Taking the Certified Cicerone Test

About a month ago, I sat through a four hour exam testing virtually everything I’d learned about beer up to that point. The Certified Cicerone® exam covers every aspect of beer with varying degrees of depth, but requires knowledge of the brewing process, beer styles and their history, draft systems and their upkeep, beer and food pairings, proper serving techniques, commercial examples of dozens of beers, and much more. All of that is tested in a three hour written exam, not multiple choice, which includes three in-depth essay questions. This is followed by a tasting exam testing the ability to recognize various off flavors in beer, to identify beer styles given a small sample and two choices, and to make a judgment call on whether a theoretically-returned beer is fit to serve. It sounds like a lot because it is and I’ve been preparing for it, knowingly or not, for my entire beer drinking life.

My path towards taking this test actually started two and a half years ago, in June of 2014, when I created an account on cicerone.org. Seven months later, I took the Certified Beer Server exam, a 60 question online test covering the basics of beer styles and service, and passed with a respectable score. This energized me to study more, taste more critically, and take the beverage I already loved more seriously. From here, I reread Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer twice, studied the Draft Beer Quality Manual to learn all about draft systems, wrote more on this blog (although, I admittedly had a noticeable dead zone the past few months of intense studying), and began tasting the beers I’d often skip when at a bottle shop.

I was most amazed by learning all the things I didn’t know I didn’t know–the unknown unknowns that surprised me and helped me see the big picture a little clearer. These ranged from the scientific (“oxidized” isn’t a flavor; that papery stale beer taste is actually the organic compound trans-2 nonenal), to the surprising (nitrogenated beer was invented by a Guinness scientist/mathematician named Michael Ash), to the utterly random (the rings on the sides of kegs are called chimes). Tidbits like these deepened my appreciation for beer, which never ceases to demonstrate further layers of complexity. The biggest takeaway from all the studying I did was rediscovering beers I had neglected as I sought bigger, bolder, and more flavor-packed alternatives. I’d forgotten the subtle beauty of Pilsner Urquell and the refreshing zestiness of Hoegaarden, which was the first Belgian beer I ever drank.

So, after ten years of drinking beer, two and a half of studying it, four hours being tested on it, and six weeks of waiting for my results, I’m thrilled to report that I passed the Certified Cicerone® test! My aim in obtaining this certification was never to claim expertise in beer knowledge (as much as I know currently, it’s really just the tip of a rather vast iceberg), but rather to provide an avenue to share with others my appreciation and love of the world’s finest beverage.

Ballast Point Splashes into Long Beach

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Understated with Good Use of Wood. 10 Points to Gryffindor.

When Ballast Point opened its fifth location in Long Beach two weeks ago, I don’t think anybody was prepared for how quickly it was welcomed by the community. I would say it was an overnight success but it didn’t even take one night. I made my visit about three hours after they first opened their doors (which was 11:00 AM on a Thursday) and it was already packed wall to wall. As far as I could tell, the only advertising for the opening was two Facebook posts and word of mouth, but somehow the news quickly reached the entire East Long Beach and Seal Beach communities. When I first walked in, I was struck by the elegant simplicity of the design of the space–it’s open with large windows that look out to Alamitos Bay and the Pacific Ocean. You can see the the water from every table in the building (I checked) and it’s nearly unfathomable to think how much the space has changed since it was Khoury’s Restaurant. While I admit I didn’t come for the design and views, they will be what brings me back in the future, because I’m not confident the beer always will.

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Big Eye IPA accidentally dry-hopped with Sculpin hops. They called it Check the Tank, then Blunder IPA

Since Ballast Point sold the brewery to Constellation Brands, I have been drinking less of their beer for several reasons. The main one is that corporate-owned beer seeks to expand its market share and the only way to do that is to squeeze smaller or up-and-coming breweries off the shelves, which is not a practice I want to regularly support. The second reason is that the direction Ballast Point is taking most of their beer doesn’t jell with my taste. A few years ago, when they added habañero peppers to Sculpin IPA, it was a virtually unheard of move that was so novel it didn’t feel gimmicky. Now each main production beer has at least one fruit and/or pepper variant and they seem to show no signs of slowing. In my few visits, I’ve heard the bartenders pushing beers like Watermelon Dorado and Red Velvet Cake oatmeal stout. At the opening day, I tasted a few sips of Orange Vanilla Fathom India Pale Lager and it was clear what their intentions for the beer were. If we rate beer drinkers on a 1-5 scale with one being Bud Light drinkers and 5 being people who won’t imbibe anything that’s not either barrel aged or less than a week old, Ballast Point has shifted their focus from the 4s and 5s to the 2s and 3s. With beers like Orange Vanilla Fathom, they aren’t trying to impress craft beer drinkers with unique twists in familiar beers, they’re trying to convert people who don’t like beer or heretofore did not care about flavor to start drinking Ballast Point beers that taste like Popsicles.

