If you’re willing to study for fun you must really enjoy the subject.
The topics of beer and homebrewing have been a passion of mine since I visited Colorado and became inspired to stumble my way through making my first beer. As time went on, I found myself reading everything about brewing that I could get my hands on. From the methods, to the ingredients, to the history, no topic was too technical or too dry. Most importantly I obtained a deep respect for the brewers and the beers they make and wanted to help share that message to others.
Eventually I decided that I wanted to challenge myself to obtain some form of formal title as it pertained to beer. There are many programs available out there but the one that immediately drew me in was the Cicerone® Certification Program.
What is a Cicerone® anyways?
Per the official Cicerone® Certification Program’s statement, a Cicerone® “designates hospitality professionals with proven experience in selecting, acquiring and serving today’s wide range of beers”.
The Cicerone® program was the perfect venue for me to unify all of my interests in beer. It would require me to have a thorough understanding of beer styles, brewing, evaluation and presentation. Most importantly, this program would give me the training I needed to present a beer as the brewer intended. The program would also require me to better my understanding of food pairing and, with cooking being an ever-present interest of mine, I was eager to learn more.
I had danced around the idea of writing the exam for almost a year, having dabbled with the material but finding it hard to commit. On an impulse, with about four months to prepare, I signed up for the Sept 29th exam in Toronto, Ontario. I had read that only one in three exam writers were successful, and with an 80% overall required to pass, it was time to get to work.
The Cicerone® Certification Exam Material
The Cicerone® Certification Program requires all candidates to become fully knowledgeable in five key areas:
- Keeping and Serving Beer: A focus on draught system cleaning and maintenance, proper beer storage, glassware selection and legislation surrounding distribution and sales.
- Beer styles: A thorough understanding of the defining characteristics, history and commercial examples of most major beer style categories.
- Beer flavor and evaluation: The ability to recognize and describe both favorable and unfavorable qualities in a beer, including off flavors that indicate a beer is not fit to serve
- Beer ingredients and the brewing Process: How beer is made including what ingredients are used in the brewing process and how their unique characteristics and selection affect the finished product.
- Pairing Beer with Food: An understanding of the basic principles of food pairing with the ability to practically apply the information by suggesting a specific beer style for a food based on how they complement each other, as well as through finding contrast and matching intensity.
The day of
It was a soggy day in Toronto. The long walk to Labatt’s by the harbour front was a great way to burn some nervous energy. Previous exam writers had warned me to eat a big breakfast as the exam takes over five hours to write and there are no opportunities for a break or a quick snack. Regardless, it was hard to eat much.
Once I arrived I was warmly greeted at the front desk and asked to take a seat in the waiting area. I came to learn that there were twelve of us writing. There wasn’t much conversation as everyone occupied themselves with some last minute study. Eventually we were brought to the exam room by our exam invigilator and once we were all seated he was able to break the tension by having us all introduce ourselves. It quickly became apparent that I was the only person there that was not already involved in the beer industry. Everyone else was either a professional brewer, worked in sales, or worked directly for a craft beer focused bar/restaurant.
With that, the written portion began. Unfortunately I cannot go into the exam in great detail due to the restrictions imposed on discussing the exam’s specific questions. I’ll say this much: it was thick, and it was detailed. A general understanding of the five major topics listed above would get you a decent mark, but it is clear they design the exam, and the 80% passing grade, to draw a line between those who casually studied and those who truly learned and retained the information to the extent the program designers deem worthy. After roughly 200 fill-ins and short answer questions and three essays, the time had expired and it was time to move on.
Now came the part most exam writers fret about the most: the practical tasting and evaluation portion. The format of this section is readily available from the program directors so I don’t think discussing it breaks any of the rules regarding exam discussion. Essentially, you are given three flights of four small samples of beer. Each flight serves a different purpose:
- Flight 1: You are provided with a “control” beer that has not been altered along with four other samples. Your job is to find the other “control” in the group and specify what is wrong with the remaining three. All samples are clean lager beers of the same specific variety. All sorts of things can be wrong with the beers and it requires the taster to place the sensation (i.e. a “buttery” taste) to the off flavor (i.e. “diacetyl”).
- Flight 2: You are provided four more beers. For these you must evaluate them and choose one of two styles on the exam paper that best represents the style. An example often given is separating an English Bitter from an American Pale Ale.
- Flight 3: Similar to the first in that you are again looking for flaws, only this time there is no “control” sample. All of the beers are of a different style and you do not know how many have been purposefully tainted and how many have nothing wrong with them. Further to identifying if there is a problem, you must state what likely caused the issue and how it could have been prevented. This section proved much more challenging than the first flight as many of the beer styles chosen were very strong and robust, which meant minor flaws were more easily hidden.
The unique aspect of this portion of the exam is that the results are discussed immediately following the completion of the tasting. The exam invigilator, who is already a Certified Cicerone®, takes the exam with you and shares their opinions while asking for everyone else’s once everyone has passed in their papers. This is to allow everyone to discuss what they wrote and allows for any unexpected flaws to be taken into consideration by the grader. That is, if a beer was not intended to have a vinegary off flavor but everyone at the table says it had one, then marks will not be deducted for saying it was present.
The last part of the day sees everyone taking turns to record a three minute video relating to the “keeping and serving beer” portion of the syllabus. Honestly, after almost five hours of exam writing (and 12 sample beers), most of us were happy to just get this part over with. Everyone was now relaxed and relieved that everything was over and we finally got a chance to chat a bit.
The waiting game was also now under way as we were told to expect our results in six to eight weeks. The hard part was over and there was nothing more to be done than to wait and see.
On November 8th, 2016 (two days before the six week mark) I was excited to see a new email from one of the Cicerone® Certification Program staff. They cut right to the chase and I was elated to learn I had passed! I had taken comfort in knowing that regardless of the outcome I had spent my time learning about a subject that I deeply enjoy, but the recognition for my effort certainly made it even better. With the news I became only the second Cicerone® in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador and one of only 93 in Canada.
Where to go from here
I’ll be honest, when I started studying for the exam it was mainly as a personal challenge to see if I could do it. There was no end game or long-term plan. Going forward I hope to share my passion for the craft beer industry with others. I would love to be involved in guiding beer tastings, as well as working with restaurants to help setup food and beer pairing menus. My love of writing is a big reason for my contributions to this blog and I hope that eventually I can apply that interest towards writing for other outlets in the future. Ultimately, it brings me great joy to watch people encounter new experiences and knowing that I contributed to helping someone find their “new favorite” beer or style is very rewarding.
For those interested in contacting me about any beer related events or activities you’d like me to be involved in please click here to contact me by email