Welcome to Ciceronia

Posted by on Mar 16, 2016 in Housekeeping | 3 Comments

Glassware1Apologies for the radio silence lately – I’ve not dropped the ball or decided to embrace ‘Parched March’ or whatever abstinence-based month of booze-free charity has been dreamed up recently. Instead, I’ve been studying hard for (and last Monday, sitting) my Certified Cicerone® exam. As you may know, BrewDog encourage their staff to have a crack at any and all levels of the Cicerone scheme, gaining beery knowledge along the way that will help them in their careers. Now for someone like me who had already filled up some of the old precious grey matter with beer-based info already, how was it, to learn and then sit the Cicerone exam?

Well, as you can imagine you realise pretty quickly exactly what your level of knowledge really is. For someone like me, ‘who writes about the people’ involved in brewing (aka we have little real idea of how it all works) it meant I needed to brush up on the mechanics and even the basics pretty quickly. So hopefully as a result the next brewery I end up bumbling around I will be able to do more than point and make hopeful statements like “So…is that where the hot water’s at?”.

The written part of the exam was pretty comprehensive, with 160 questions and three essays in three hours but it was the tasting part that was really interesting. I’ve done an off-flavour tasting before, so knew vaguely what to expect – but it always surprises me how quickly you can train yourself to recognise something you hardly ever smell or taste. In preparation for the off-flavour tasting we had done a couple of test runs over the last few weeks, and each time I was struggling to pick out the green apples of Acetaldehyde and the corny tang of DMS. And yet in the exam, the hesitant initial sniff of the first tainted cup and it smells like the Jolly Green Giant’s loincloth. Corn City. The human nose is an amazing thing (which I guess is why we punish it from time to time).

Anyway, having to differentiate between beer styles (untainted from thereon) was also really interesting. I mean, I’ve judged beer in the past, and often head to new brewery launches or whatever where you are actively trying to critique a beer, but this was very different. A simple small cup and two potential styles to choose from. Now, you can try this at home if you have someone willing to do the pouring and make it a blind test, but when the cup is in front of you it instantly puts you back to square one. I’ve always been pretty good at appending random flavours to the first sip of a beer – “oh wow, yeah you really get the blackberries/chillies/avocado” – but a simple ‘A or B’ question and you actually have to quantify all of this airy fairy language into why the beers taste like this, and what that actually means they are. It was really interesting.

UPDATE 03/05/2016


  1. Martijn
    March 16, 2016

    Interesting, thank you for sharing! I’ve been interested to do some kind of beer training, but here in Belgium, the courses ‘bierkenner’ (beer connaisseur) and ‘zytholoog’ (zythologue) seem to be heavily focussed on beer and food pairing, thus training students to be ‘beer sommeliers’, although apparently they abhor this name now…
    Am I right in thinking that in the Certified Cicerone program, the food pairing only plays a minor role, seeing it only counts towards 10% of the grade, and you didn’t even mention it in the above text?

  2. Richard
    March 16, 2016

    Hi Martijn, I didn’t mention it as I was concentrating on the tasting part of the exam for this post – but yes, it is there. I would say it’s a minor role overall, but to get through you’d need to be very familiar with the fundamentals of beer and food pairing as well as having a broad grasp of examples you can use to illustrate it. I think that was a conscious decision by the Cicerone people, to move away from Sommelier and towards a more general service-based exam

  3. Martijn
    March 16, 2016

    Seems to be more what I’m looking for than the Belgian options currently available!
    I’ll start with the Certified Beer Server program first then — it’s required anyway — and worry about the practicalities of doing the Certified Cicerone when not living in the US or the UK later. 🙂

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