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.