Is the Cicerone program a joke? I don’t mean this as a derogatory question. Some people I respect in the beer community have made the comment that it is. And in some ways it is hard to disagree with their assessment. But of course these are people that have a good deal of knowledge already and can pass the first level exam with no preparation at all.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with the Cicerone Certification Program, it is a certification program for beer industry professionals, founded by Ray Daniels. A Cicerone is the beer equivalent to a Sommelier in the wine world. The first Cicerone Certification is the Certified Beer Server. This exam details the basics for beer styles and draft system management. The exam is an online exam, but to prevent testers from looking up answers it is a pretty rapid fire test, 60 questions in 30 minutes. This exam is truly tailored for those that serve beer. Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, MD requires all employees to become a CBS. Bartenders and wait staff in beer bars are good candidates for this exam. It gives them the ability to talk with a degree of expertise about the products they are serving.
I took this exam a few years ago on a whim. I had not studied; I was just relying on my knowledge. I thought 60 questions in 30 minutes would be a little tight, but 15 minutes later while printing out my Certificate I realized it was more than enough time. A passing score is 75%. I believe I scored a 93%. Honestly I was disappointed. But on a few questions one of the multiple choice responses lured me to an incorrect answer. And I think I fell down on a few draft management questions. At that time I had little experience with kegs other than college parties and changing kegs at the bar I worked at in college. Now I have a full draft system at home that I have done a significant amount of work on and feel confident in most of my knowledge in that area.
The next level is a Certified Cicerone. This exam is a bit more intense, as the questions are no longer multiple choice, and there is also a tasting portion involved. You are asked to identify styles, off flavors, and flavor characteristics. This is one that I think I would have to study for. The questions are definitely more directed to an expert level of knowledge, and is an intense 4 hour exam. From reviewing an exam from 2008 that is available on the Cicerone website I found that many questions I was pretty sure about, but not as sure as I would like to be to take the exam. There are only 700 Certified Cicerones, so that should tell you it is somewhat of an elite certification. This is an exam that I would like to take, but I don’t really have any incentive to pass it, other than saying I did pass it. So for now I think I will save the $345 exam fee for a few bar tabs instead.
The final level is a Master Cicerone. There are only 6 Master Cicerones in the world right now. This level of certifications is reserved primarily for educators and those that may serve as Beer Directors for a Brewery or multi-store restaurant.
So back to my original question; Is the Cicerone program a joke? I think the answer lies in a specific context. If you are a beer geek that is fully consumed with knowing everything there is about every brewer, beer style, and off flavor. Then the Certified Beer Server exam might be somewhat of a joke. If you are a business owner that wants to make sure all of his employees have a good knowledge base about the products they are serving that it certainly isn’t a joke.
This is where I want to step up onto a soap box for a minute. If you are a publican that is serious about the beer that you sell in your establishment please consider using this program. There is nothing more annoying to someone that does know about beer asking a legitimate question to a bartender in a legitimate beer bar to only get an answer like, “I don’t really like beer” or “I just don’t know much about beer.” Or even worse is overhearing someone else ask a question, only to hear the bartender provide a very confident answer that is not even close to being right. Having at least a bar manager that you can feel confident in his or her knowledge is a start. But really bartenders are employees that tend to stick around for a while, I believe it is advantageous to have all of them take the Certified Beer Server exam.
Probably some of the most important things Certified Beer Servers are tested on is how to properly maintain a draft system. Most bartenders have figured this out on the job, and many haven’t had any formal training or reading on the subject. Even more important is the portions of the exam that focus on cleanliness and sanitization. For example, the term “beer clean.” Many outside of the beer industry are not familiar with this term. What this means is the beer glass is clean and clear of all residues. If you are in a restaurant and order a beer and see carbon-dioxide bubbles clinging to the side of the glass, your glass is not clean. Head retention or lack thereof can be another sign, but this is difficult to assess unless you are watching the beer being poured. Obviously giving a customer a beer in a dirty glass is something you want to avoid.
So as you can see I don’t really think this program is a joke. In 2011 there were just over 5,000 Certified Beer Servers, today there are over 20,000. And while passing this exam doesn’t make you the be all end all in beer knowledge, it does mean you have a strong base of knowledge. And as an employer that is nice thing to know about your employees.