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Their nautical theme is finally fitting!

That probably sounds harsher than my intention really is, and if they’re able to bring macro beer drinkers into the realm of craft, I think that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, if people start to identify with the Ballast Point brand specifically instead of craft as a whole, it’s a missed opportunity, because their dollars aren’t going to the craft beer market. Whatever they are doing, it’s working extremely well, at least for now, in their first LA area expansion. I’ve been three times (and attempted to go a fourth but the line to get in was 45 minutes) and both times I’ve seen at least a half dozen people I know. I’ve ran into friends from high school I hadn’t seen in nine years, locals normally seen around Seal Beach, and beer geeks recognizable from beer festivals and special bottle releases. It’s definitely the hottest spot in town right now, filling my Instagram and Snapchat feeds, particularly among my non-beer geek friends. It’s a fun place to hang out and drink a beer, and I imagine the food is good based on my experiences at the Little Italy location. And though people have made this gripe about Sculpin, there seems to have been no perceived dip in quality for Victory at Sea, the Imperial Porter that will always hold a spot on my favorite beers list. So while I won’t be lining up to try the next berry-flavored lager or blonde ale they produce, I’m sure I’ll be back at Ballast Point Long Beach in the future, sipping a Victory at Sea, and enjoying the view–inside and out.

Best Fest in the West

Every year in June, brewmasters, brewery owners, and beer geeks descend on Paso Robles, California for about five hours of tasting beer out of a little three ounce snifter glass. The beer geeks pay almost a hundred dollars for this experience, but the brewers get invited. After all, they don’t call this event the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival for nothing. This year, I went for the first time and the experience lived up to the hype as the beer festival to rule them all, at least on the west coast. I was lucky enough to get a ticket in the 30 seconds or so that they weren’t sold out and went with my brother Kyle and friend Brennan, who was visiting from Portland. Officially, the festival lasts five hours, or six if you buy a VIP pass, but it is actually a weekend-long event, full of special release beers, bottle shares, and brewery visits.

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Flavor overload!

Like virtually all festival goers, I don’t live in Paso Robles and had to head up to the Central Coast from Long Beach for the weekend, which was convenient because that meant I had to drive through Buellton—home of Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks—to get there. Barrelworks specializes in barrel-aged beers, divided into the categories Wild Ales and Strong Ales, and with the festival that weekend, they put some of their finest offerings on draft. I started with the fruited sour beers I’d yet to experience: the newly-released Peachy Bones and Champs de Fraises, the plum sour Drupē Bones, and Violet Underground, the collaboration beer with raspberries and candied violet petals brewed with the UK’s Wild Beer Co. All four were outstanding, with Peachy Bones showcasing ripe peach flavor over a nuanced, slightly sour saison base and Champs de Fraises erupting with strawberry aroma out of the taster glass. The other two were arguably better, but I’d say it’s as close as the eternal contest between pizza and tacos. Drupē Bones is fermented with plums from Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson’s orchard and Violet Underground had the most acidity and intense flavor of the bunch (and I should add it’s the only one I got a second taster of). After these, I had a trio of strong ales—PNC Imperial Buckwheat Stout, Bravo Imperial Brown Ale, and Rufus Single Barrel Imperial Continental Amber Ale— that were good but meant to be enjoyed more slowly, as I was running out of time before last call. The Rufus Single Barrel #95 was the standout of the three, displaying a fine balance of malt sweetness, alcohol, and barrel character. At this point, the weekend already seemed like a success but the next day had much, much more in store.

