As some of you may have heard, on Monday I sat for the Certified Cicerone exam that was hosted over at Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough. Now that I have completed the exam, I wanted to offer my thoughts on the program, it’s pros and cons, and share what I learned, both in terms of beer knowledge and about the testing and certification of beer experts.
For those not yet familiar with the Certified Cicerone Program, it is a certification exam that tests your knowledge of the beer industry from top to bottom. It has three levels. The first is the Certified Beer Server, which has an online exam and is targeted towards anyone who serves beer as part of their job. The second level is the Certified Cicerone, which is the exam I just completed. It is a 4 hour exam with consisting of a written portion and a tasting portion. You must get an 80% to achieve this level of certification. Finally, there is a Master Cicerone, which is an all-day exam that tests everything you could imagine about the beer industry and beer styles, including a comprehensive tasting program. There are only a handful of Master Cicerones in the country. Everything in the post that follows is in reference to the Certified Cicerone level, as that is the level most hope to achieve, and is the exam that I just took.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the Cicerone program that Ray Daniels created back in 2007 is growing like crazy. Interest in the program has skyrocketed and there are a lot of people that are vying to become Certified Beer Servers, Certified Cicerones, and Master Cicerones. Because of this, there are some obvious strains on the systems. But I will start with what I enjoyed about the program first:
1) It is all-encompassing. While the certification is designed for beer industry professionals, particularly those working on draft beer systems at bars and restaurants, it is applicable to everyone from homebrewers to bartenders, to beer journalists. The topics cover a wide variety of information, from proper mantenance of a draft system, the brewing process and ingredients, the various styles of beer and their histories and qualities, to tasting and describing flavors and off-flavors in beer. It is testing your full education on the beer industry.
2) It is the best indicator of knowledge in the beer industry. There are not any other total beer exams and certifications like the Cicerone program. The BJCP (Beer Judge Certificate Program) is great for tasting and judging beer, but it is narrow in it’s focus. The Cicerone is the best measure of someone’s knowledge of the entire beer industry. There are no other substitutes.
3) It is a great educational tool. If the certification didn’t exist, I would not have spent so much time learning the intricacies of the various styles of beer and the differences in the types of draught beer systems. Because of the Cicerone program, I have learned a larger number of things, in much greater detail, about the beer industry than I probably would have in the next several years without the program.
However, despite these amazing benefits, I was made aware of some shortfalls that I think anyone preparing for the exam should be aware of:
1) Because of the increased interest in the exam, the good folks running the program are being stretched pretty thin. There are very few proctors, and even fewer graders. While there are many more exams being scheduled than there have been in previous years, they are still not offered as often as some people would like. That being said, we had to stretch it to get five people signed up for the Hillsborough exam. It almost didn’t happen because of lack of interest. So maybe it’s good that there aren’t that many.
2) For the same reasons, there is a significant waiting period between when you turn in your test and when you get your scores back. Currently, that waiting period is 6-8 weeks. Now, I understand that there are 3 essays and 135 short answer questions, so it is no small feat to grade this many exams. Not to mention that they are all graded blind by various graders, to hopefully insure accurate grading. BUT, I’m going to sit here in a cold sweat for two months waiting to hear back to see if I passed. **Side note – I’m not terribly worried about the written portion, but our tasting part was particularly difficult**
3) The Cicerone.org website needs to be rebuilt and re-organized. It is hard to navigate, some things are impossible to find, while other things are listed on multiple pages. There is a different site for registering for the exam, and another site for study materials. Granted, I work for a web design firm so I am constantly recommending website upgrades, I think that the Cicerone program would greatly benefit from a rebuild. It is frustrating to use sometimes.
**NOTE: I just read that the Cicerone website is undergoing a rebuild between the time I am writing this post and the time this post will be published! They are integrating the various subdomains into a single site and improving the navigation. So, luckily, they have heard the complaints and are taking action to make it better, which is great!
4) I can’t speak for all of the study materials, as I did not purchase any of them. However, the night before the exam, we did gather at Mystery and purchase and download the 3+ hour Certified Cicerone Review video sold for $89 on the site. It is supposed to be a video of Ray talking about everything that’s covered on the exam and what to expect from the exam itself. I suppose it is all of those things, but it is just a recording of a web-meeting he had in 2009 (the exam and the draught quality manual have both been updated since then), and on top of that, the sound quality is terrible, the video was about a 2-inch square, and they experienced several technical difficulties. If you are going to offer a video review on the site for a high price, then you need to make something specifically for that purpose, edited and packaged well, to make it worth the cost. Don’t just re-use an old lecture that was given on the exam where there are a lot of side conversations and technical difficulties. All of the useful information in the video could have been done in an hour, there was no need for it to be a 3+ hour review.
On a related note – I did speak with Erik Lars Myers, a Certified Cicerone and brewer/owner of Mystery Brewing Company, and he is in the process of creating a series of educational videos as well. Knowing Erik and the perfectionist (and theater nerd) that he is, I am sure that these videos will be well-worth watching once they are created.
However, I can say in all seriousness, that I think that the Cicerone Certification is a great program and is doing amazing things for the beer industry. It is educating people and teaching folks about beer and proper beer service, which is very important and often overlooked. So thanks Ray for making this happen. And a big thanks to Erik at Mystery for teaching his Cicerone-prep classes and hosting the exam in Hillsborough. Lastly, a shout out to Cliff for proctoring the exam and to all of the other folks that took the exam with me on Monday – Ben, Chris, Nathan and Ben. Good luck!