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Get Your Beer Degree: Studying to be a Cicerone

If knowledge is power, then being a Certified Cicerone® makes you a formidable force of information, expertise and insight when it comes to all things beer. We sat down with Hop Valley District Sales Manager, Specialty Brand Manager and Certified Cicerone® Brandon Ross to find out more about this in-depth program and what it means to become a certified beer professional.

What is the Cicerone Certification Program?

The Cicerone Certification Program offers independent assessment and certification to individuals who want to be certain of the correct practices in all aspects of beer. The program was originally started by Ray Daniels in 2007 as a way to ensure that beers are being served to customers as the brewers intended them to be. Before this time, despite having a protocol for wine, there was not an industry standard in place in regards to the proper handling and serving of beer.


There are four levels of certification within the program: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone®, Advanced Cicerone™ and Master Cicerone®, each level requiring substantially more knowledge to obtain than the last. To put it in perspective, there are over 80,000 Certified Beer Servers, which is a fairly easy test to pass, but only 13 Master Cicerones® in the world. Quite the gap.


Can you describe what it means to be a Certified Cicerone®?

A Certified Cicerone® is essentially the beer-world equivalent to a Sommelier of wine. Cicerone is translated from Italian as “guide” and, as the name suggests, a Certified Cicerone® is meant to be an individual who can help to guide and assist retailers, bartenders and consumers in knowledge of styles and the proper serving of beer.


What made you interested in getting your Certified Cicerone®?

I first heard of the Cicerone program in 2008 and was immediately interested. At that time, I had been in the beer industry for four or five years working for a distributor who carried Anheuser-Busch and a handful of craft brands. Craft was really starting to take off and people were now drinking beer for different reasons than they had in years past. I found a passion for discussing the subtle differences between various craft beers to retailers and consumers. I really enjoyed watching it “click” in their head when someone tried a craft beer for the first time and fell in love with a beer.


This same passion is what led me to take a position with Hop Valley Brewing Co. in 2013. As Hop Valley took off and began growing at a tremendous rate, so did the amount of questions I was being asked on a daily basis. I felt the time was right to take my knowledge to the next level becoming a Certified Cicerone® was the way to do it. So, with the full support of the ownership and brewing team at Hop Valley, I signed up and began preparing for the exam.


Describe the challenges and process of becoming a Certified Cicerone®.

To become a Certified Cicerone® you need to have a well-rounded, in-depth understanding of the beer industry as a whole. It rigorously tests you on all aspects, from glassware, knowledge of draft systems, beer styles, food pairing, brewing and ingredients, to determining a style and identifying off-flavors in beer by appearance, smell and taste alone. It’s a definite challenge to pass the Certified Cicerone® test, but the level of difficulty will be different for everyone depending on his or her starting base of knowledge.


To determine my strengths and weaknesses, I started by reading over the syllabus and going over the 2008 copy of the test that’s available as a practice exam on the Cicerone website. There were parts that I breezed through and parts that had me wondering what I was even getting myself into. I felt I had a decent starting base on the retail and distribution side, and I’m fortunate to be a part of the quality assurance sensory panel at Hop Valley, so I already had some experience in analyzing beers and looking for off flavors.


But I quickly discovered, in addition to needing to brush up on my general beer knowledge, I was going to have to focus the majority of my effort on the beer history, styles and brewing ingredients portions of the test. This meant lots of reading and lots of (ahem) “sampling” of beer.


I began a routine of reading every night and each day heading to local bottle shops and picking up traditional styles of beers. As I tried the beers, I would analyze each one and make comparisons to what the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines showed as parameters for the style. It’s a great way to tune in to different nuances for individual styles, and an always-welcome excuse to try new beers.


Has your certification changed the beers you now enjoy?

I definitely have a newfound appreciation for different beer styles. I discovered a lot of great English beers that I hadn’t tried much of before, and have fallen in love with a number of Belgian Trappist/Abbey style beers. Lately, I’ve been drinking Hop Valley’s Mild at Heart (English Dark Mild) and am looking forward to Hop Valley’s first Belgian Tripel that will be available soon on a limited basis.


What’s been the biggest unexpected surprise about getting certified?

The biggest surprise to me was how much I enjoyed the process! Once you start down the rabbit hole, it really is amazing to learn and see how the history and ingredients of beer intertwine. I found it fascinating to seek out the how and why behind some of the foundations of knowledge I had accrued over the years, and the search continues still. There really seems to be no end to the amount of information available, and once you start, you will want to keep going!


Are you going to continue the process to try and become an Advanced Cicerone™?

Actually, yes! I just signed up to take the Advanced Cicerone™ test in August of this year. I definitely don’t feel even close to ready yet, so additional studying will be a much-needed theme for me this year. I still have a lot to learn.


Do you have any advice to those seeking to become a Certified Cicerone®?

Go for it! Don’t wait for the time to be right, make the time right! Go on brewery tours, buy a brewer a beer, ask questions and read lots of books! You will never have more fun studying for a test.