THE RISE OF THE CICERONES
AS BEER LISTS have become more elaborate and chefs spend more time developing food and beer dinners, a need has arisen for an on-premise brew expert – similar to a sommelier. A new program is working to bring an elevated level of beer knowledge to the world of malt and hops by turning out batches of certified beer experts known as Cicerones. Chicago brewer Ray Daniels started the Cicerone Certification Program five years ago. He jokes that he did so for a fairly simple reason: bad beer. “You’d go into a place that had a lot of taps – that you’d think might know their beer – and they really didn’t,” Daniels says. So he came up with the Cicerone exam to standardize a canon of brew knowledge. There are three levels of Cicerones, starting with Certified Beer Servers (an online exam), Certified Cicerones (an in-person test, complete with a tasting component), and the top level of Master Cicerone (an in-person exam lasting two days). The exams focus on five basic components: keeping and serving beer; beer styles; flavor and tasting; brewing process and ingredients; and beer and food pairing.
Only about a third of test-takers pass (and the numbers are even lower for the Master Cicerone certification). But Daniels stresses that he’s not trying to set up some elitist system. Although sipping a beer is a simple enough pleasure, beer itself isn’t so simple. “Beer is a fragile product,” he says. “It can be ruined instantly by certain types of handling. So the people in the beer business – from the brewery all the way to the waiter or waitress – need to understand the complexity of beer.” So far, only seven people have achieved the top level of Master Cicerone. But about 9OO have passed the regular exam, and an additional 27,OOO have become Certified Beer Servers. Many breweries encourage employees – from brewers to servers to distributors – to study for the exam. Portland-based craft brewer Widmer Brothers has gone a step further: It pays for exams and sets up study programs, and it will even require the basic level for certain employees by the end of the year.