Several years ago, most folks probably thought the word Cicerone was some sort of bizarre typo. Thanks partially to a growing interest in craft brewing, those who hold the title are finally starting to gain recognition as beer experts. And it’s about time because attaining any level of certification is quite a feat, requiring advanced knowledge of beer flavors, history, brewing processes, and more.
Achieving the highest designation, Master Cicerone, is remarkably difficult. “In the last two tests we’ve administered, we’ve had 46 people take it, and only two of them passed,” said Pat Fahey, a Master Cicerone who also works as a content manager for the Cicerone Certification Program. For this reason, the program actually added an additional level in between two certifications to help people work their way toward the end goal.
Plenty of beer lovers out there might think they know enough about their favorite beverage to pass an exam about it with ease, so we dug a little deeper. We spoke to Fahey as well as Christopher Barnes, a Certified Cicerone who pens the blog I Think About Beer, about the ins and outs of becoming one of the foremost experts on all things beer.
1. Appreciation for history
Anyone who struggled to stay awake during history class is going to have sort of a tough time becoming a Cicerone because, after passing the initial Certified Beer Server exam, history becomes a pretty important area of knowledge. You’d also be surprised at how many origin stories just aren’t true. “There are a lot of common myths that have been portrayed about the history of the IPA or the history of proper styles that have been pretty well cleaned up in a lot of cases, but you still see a lot of people repeating the same old myths,” Barnes said.
In regards to IPAs, the most common tale says the beer was highly hopped to survive the long voyage from England to India, where British troops then consumed the bitter beverage. Beer historian Martyn Cornell explained on his website there really isn’t any truth the the story, lovely though it may be.
Unless someone has done a fair bit of reading and studying, their beer history is probably flawed. “You get some people who are pretty confident in what they know, and maybe they shouldn’t be quite so confident,” Fahey said.
2. Sensitive palate
Most beer lovers can detect bitter, malty, and citrus flavors pretty well. These barely scratch the surface of what you need to know when it comes to blind tastings, though. Fahey said he trained his palate on around 40 different flavors in preparation for this portion of the exam, and the only way to do it was a ton of practice. Typically, he would go to a bar where he knew the beverage director or a bartender. “I’d go there on my way home from work and they’d pour me five samples. I would take full notes on them blind and then we’d talk about them,” he explained.
And just as important as detecting desirable characteristics is being able to notice when things aren’t quite right. Off tastings are another component of the exam, and one that Barnes found a bit tricky. “There’s a lot of reading about off flavors, but actually tasting them is pretty important,” he said. The Cicerone Certification Program even makes and sells kits that create these undesirable flavors in order to help people prepare for this part of the test.
Though tasting with other people can be helpful for some, it can also be detrimental. “Even if you’re trying to avoid being influenced by what other people say, it can be difficult,” Fahey explained. “Your brain just automatically goes there.”
3. Respect for the process
The average Joe only really cares about the finished product. This mindset doesn’t cut it for anyone looking to become a Certified Cicerone. While it’s important to have an appreciation for the final beverage, you need to spend a significant amount of time learning about the entire beer process from brewing to fermenting to installing draft systems. Even at its most basic level, a keg at a party, there are six main components that all have to work in perfect harmony to give you a great pour.
Taking a class is a good starting point. After that, getting some real experience is pretty important. Fahey tagged along with a friend who installs draft systems and Barnes plans on doing the same. “I have several friends who work for draft service companies, so I can go with them on the job to put that practical learning into place,” Barnes said.
4. Academic approach
Having good study habits will make the entire certification process go a lot more smoothly. Fahey was fresh out of school when he started working his way towards becoming a Master Cicerone, which he admitted was a huge help. He recommended spending some time figuring out how you think the test is most likely to break down, “then practicing it in that format.”
It’s not all feeling around in the dark, either. Each exam is explained in great detail on the Cicerone Certification Program’s website, including syllabi. They’re a pretty good indication of what types of things you should know and can help you identify areas where you may be a bit weak.
This student-like strategy should apply to tastings as well. “I had a tasting notebook and I’d go through the appearance and aroma, then taste, and put it all together,” Barnes said. “It’s much more thoughtful than just kicking back with a beer while watching TV.”
5. Speaking skills
Some people are natural speakers and some are, well, not. Oral exams are part of the package, so the best way to prepare yourself is by practicing because thinking about what you’re going to say and actually doing it are two completely different things. Fahey suggested working on food and beer pairings with friends by having them make selections without telling you in advance. After tasting and making some selections, have them grill you about your choices.
Perhaps the most important tip for becoming a beer expert is to take your time. Fahey advanced quicker than most, and he still allowed a full two years before progressing from a Certified Cicerone to a Master Cicerone. Barnes has taken a similarly conservative approach.
And being well prepared isn’t just about boosting your confidence. There are strict policies about how long you have to wait before retaking exams. For example, people who score less than 70 on the Master Cicerone test must wait a minimum of 30 months before they’re allowed another shot.
7. Ability to step back
Getting a professional certification doesn’t mean beer has to become some joyless beverage you drink in solitude. Both Barnes and Fahey love sour beers, but still see plenty of value in enjoying something simply because it tastes good. “I can enjoy a really tasty beer just because it’s well made,” Barnes said.
For Fahey, keeping it fun sometimes means reaching for other types of drinks. “Sometimes I just need to do cocktails for a little while or wine for a little while, so I don’t totally burn out,” he explained.
And as for those who think the Cicerone Certification Program is sucking all of the fun out of beer, it’s really up to the individual. Barnes said,”It can be just as snobby as you want or you can make it as fun as you want.”