to a variety of reasons. Brewers spend a lot of time and money perfecting their craft. To sell a sub-par or infected product is not only wasteful but can tarnish their brand.
The Certified Cicerone® test was way harder than I expected. Unfortunately, I did not pass the first time around. My overall score was 77.2%, and as I previously mentioned, an 80% overall grade is required to be successful, with a 70% on the tasting section. Although I didn’t pass the written portion, I did pass the tasting portion which was a huge relief because your senses can be on point one day and completely off the next. So, getting that behind me was a huge relief. My weakest score was in beer styles; I didn’t study beer styles nearly as much as I should have, and I knew it going into the test. Second time around I switched from flashcards to fill-in-the-blank spreadsheets; I wrote each quantitative and qualitative attribute of every beer style at least 20-30 times until I memorized them all. Additionally, I took extra measures and hired a Master Cicerone®, the Beer Maestro himself, Gavin Harper, to tutor me through some of the more challenging concepts, because there was no way I was going to take the test a third time!
I’ve taken many tests in my professional career, and the Certified Cicerone® test is the only test that I had to wait to receive my results. Those were the 2nd longest 4-8 weeks of my life. Finally, after a little over a year and a half of arduous study, I was notified that I passed the exam. It was a priceless feeling, anyone who has passed knows the feeling. Ironically, what I realized that day is how much I don’t know about beer. It’s an endless journey, but as the author and Certified Cicerone®, Julia Herz once told me; “It’s a worthy pursuit.”