Ever seen the movie Somm? In the film, four wine professionals put it all on the line to pass a crazy difficult exam in order to receive the title of Master Sommelier. Well, the beer industry has an equivalent. It’s called the Master Cicerone.
Last week eleven people congregated in Los Angeles to take the rigorous, two-day test. The stakes are as high as the fail rate; in seven sittings, only seven people total have managed to pass. Candidates often take the exam more than once. More than twice. Registration for the only 2015 exam, to be held in Chicago where the Cicerone Certification Program is based, closed in four minutes, with the 24 spots filled almost immediately. Tough luck to the other 46 people who tried to sign up.
In its own words, “the Cicerone Certification Program certifies and educates beer professionals in order to elevate the beer experience for consumers.” Launched by well-known beer aficionado Ray Daniels in 2008, the program offers two lower levels of beer certification, Certified Beer Server and Certified Cicerone, and then the highest honor, Master Cicerone. Daniels' experience authoring four books, founding beer festivals and teaching in the industry earned him the credibility to create and execute the program.
The Master Exam takes place over two days and includes written essay questions and oral demonstrations of knowledge with some of the most established (and intimidating) beer industry experts. There are also tasting panels where participants isolate off-flavors and assess beer styles.
Of course you need to know about different beer styles and their histories, but you also need to have an in-depth understanding of service and distribution and draft systems, and you are required to design a food and beer pairing menu. For more details consult the 23-page whopper of a syllabus.
A grade of 85 percent or higher is needed to pass the exam.
The seven people who have passed the exam and earned the biggest bragging rights in beer are Mirella Amato (Canada), Nicole Erny and Rich Higgins of California, Pat Fahey and David Kahle of Illinois, Andrew Van Til of Michigan and Neil Witte of Missouri.
Pat Fahey, the last person to earn the title, in 2013, recounts his preparation for the exam. “In prepping for the tasting portion I spent six months up to the test rotating between two or three bars a week where I knew the bartenders. I'd have them pour me five blind tastings and then I would write up style descriptions and profiles and discuss them."
Hands-on experience is vital. "I read several textbooks," Fahey continues, "and then brewed at several commercial breweries to lock in my studies." Fahey took flash cards to another level: "I made a beer molecule of the week Twitter feature where I would draw and explain chemical structures of various models. I wanted to be as prepared as possible."
For professionals in the industry, the certification can enhance credibility and increase opportunities. Consulting for bars, restaurants and events is a competitive and high-earning position. Not only does a Master Cicerone certification look good to prospective clients, the exam demonstrates that you are an expert in troubleshooting and providing solutions where an operation may need advice — from equipment systems to quality control.
To other participants who are already established, having a Master Cicerone title is a measure of pride and professionalism. It’s another way of earning clout and venerability. Think: bragging rights.
There is a logistical angle to the Master exam being held in Los Angeles. Part of the test involves demonstrating knowledge on a draft system and the Cicerone Certification Program uses a facility called Micro Matic that has limited locations.
Hosting the exam in Los Angeles means the participants — the test takers, the examiners and the exam's administrators — are exposed to our beer community. Well-recognized leaders in the industry are shipped in to evaluate exams and get a taste of what L.A. beer has to offer. Golden Road Brewing Co., Ladyface Ale Companie, and Mohawk Bend were all on the docket for this group.
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Will L.A. be the next city where a Master Cicerone has earned their title? Results are available after Thanksgiving. Have a beer while you wait — we won't test you on it.
Erika Bolden is a Certified Beer Server who will likely never put herself through the terrifying pressure of taking the Master Cicerone Exam. Maybe Certified Cicerone. She writes at Erikabolden.com and @Erikabolden.