What is a cicerone (a.k.a a beer sommelier)? And how do I become one? – Box Brew Kits

What is a cicerone (a.k.a a beer sommelier)? And how do I become one?

Sure, you’ve heard of a wine sommelier, but have you come across a cicerone yet in your alcohol tasting journey? In short, a cicerone is basically a wine sommelier, only for beer--it’s someone who’s certifiably knowledgeable about brews, knowing specific aspects like the history of beer and which food to pair with which beer. This post will dig into what a cicerone is, in which scenarios it might make sense to become one, and how to get certified.

Cicerone 101

So, beer sommelier or cicerone...which one is right? You might have heard of a “beer sommelier” before. In fact, Wikipedia has a dedicated page for that term, and it seems as if it’s just a less official name for “cicerone.” The Cicerone Certification Program explains this evolution:

“In the wine world, the word ‘sommelier’ designates those with proven expertise in selecting, acquiring and serving fine wine. At one time, some beer servers adopted the title ‘beer sommelier’ to tie into the credibility of the wine world. But in the years since its founding, the Cicerone Certification Program has become the industry standard for identifying those with significant knowledge and professional skills in beer sales and service.”

A cicerone is a trained professional, typically working in hospitality, who has proven experience in selecting, acquiring, and serving beers. Explained by CraftBeer.com, “a cicerone will possess the knowledge and skills to guide those interested in beer culture, including its historic and artistic aspects.”

Becoming a cicerone requires a certification from the Cicerone Certification Program. The program got its start back in 2007, since expanding quite a bit. Its founder, Ray Daniels, has been in the craft beer industry for more than two decades, with expertise in brewing and judging beer. He created the Cicerone program to bring beer the respect he thinks it deserves. But more on that later.

Who Would Want to Become a Cicerone?

Interestingly, there’s a few reasons to become a cicerone--which has many levels of mastery, by the way. But again, more on that later.

Straight from the official cicerone website: “Anyone can call themselves an expert on beer. But when consumers want great beer they need help from a server who really knows beer flavors, styles, and service.”

The certification program is heavily focused on the business aspects of understanding craft beer. And as we’ve mentioned in the past, craft beer as a career path is rising as an option, so it makes sense this certification would have a place in the world. If you’re looking for a job in or considering getting into beer distribution, brewing, restaurant management, or the operational aspects of craft beer, how could it hurt to be a certified expert on the topic? This certification is by no means a surefire way to get a job in beer, but it is becoming increasingly well known and more prestigious among the community.

There’s also a group of people interested in getting the cicerone certification to improve their credibility as a beer reviewer or judge at a brewing competition. Of course, you may have heard of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), which is another certification more specific to judging beer and apparently the exam is no joke--we haven’t taken it.

Outside of that, you might just want to get your level 1 cicerone certification for the fun of it. Knowing more about craft beer while drinking or brewing it makes it more enjoyable.

Getting a Cicerone Certification

First things first, these are the study materials. There are four different levels of cicerone: Certified Beer Server (level 1), Certified Cicerone (2), Advanced Cicerone (3), and Master Cicerone (4). Currently, there are only a handful of master cicerones in the world.

Getting to level 1, or the Certified Beer Server status, should leave you with an understanding of:

  • Keeping and Serving beer
  • Beer Styles
  • Beer Flavor and Evaluation
  • Beer Ingredients and Brewing Process
  • Beer and Food Pairing

The exam costs $69 and there a few ways to take it.

The next level is becoming a Certified Cicerone. At this point you’ll have dominated all the topics covered above as a Certified Beer Server and then taken it to another level by passing a written test on them with 150 short answer/fill-in-the-blank questions and three essays, then a tasting exam, and a “demonstration” video. Basically, you better know your stuff. You have to get an 80 overall and a 70 or better during the taste test or you wait at least six weeks before you can try again. Is the bar as hard to pass as this?

What’s After Becoming a Certified Cicerone?

You step your game up, and you become an Advanced Cicerone. This level of Cicerone-dom is even harder. To do this, you’ll need to “possess expert knowledge of beer and excellent tasting ability.” That means any of you mediocre tasters out there will have to work on your craft.

(Get it?)

You’ve got to wait six MONTHS between tests, and you don’t pass unless you get an 80 overall and a 75 on tasting. Not only that, but the test is all day long, and has a bunch of written, oral, and tasting parts of it.

The Next Step...the Final Step

It’s called Master Cicerone. To pass this test, you’ll essentially need to become the most interesting man in the world, and have traveled to distant lands and lived with all known beer-drinking tribes. And then, come back with an “encyclopedic knowledge of beer and highly refined tasting ability,” not just a bunch of cool stories to make into memes and commercials for a basic beer.

At this point in the coursework at cicerone.org, (there are other places to study, but we like them), you’ll need to be able to “describe beer (and food) flavors using concrete and specific terms that accurately cover the full spectrum of flavor.” Sort of intimidating.

These are tips taken directly from their program description:
  • Travel to classic beer producing areas in Europe can be highly beneficial
  • Brewing beer alone or with partners can help to ensure thorough knowledge of the brewing process
  • Experience preparing and presenting beer and food pairing events to groups of critical tasters is strongly recommended

Aside from being awesome (as the tips above recommend), you’ll also need to win a lottery to take the test. Yes, seriously. And if you fail, you've got to wait another year before trying again. Only a handful of people have become Master Cicerones--11 so far. Think you’ve got what it takes?

So, is becoming a cicerone in the cards for you? Sounds like a pretty cool, but also grueling undertaking. If you’re doing it for money, you might want to think again. But, if you’re doing it because being awesome is a responsibility and you like drinking beer for your job, we understand.

October 01, 2015 by Michael Langone
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