A Certified Cicerone™ (Beer Sommelier) Speaks

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SCREENSHOT: WWW.CICERONE.ORG
  • Screenshot: www.cicerone.org

With the ongoing boom in the craft-beer market, the once simple beer list (Bud? or Bud Light?) can seem as intimidating as the fustiest tome of Bordeaux verticals.

That's where a Cicerone -- or, if you like, a beer sommelier - can come in handy.

The Cicerone program is an independent (and trademarked, hence the capital C) service that certifies a small number of beer experts in three different levels: certified beer server, Certified Cicerone and Master Cicerone.

Local distributor Major Brands recently had three members of its staff complete the Certified Cicerone exam. Gut Check caught up with one of them, Mitch Turner, the director of training and development, to learn more about the program.

What did you have to do to become a Certified Cicerone?

It's a four hour exam, and the test is comprised of several different sections, the first being a 150+ question test that covers beer production, beer styles, glassware...all that kind of stuff. They're all short answer questions, but some of the questions are longer than others. After that, there are questions covering food and beer pairings along with draft-system maintenance, upkeep and setting up draft systems, and beer-brewing processes.

There are two final parts. One is a demonstration, which is video taped on how you do a question they ask, and then tasting. There are thirteen blind samples with one control sample. You go through the twelve samples and some of them are spiked with different flavor compounds, or served in a dirty glass, or an old beer that's been sitting out in storage for too long. Some of them are perfectly fine and there's nothing wrong with them.

The second section of the blind tasting is [differentiating between different styles]. The last section is [a scenario] where a customer sends a beer back, and you determine if anything is wrong with it and what to do with it at that point. It's the scariest test I've taken in my entire life.

That sounds pretty intense. What was the most difficult part of the exam?

I think it depends on your experience in the beer industry. I started out as a brewer and worked for breweries for my entire life. For me, the hardest part was the blind tasting exam and pairing.

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How did you study for the test?

The short answer is you have to drink a lot of beer. The long version is that you have to drink a lot of beer styles that you aren't incredibly familiar with. There's 100-plus kinds of beer in the world out there. I don't know about you, I tend to drink a lot of beer, but there are styles that I've only had once or twice in my entire life; it involved seeking out those styles, tasting them, becoming familiar with them, and reading about them.

Internally [at Major Brands], we did a pretty massive amount of preparation for the exam. We met once a week for almost four months studying all the different components of the exam and all the different of components of knowledge necessary for beer: draft systems, styles and brewing production. We also had to practice blind tasting. We didn't practice it every week, but we practiced it every other week for four months. We spiked samples with the different flavor components that they'll spike them with for the exam. It was a pretty intense preparation process.

You're the director of training at Major Brands. Is Cicerone certification something you'd like all your employees complete?

I'm hoping that in a few months from now we'll have another two or three Certified Cicerones on our staff across the state. It's a very important initiative for us. We have a lot of great craft- beer brands, and we need more and more people in the marketplace that understand how these beers are made, how they're served and what's unique and important about them.

The Super Bowl is coming up soon. What are three microbrews that you would recommend to bring to the party?

Four Hands Oatmeal Brown: The Oatmeal Brown is one of my favorites. It's got this real rich texture to it, and it's dynamite. It has a lot of sweetness...Super Bowl food tends to be spicy so you need something sweet to balance it out.

New Belgium Ranger IPA: You got a lot of nice American hop character to it. If you like something hoppier to cut the spicy food or just to drink while you're watching the game, it's a pretty tasty one.

Avery White Rascal: Everybody is aware of Blue Moon, Shock Top and the Belgian wheats that are out there, but [Avery White Rascal] is one that is a little bit different and one that does it well. It's got a little more alcohol and a little more spice than a standard Belgium wit style, so it's been Americanized a little bit. It's still light in color, so it's a pretty interesting mix of beer that looks light but drinks a little fuller with a bigger flavor to it and more spices.

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