In-Depth

Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Cicerone

Mirella Amato
Mirella Amato is one of only thirteen Master Cicerones in the world. (Photo: Carlos Osorio)

As the role of the modern bartender expands, so do the opportunities for education and training. In the last few years, craft beer’s own version of a sommelier program — the Cicerone Certification Program — has attracted everyone from brewpub bartenders to multi-establishment beverage directors seeking professional development through a four-tier certification program that ranges from basic service and style knowledge to full mastery of the subject matter.

Mirella Amato, an author, consultant and beer educator based in Toronto, is one of only thirteen Master Cicerones in the world. Amato was the fifth person to ever pass the grueling fourteen-hour beer exam (which boasts roughly a 10% pass rate), and has since become a vocal advocate for the program — she even outlines steps on her site for those interested in the Certified Cicerone, or Level Two, certification.

We asked Amato to sit down last week and discuss, via Facebook Live, the ins and outs of cicerone certification: the kind of knowledge and skill each level tests, who can benefit from taking the exams, and how to prepare. Below are just a few of the highlights from her talk (which you can catch in its entirety here) — read on to see what it takes to put your beer knowledge to the ultimate test.

Level One: Certified Beer Server

"An important disclaimer: Certified Beer Server is not a Cicerone certification. Once you pass this first level, you cannot take on the title of Cicerone — that starts at the second level. A technicality, but important to note, because people will call you out."

"This exam is really what it sounds like - it’s designed for people who serve beer. The program touches on the basics of beer, the ingredients, understanding it as a beverage, the process, a little about tasting technique, and then gets into styles. I still see a lot of confusion — the difference between a Belgian wheat and a German wheat, porters versus stouts, all that minutia — so that’s really what the Certified Beer Server exam delves into and makes sure the people taking the exam can untangle the details. Once you’re at the service level and someone is asking these questions or a new beer arrives on tap, if you can quickly assess what’s in the container based on the style description, then you’re in business."

"As for the exam itself, it’s an online exam, multiple choice, the CCP does offer an online course you can take that takes about 8 hours. You can also study on your own pretty effectively."

Who should take it, and why?

"What I’m seeing in the beverage establishment community — pubs, gastropubs, beer-focused restaurants — is that, increasingly, the Certified Beer Server is being considered a prerequisite for employment. It’s a really quick way to ensure whoever you’re bringing in is qualified. You can also just bring someone in and put them through the program. It’s much easier to hire someone who is personable and teach them about beer than it is to hire someone who has incredible amount of knowledge and teach them to be personable. It’s a good way to make sure your staff knows what they’re doing and show your customers that you’re serious, especially if you’re just bringing in a beer program for the first time, or expanding into a number of craft beers. You can put your certificates up on the wall and anyone who’s a beer geek will know exactly what that means, they’ll know you’re taking it seriously, and it might be an additional reason to trust your establishment over another."

How to study

"The exam tests you on standardized materials — the industry standard. The two documents you really need to be aware of and familiarize yourself with: The Draft Beer Quality Manual, put out by the American Brewer’s Association. Service, kegs, fobs — it’s all based on this standard. The other document you should be aware of is the BJCP Style Guidelines. They are one of the bodies that sets standards of what a beer style should be. Aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, overall impression, alcohol content, color, bitterness, and examples. You can go out and taste along as you’re reading. Whenever I was drinking a beer, I’d read the style here as I was tasting and try to wrap my brain around it. Doing that over and over again I was able to taste the beer, write notes, and compare." If you’d like to start honing your palate, Amato has also created a beer evaluation sheet will help you develop your tasting skills.

Level Two: Certified Cicerone Exam

"At this stage you can put ‘cicerone’ on your business cards. This goes a little bit deeper into [the information in the Certified Beer Server exam], and also how to troubleshoot a draft system if something goes wrong with the draft, pairing beer with food, addressing customer complaints. It's a live exam for four hours, with a written component which is fill in the blank, three essays, a live presentation, and of course the tasting exam. The tasting exam is pretty fun if you’re geeky like me. It involves three sections - a style discrimination section, which is testing your understanding of styles on a different level, a flavor level. Then there is an off-flavor section, so in this, you’re presented a range of beers and some of them have been spiked to taste like there is a problem. Then the last section, which was the one I found really fun, deals with a customer complaint scenario. You’re given a beer, the customer has sent it back, this is what it’s supposed to be: is it off, or not? And if so, how can it be fixed?"

Who should take it, and why?