The following morning before the festival started, my group expanded to include my friends Ryan and Stephanie, who shared a bottle of DeGarde’s The Purple, a black and red raspberry sour with more red wine character (Pinot Noir, specifically) than any beer in memory, including wine/beer hybrids from Barrelworks and The Bruery. Thirty minutes later, we were all inside the fairgrounds, which looked a little like Knott’s Berry Farm or Frontierland at Disneyland, with the same excitement of any child visiting one of those theme parks. Our plan was to visit Side Project Brewing’s tent first, but overhearing everyone else, it seemed like we weren’t the only ones. The hour-plus long line for the Missouri standout brewery confirmed it and we headed to Jester King instead, where I ended up having a delicious beer called Intersection of Species that happened to be a collaboration with Side Project anyway. For most of the afternoon, one of us would wait in a long line while the others filled glasses at brewery tents with lines that were more manageable, and often those beers were just as good. The whole affair was a wonderful chaotic symphony of flavors, aromas, and heat, that involved as much complex planning as impromptu decisions and thrusting glassware forward, not sure of the beer that would fill it.

Before I continue with the standout beers from the event, I’d be remiss not to comment on the outstanding food they provided. Offerings came from food trucks, restaurants, and caterers, and everything I tried was the perfect complement to drinking beer in 94 degree heat. Firestone’s own Taproom restaurant had a watermelon gazpacho that had to be one of the most refreshing foods I’ve ever had. Some other favorites were chicken and waffle bites from The Pairing Knife and Jeffry’s Catering’s irresistible chili. Later on in the day, I also put down about fifteen pretzel bites from Rooney’s Irish Pub—to soak up the alcohol, of course. To cap the food experience, our whole group roasted individual s’mores with beer-infused chocolate and marshmallows from Brandy’s Sweet Temptations.

But we were there for the beer, so allow me to point out some favorites: Boulevard’s Hibiscus Gose, Crooked Stave’s Petit Sour Blueberry, Kern River’s Long Swim IPA, The Rare Barrel’s Emerald Vision (a cucumber mint sour), Odell’s Piña Agria pineapple sour, Three Floyds’ Dark Lord Imperial Stout from 2013, The Garage Project’s The Amazing Hop-Boy IPA with 63 hop varieties, and Beavertown Barrel Aged Sour Power. While that seems like a long list, it’s probably only about 20 percent of the beers I had that day. These were all amazing, but a pair of Southeast breweries were the only ones that made me get right back in line after a single sip of beer. Wicked Weed from North Carolina poured a double raspberry sour called Red Angel (double because after refermenting on raspberries for nine months in wine barrels, they blend that on more fresh raspberries for two additional months before bottling) and a Sherry-barrel aged raspberry, boysenberry, cherry, and blackberry dark sour called Angel of Darkness that was the most deceptive 11% ABV beer in recent memory.

For me though, one brewery really took the cake as the best in show, blue ribbon, gold medal winning top banana. Creature Comforts of Athens, Georgia is totally deserving of the superlatives I’ve just heaped on. They brought four beers that all exceeded my expectations and represented a wide range of brewing skill. First, I had Titronia, a cucumber and lime gose that was perfect on a hot day—drinkable, refreshing, pleasantly tart, and just salty enough to complement the cucumber and lime. Next, I tried their Tropicália IPA, whose name holds no irony—its aroma was reminiscent of a tropical fruit smoothie and the taste was as juicy as IPAs can get. I walked directly to the back of the line once I’d had my first taste, and in my next go-round, I got a glass of Emergence, an extremely well balanced blonde sour and See the Stars, an Imperial Stout aged in maple bourbon barrels, à la Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout, which was super drinkable for a high-alcohol stout. I’m not saying I would go to Georgia just to drink their beer, but I do know where my first stop will be if I do find myself in the Peach State.

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The Lion himself!

At 4:00, all pours of beer stopped unless they were near the main stage, so we went by there to soak up the last hour of the festival. This area contained Firestone Walker’s own beer booths as well as those of a few other large craft breweries like Sierra Nevada and Ballast Point. I opted to get some refreshing Bretta Rosé, Barrelworks’ raspberry sour, and was surprised to find that David Walker (the Walker half of Firestone Walker) was the one pouring it. I got super excited and took a photo with a big, cheesy smile on my face and realized right away that I had to end my day on that high note. The experience of the whirlwind day will linger in my memory for years to come and the best lesson I learned was the importance of going with friends. Sure, that allows you to get more beer, but it also reminds you that drinking should be a fun, social activity with people capable of sharing your joy. I can’t wait till next year!

 


Did you go to the Invitational? Want to go next year? Let me know!