Certified Beer Nerd: What It Takes to Be a Cicerone
There are beer nerds. There are beer snobs. And then there are cicerones, who are essentially walking encyclopedias of beer knowledge and the beer world’s answer to sommeliers.
But what does it take to become one? We talked with Zach Mack, owner of New York’s Alphabet City Beer Co. (and our trusty beer expert) about the rigorous process it takes to become one of the world’s most respected beer nerds. Turns out, it’s kind of like passing the bar. But with a lot more beer burps.
So you’re a Certified Cicerone. Can you explain exactly what that is?
The fancy way of putting it is that it’s an exam-based certification that proves a person knows about proper beer service, storage, style, history, and food pairings. Ever heard of wine experts called “sommeliers?” We’re like that, but for beer.
And it’s pronounced “chee-cha-roh-nee”?
Close! The proper pronunciation has been lost in the mists of time, but the one commonly used is “sis-uh-rohn.”
OK, so how do you become one?
There are a few stages. The first step is becoming a Certified Beer Server by taking an exam online, which is an entry-level certification that teaches you about proper beer service and basic style history. A lot of beer bars and restaurants use it as a way to train staff, but even if you’re not in the industry, it’s a pretty easy way to brush up on basics if you’re looking to learn more about beer.
Once you’ve passed that, you can sign up for a cicerone exam in your area. It’s pretty easy if to find one if you’re in the United States (and getting easier in Canada and the UK). Then it gets down to studying your ass off.
Wait, so you actually have to study?
You could… kind of say that. There’s a comprehensive syllabus that lays out a good study structure. But the Cicerone Certification Program actively tries to keep most training programs separate from their area of operation in the hopes that independent programs pop up as the exam gains popularity.
Instead, there’s a suggested reading list, but it can require a LOT of library time: there are two or three core books (especially Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer, which is a must-read even if you’re only casually interested in learning more about beer), but the list meanders and can be a lot to sift through if you’re taking the exam as a side project.
The books are in addition to a few online lectures and seminars offered by the Cicerone Certification Program, but they’re each sold separately and clock in at $99 a pop. There’s also a $149 off-flavor kit and webinar that’s pretty much essential to passing the exam. Depending on your approach, things can get pretty expensive just studying -- and this doesn’t include all the beers you’ll have to buy to hone your palate for style tasting.
How the hell did you study?! It seems like there’s a lot of beer drinking involved...
I’m in the lucky position of dealing with beer day in and day out. I have access to all kinds of beers and I’m constantly sampling, which gives me a huge leg up on the tasting portion. I own and maintain a draft system, which can play a huge part in the exam. I put a lot of my efforts in studying on the areas where I don’t spend as much time, like the beer-making process and food pairings. Because who doesn’t need an excuse to order more food to eat alongside beer?
In the end, it’s a lot like college: if you put too much effort into just studying one section, you can (and most likely will) get screwed by the wrong set of questions appearing on the final exam. The most help came from friends who had taken the exam in the past and had good insights as to what I could expect... and a lot of second-hand books and lecture notes. Again, not too much unlike college! Also, there’s a lot of beer, completing the simile.
So what’s the test like?
It’s pretty long! The first part is a written section with 150 fill-in-the-blank and short-answer questions. It also includes three short essays, which can cover anything from proper beer service to specific elements of the brewing process to a complex food pairing. Then there’s an oral demonstration portion, where you’re videotaped doing something like taking apart and cleaning a faucet or doing a perfect beer pour. And finally, after hours of writing and talking... you have to drink beer.
The tasting portion is usually what breaks people on the exam. In fact, so many people fail it that they offer it as a separate re-take portion. You’re tested on your ability to detect and identify off flavors, distinguishing between similar styles, and determining whether specific beers are suitable for service. Drinking beer has never been so stressful.
That's intense. So once you become a Certified Cicerone, you’re basically a beer god, right?
Yes. Becoming a Certified Cicerone gets you entry to Eyes Wide Shut-style parties and free helicopter rides whenever you need them.
Hell no. There are definitely people out there who take the exam for bragging rights, and I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. And it’s true that the pass rate for the exam is super low: they used to say that it was lower than any of the 50 states’ bar exams (stupid lawyers!). But anyone who uses the certification as an excuse to lord their knowledge over people are the types who took the exam for all the wrong reasons.
Also, when I took the exam in June of 2015, there were three stages, with one above Certified Cicerone known as Master Cicerone. That exam is an entire exercise in knowing practically everything about beer, from the biochemistry and production practices right through history and recipe production. You have to fly to Chicago to take it over the course of a few days and everything. It’s an intense process.
I guess what you’re saying is that pretty much all brewmasters are Master Cicerones?
Actually, there are only 10 in the world right now.
Is being a Certified Cicerone viewed as a necessity for those who work with beer at any level?
It definitely doesn’t hurt! It’s a great credential to have if you’re working in service as a bartender or beverage manager, and a lot of beer distributors pay for their reps to take the exam to up their knowledge of the products they're pushing. But the accreditation is relatively young (it only started in 2007) and the exam fees are by no means cheap. All of this generates some controversy in the beer world.
What do you mean, “controversy”?
A lot of people in the industry view it as an unnecessary money grab. I’ve never met a Certified Cicerone who didn’t deserve the title, but I’ve met plenty of people who are top-of-the-industry success stories who would never even consider taking the exam. There is no fast track to success for people who have passed the test, just as there isn’t any kind of industry scorn for anyone who decides to hold off on taking it.
For what it’s worth, the same controversy exists in the wine community over taking sommelier exams, especially since there are competing certification programs all charging for different levels of access.
Are there really only three tiers to this entire system?
Funny you should mention that! I was literally opening the envelope containing my certificate when I received an email from the Cicerone Certification Program. It turns out in the 23 seconds of my officially becoming a cicerone, they had added another level of certification: Advanced Cicerone. It was absolutely one of the richest moments of coincidence in my life.
Ha! So if I’m an avid homebrewer and love beer, is this exam right for me?
Only if you think it is and you have the time and money to do it! Like I said before, it’s an accreditation, not a magic key to a high-powered job in the beer industry. Just make sure you remember this is beer, not brain surgery, and you should be fine.
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Zach Mack is Thrillist's contributing beer writer, the owner of Alphabet City Beer Co. in NYC, a newly minted cicerone, and nothing else. Follow him: @zmack.