"This is equivalent to the sommelier, geared toward that type of position. Someone who is a beverage program manager, a bar manager, someone who will be supervising the staff and taking care of the beverage selection and glassware. If you have a serious beer program or you’re serious about your beer program, particularly if you have draft, you should have one person at your bar who’s at the Certified Cicerone level. It’s not a class, so it’s not a question of whoever’s in that position taking two weeks off to take a class — if they’re already in that position then they’ll be acquiring all the knowledge and skill that they need. It’s just a nice goal to set. For me, one of the things I really enjoyed was that it was a way to shape my studies. I wanted to learn more about beer, and the world of beer is vast. There is so much to learn. So for me just having that checklist was a great way to make sure I was gaining knowledge that was well-rounded and not just following my specific interests."

How to study

See here. "At this stage, you’ll still want to deal with your two trusted documents. Other resources you should be looking at: "Tasting Beer" by Randy Mosher, "The Brewmaster’s Table" by Garrett Oliver for food pairing, and my book, "Beerology". It fills in a lot of the blanks in terms of the food pairing aspect, and is also just a different approach: a more flavor-based approach, understanding what’s in front of you, with less focus on history, dividing the beers by flavor and grouped by common flavors rather than geographical region or historical context."

"Finally, there is a gentleman in the U.S. who has created guides to prepare for the first and second level, and I suspect he’s coming out with one for the third level too: the Beer Scholar Guide."

Level Three - Advanced Cicerone Exam

"This was introduced last year for many reasons, I think with the critical mass being reached with level two: a lot of people who wanted further certification but weren’t quite ready for the Master Cicerone. Something I should mention: there is a huge leap between each exam. I’ve had people take the Certified Beer Server exam online and think, oh, that was easy, and then sign up for Certified Cicerone the next day, not realizing how big of a jump it was."

Who should take it, and why?

"When I think of the advanced cicerone, I think of a bar manager position, maybe someone in charge of a beverage program for multiple establishments, but beer-focused ones. I think if someone is working in a cocktail establishment or a fine dining restaurant, they could probably get away with the certified cicerone level, but when you’re getting into a more specialized establishment and they might be called upon to give some talks, host some dinners, make some more strategic decisions, the advanced cicerone might be helpful."

How to study

"I do not advise tackling this exam if you haven’t worked in beer for at least three years. As I mentioned, the first two levels can really be reached through book study and memorization. Once you get to the third level, more processing of the materials is required, and the most straightforward way to achieve that is working with beer every day. This is a full day exam. Multiple essays, multiple tastings, multiple oral exams. It requires that combination of study and experience. I would again recommend my book, just in terms of starting to shift the way you look at beer and think about beer. Assimilate as much information as you can in terms of the basics, make sure you’re reading through the syllabus and ticking all of those boxes, I recommend as much as possible trying to take practical classes: my weak spot was the whole draft aspect of it. I took a course where we installed a draft system from scratch and we took it all apart again; I went to breweries and asked if I could clean their draft systems. Really tried to get that hands-on experience as much as possible."

Level Four: Master Cicerone

"The pass rate for this exam is hovering around 10%. You really have to be determined. I found the exam to be grueling but I also thought it was super fun. The way they ask questions really makes you stop, think, tap into what you know and tap into your experience."

Who should take it, and why?

Basically, anyone interested in (and capable of) proving their mastery of the craft. Amato adds: "This is a certification that I would recommend to anyone who is looking to move into a consulting position."

How to study

"I would not recommend tackling this exam if you have not worked actively in beer full-time for at least three years. That exam might have changed format since I took it, but it’s still a two-day exam: three hours of essay writing, half hour oral exam, a tasting exam, then the same thing that afternoon and the next day. The syllabus is online with a detailed list of everything you need to know, but I think it would be fair to say that nothing is off-limits when it comes to the master cicerone exam. I was certainly tested on things that were not in the curriculum and that was considered to be perfectly fair, because you are supposed to have mastered the service aspect of beer."

Additional resources:

On mastering off flavors: “For off flavors: the Cicerone Certification Program does have a little kit for the Certified Cicerone level that you can purchase. It’s powder that you put in your beer that will mimic those off flavors, and it comes with a webinar. So that’s handy — you can get a couple friends together, taste some really gross beers, and learn a thing or two. There are companies that make off-flavor spikes that you can purchase for larger groups. Those can be quite cost-prohibitive but for those of you working toward advanced or master, you’ll probably want to get into a larger spectrum of those off flavors."

On teaching yourself sensory skills and developing a palate: “Back in the day, there were no beer classes. I actually ended up taking an intermediate wine tasting class to hone my palate. I took those BJCP guidelines, I downloaded them and printed them out for free online, and what I would do is when I tasted a beer, I would look up what the style was, for example, a Belgian Dubbel. I would then seek out one of the Belgian Dubbels listed, nose the beer, read through the aroma description, the appearance, the flavor, and try to make those connections. On my website I have a beer tasting sheet for free download. It’s really designed to take you through all the different considerations. You can use it as a checklist to help guide you. Beyond that, if you would like to hone your palate and you have a few friends, my book also has a big section called 'Diving In' with guided activities you can use to hone your palate."

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