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The Long Road to Cicerone…

It has taken way longer than I intended, but it finally happened: I passed the last test, and I am now a Certified Cicerone! To most people this will probably mean nothing, so let me explain what the Cicerone Certification Program is, and how it was the real reason I was in Amsterdam last month and last year

The wine world has its sommeliers, and they’ve been around for a long time already. I assume most of you will know what they are: people who know a lot about wine and how to serve it, which dishes to pair it with, etcetera.

In the beer world, there have been brewing courses for a while, but we have had to wait a long time for something akin to sommelier. In recent years however—well, decades already—beer specialist courses have been popping up, training people to be ‘beer sommeliers’ or ‘zythologues’. The required depth of knowledge and curriculum vary greatly though, and sometimes it even completely depends on who’s teaching the course that year!

The Cicerone Certification Program has a slightly different approach, in that it isn’t actually a course, but—as the name clearly states—merely a certification program. That means they organise exams, and tell you which subjects you should master, but where you get your knowledge and skills from, you’ll have to figure out for yourself. The same exams are organised all over the world—at least for the first levels—so you know a Certified Cicerone in the United States had to master the exact same knowledge and skills as someone in Belgium, for instance.

While the program originated in the United States, the curriculum is as international as beer itself. You’ll have to learn just as much about Dark Mild, Witbier, and Märzen, as about New England IPA, American Pale Ale, and Imperial Stout.

For the Cicerone exams, you’ll have to acquire knowledge and skills in five areas:

  • Keeping and serving beer
  • Beer styles
  • Beer flavour and evaluation
  • Beer ingredients and brewing processes
  • Pairing beer with food

How much you need to know, depends on the level of certification, of which there are four: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, Advanced Cicerone, and Master Cicerone. I’ll get back to the first two levels, but let me just tell you that as I’m writing this, there are 179 Advanced Cicerones world wide (none in Belgium, and just 9 in the U.K.) and just 28 Master Cicerones (2 of which in the U.K.)! So you could say the higher levels are certainly quite exclusive…

I must also briefly mention the Beer Judge Certification Program. This is quite popular worldwide too: the Cicerone Certification Program even refers candidates to their style guide for the beer style descriptions. However, as the name clearly states, it’s very much focussed on judging and describing beers, so the keeping and serving of beer, or food pairing are not really part of their curriculum.

Certified Beer Server

So the entry level is Certified Beer Server. Although it’s part of the program, passing this doesn’t entitle one to call themself a ‘Cicerone‘ yet.

I heard about it— and consequently about the whole Cicerone Certification Program—from BrewDog. This Scottish brewery and bar chain requires all of their staff—so not just the beer serving staff in their bars—to pass the CBS exam within a couple of months after starting their career at BrewDog*. On a mission to spread the love for and knowledge about craft beer, they decided in 2018 to double the amount of Certified Beer Servers in the U.K., and offered a 1000 of their Equity Punks the opportunity to take this exam for a discounted fee. Of course I had to take them up on this offer!

As an entry level exam intended for regular bar staff, the online multiple choice exam isn’t too hard, and most of the questions should be easy enough to answer for people working in a bar, with just a minimal amount of reviewing. “Should”, because I daresay, more than half of the bartenders in Belgium probably wouldn’t be able to pass the test without some serious studying and unlearning bad habits!

With the help of the study material kindly provided by BrewDog—the same they use to prepare their staff—and a nightshift of studying, I passed the exam in April 2018 with flying colours.

* Brussels Beer Project has the same requirement for their staff.

Certified Cicerone

The next level would require a lot more studying, tasting, and practicing, since the exam wouldn’t be online anymore, but in person. There was talk on the BrewDog EFP forums of providing the same discount for the—much more expensive—test, but that never materialised.

After checking out the syllabus, I then finally decided to go ahead and give it a go. At this point the study material provided by BrewDog wasn’t enough anymore, and I started buying books and creating intricate mind maps. When a Certified Cicerone exam in Amsterdam was then announced for June 2020, I bit the bullet, payed up, and registered.

Well, we all know what happened in 2020, so my trip to Amsterdam had to be cancelled… Not to worry though, since the exam organisers did what so many schools and universities had to to do: set up a system for online exams—with webcam eye tracking and all—and do it that way! One problem though: you can’t do the required tastings and demo online…

So I did the theory part of the exam from the comfort of my own couch, and I passed. I even did well enough to only need to the bare minimum—70%—for the tasting exam to pass the whole thing!

And then the wait started… It wasn’t enough for just bars to reopen and allow people to meet again, but all travel restrictions had to be lifted as well, so everyone involved would be able to get to the exam location. Finally a date was picked for the remaining tasting and demo part of the exam in Amsterdam, and it would be in October 2022.

Before setting off, I made sure to do an off-flavour tasting again—yes, drinking bad beer for fun—and get my hands on some couplers and faucets. A shout-out to BrewDog Brussels and La Source Beer Co., who were both kind enough to provide me with the means and location to practice! Also a big thanks to Dimitri (Certified Cicerone) and Paddy (Advanced Cicerone), with whom I had some very helpful chats!

In order to avoid having to get up too early for the 10:00 exam, I went to Amsterdam the day before, and checked into a fancy hostel. That evening, I practised disassembling a coupler once more, and went to sleep. The next morning I woke up with a bit of sniffle… When checking out, I noticed the cause: the hostel cat, which I was allergic to!

I’m not entirely blaming the cat, but the tasting exam didn’t go well… I did pass the demo bit—I had to disassemble a faucet and explain the cleaning routine while doing it—but horribly failed the tasting! I didn’t even recognise the Guinness! I did learn from the experience though: when they said beers wouldn’t be served in optimal conditions, they meant it! I then decided to immediately register for a do-over of the tasting, whenever that would be.

It would take another year—until October 2023—for another exam to take place in Amsterdam—for me the most convenient location of all the exam locations. Although a year seems long, the exam date still almost caught me by surprise, and I didn’t even get around to doing another off-flavour tasting! Still, I decided to go for it, and if nothing else, it would be an opportunity to practice…

This time, I decided to reduce the risk of encountering any allergens just before my exam, and travelled to Amsterdam early on exam day, and even skipped the coffee at breakfast. It seemed to have helped, because picking out the off-flavours and styles came easier to me than last time.

And then the wait started… After a couple of days the correct answers were shared with the participants, and it confirmed my feeling: I had quite a few answers correct. Or at least I thought, because we couldn’t take anything home from the exam to verify, and I wasn’t quite sure how half correct replies would be graded…

Then finally today, exactly four weeks after the exam, the verdict came in:

“On behalf of Cicerone Program Founder Ray Daniels and the Cicerone Exam Management Team, I’d like to congratulate you on passing the Certified Cicerone® exam!”

This makes me one of the fifteen Certified Cicerones in Belgium (5 in the Netherlands, 283 in the U.K.)., and I’m quite happy with that!

While they kindly reminded me at the end of the e-mail that my “next challenge is the Advanced Cicerone® exam”, I think I’ll stop here. Well, at least for now…

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