There are many folks out there who claim to know everything there is about beer. The Cicerone Certification Program was created several years ago as a way to test and certify knowledge and aptitude of beer serving, storage, beer styles and beer flavours (drinking, and pairing with food). On Thursday, January 23rd, 2014, there will be a Certified Cicerone® Exam held at The Halifax Club, the first time this exam has been held in Atlantic Canada. For more information on the exam, we reached out to several people involved with the Cicerone Program.
First, we connected with Mirella Amato, one of only seven Master Cicerones® (and the first outside of the US), and the person who will be administering the Exam on Jan 23rd.
ACBB: Who is the Cicerone program aimed towards?
Mirella: The Cicerone Certification program is geared towards industry professionals. It was created to help ensure that beer was being stored and served properly.
What are the different levels of the Cicerone program?
There are three levels: Certified Beer Server, which is an online exam; Certified Cicerone®, which is a four hour in-person exam; and Master Cicerone®, which is a fourteen hour exam. Each level builds on the previous one.
What are the requirements to sit the Certified Cicerone exam?
The only pre-requisite for the Certified Cicerone® exam is to have passed the Certified Beer Server exam. Having said this, it is a challenging exam; I highly recommend having a look at the Certified Cicerone® Syllabus before registering. The Syllabus outlines everything you need to know in order to pass; it can be used as a checklist. Of course, you also have to be of legal drinking age because there is a tasting component to the exam.
Can you tell me about the test format?
The Certified Cicerone® exam has a written portion that includes both short answer questions and essay questions. There is then a tasting portion to the exam as well as an oral component that usually takes the form of a demonstration. You need to achieve a grade of 80% to pass the exam, and also have to have scored at least 70% on the tasting portion.
What resources would be useful in preparation for the exam?
The Syllabus is definitely the number one resource. As I mentioned earlier, it lists everything that could be on the exam. If you’re comfortable with all of the topics covered in the syllabus, you’ll be fine. The Cicerone website also has a list of resources and tools to help people along. A couple of them – off-flavour kits and style cards- are not yet available in Canada, but we’re working on that.
Please tell me about your experience as a Cicerone® (first Certified, then Master).
I found the Cicerone Certification Program to be a great way to focus my studies, working towards a specific goal. Beyond that, as a beer specialist, I wanted my clients to know that they could trust my level of expertise. When I first became a Certified Cicerone®, no one really knew what it meant, so there was a lot of education to be done. Now, I’m hearing stories from beer specialists who say they’re frequently asked if they are Certified Cicerones®. It’s great to see that an increasing number of people are becoming aware of the certification and what it means.
I was thrilled when I passed the Master Cicerone® exam – it’s incredibly challenging. Having added consultancy services to my portfolio, it made sense to work towards that certification. Again, it was a way to demonstrate that I’d achieved a certain level of knowledge. I’ve gotten so much positive feedback on my accomplishment – because I was the first person outside of the US to pass the exam. There are currently 25 Certified Cicerones® in Canada.
If someone is just hearing about the exam now, will they be in with a chance, 6 weeks out of the exam?
When I took my Certified Cicerone® exam, my friend Dominic – who is a professional brewer in Québec, as well as a BJCP judge – took it with me. I think he studied for about a week – simply filling in the gaps that he identified in reading the syllabus. I had been studying for about six weeks, doing the same thing. We both passed the exam… how long it takes to prep for the exam depends on the individual. Six weeks is definitely not enough time for someone who doesn’t know anything about beer to work up to the Certified Cicerone® level.
Mirella has outlined her keys to successfully passing the exam on her website, including a great group of curated links to resources.
We also caught up with Mike Buhler, a Certified Cicerone® (the first in Atlantic Canada) who passed the exam mid-2013. Mike, better known as the Beerthief, lives in Newfoundland and holds tastings and administers the Newfoundland Artisanal and Craft Beer Club, bringing excellent beer not otherwise available in the province.
What additional resources would you suggest consulting to succeed at the exam?
Best resources include Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer and the Beer Judge Certificatiom Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines. Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table is an excellent resource, plus tasting and getting to know as many styles as possible. Researching national, provincial and local liquor laws is worth doing as well.
Tell us about your experience with sitting the Certified Cicerone® exam
I studied on and off for almost a year and a half between working and other commitments, plus tasting in the area of 750 beers to prepare for the exam. I first sat it in Toronto in February 2013 and missed it by a minimal number of points. I then scrambled to rebook in the Bronx in March (plus studying like a fiend as well). The airline cancelled my flight the night before and I was scrambling again to rebook! Fortunately, I was able to get seats on a plane and a seat in the next exam in DC the following week. This time I passed, but for the second time, my weakest score was in the style category, despite tasting many different beer all around the world.
Any final words for people considering taking the exam?
I think it’s a great program that will drive the level of service up for customers everywhere. As for succeeding in passing the Certified Cicerone exam with only six weeks to prepare, I would say this is virtuously impossible without a substantial background in beer across a broad spectrum of topics. Atlantic Canada is particularly hard due to the lack of beer selections to learn styles and know about for both the written and tasting perspectives.
So, what to do if you’d like to take the exam on the 23rd? First and foremost, study the syllabus of the Certified Beer Server, and take that exam. This online exam is a pre-requisite to sit the Certified Cicerone® exam, and a great way to confirm that the program is for you. After completing that, sign up for the Jan 23rd exam. Several of the other people taking the Halifax exam are part of a Facebook group, so join that to schedule virtual and in-person study sessions. And keep in mind that the exam is only scheduled when there is a demand for it, and may not happen locally again for a long time, so if you were contemplating taking it, strike while the iron is hot!