There are many reasons why there are only about 2500 Certified Cicerones®1 in the world, but really it boils down to one big one: it’s hard.
If the Certified Cicerone exam was easy everyone would have passed it by now and it wouldn’t have the same level of professional prestige it currently has. It not only demands a huge time commitment of months if not years of study, it’s also pretty pricey. The exam itself costs around $400 to take, assuming you don’t need to retake part, if not all of it (which many people do). That price doesn’t include the money you may shell out for reference material (both written and liquid) and study courses. While these components are optional, they can make the difference of passing or failing depending on your level of previous knowledge.
But there are as many paths that lead to passing the Certified Cicerone exam as there are reasons for taking it. While many beer industry professionals are sponsored by their employers, just as many pay for the test out of pocket (adding that much more pressure to do well). To get a better idea about the exam and the process, I reached out to three individuals who have taken and passed the Certified Cicerone Exam who kindly shared their experiences. Here’s what they had to say about why they took the exam and what it took to pass:
Kerry Bryan — St. Louis Beer Ranger, New Belgium Brewing
Chris Gorman — Sales and Marketing Manager for Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.
Justin Phelps — Co-founder of Saint Brewis Beer Website
- What was your initial motivation to take the exam?
KB: I wanted to increase my beer knowledge and be more competitive in the market, especially as a woman in the industry.
CG: I was working for a beer distributor in Chicago, and they offered to pay for employees to take the exam. I was interested beforehand, so was happy to take them up on the offer!
JP: I was a homebrewer and generally just enjoy craft beer. I wanted to be able to hold better conversations about beer and potentially be a resource for others to share the knowledge of delicious beverages.
- When did you take it? Did you pass the first time?
KB: Fall 2014, I had to retake the tasting portion once more after the initial test.
CG: I took the exam in 2011. I passed the first time I took it.
JP: I took the test in September of 2015 and passed both written and tasting the first time. Details and exam results here: http://saintbrewis.com/beer-blog/sipping-toward-cicerone-part-4/
- How long did you study for the exam?
KB: 6-8 months
CG: I treated it no differently than I did a college final. I studied a week or so; hand-writing notes and re-visiting the same study habits I had in college.
JP: Almost 10 months. I started in January of 2015.
- What part of the exam were you most nervous about going in?
KB: The tasting portion.
CG: I was most nervous about the essay portion. It’s hard to fake your way thru an essay question when you don’t have a confident answer!
JP: Essays and Food Pairing
- What was actually the most challenging part of the exam?
KB: For me the off flavor part of the tasting portion was challenging because I did not have a lot of opportunity to practice with the off flavors. I believe the essays were also challenging because you had to be able to pull together a lot of disparate information to answer the questions.
CG: I scored the lowest in the food & beer paring portion. There are some basic pairing concepts that I feel I have a firm grasp of, but I guess they didn’t like my answers! Its certainly a subjective category, but I felt I stuck to the basic principles. Would have loved to see their notes on my answers!
JP: Tasting was the most nerve-wracking but I wouldn’t necessarily say it was the most challenging. The test as a whole was challenging but I can’t point to a specific piece to directly answer that question.
- What was the most helpful part of your study?
KB: I chose a beer from the BJCP Guidelines Commercial Examples section for every style that was on the Cicerone syllabus. I tried all of them – I would group them together to try all the Germans at the same time, or all the Belgians, etc. I would pay extra attention to tasting examples of styles that were very similar so that I would be able to pass that on the tasting portion and also be able to answer the style questions on the exam.
CG: Being able to see previous versions of the exam beforehand was extremely helpful. Cicerone offered the 2009 version of the test online as a study tool. Just knowing the format of the written portion was a massive help. It provided the blueprint of how to study.
JP: Flash Cards. Physical and digital. I created my own on my phone (and kept them private so don’t go searching for them) so I could study in bed, as a passenger in a car, everywhere without excuses.
- Is there anything you wish you’d known before taking the exam?
KB: No, I just wish I could have practiced with off flavors more since that is the section I had to retake.
CG: Not really. I had a lot of material to study from.
JP: I feel like I was pretty well prepared. The Cicerone organization does a great job of providing you with a syllabus so you know what to study, you just have to decide how deep you’re going to dive into the topics.
- What advice would you give to someone studying now?
KB: Take the exam seriously. Study for it like you would a college course final because that’s the type of exam it is. They will ask you to pull together a lot of information and to know a lot of very specific facts so make sure you understand styles but also how they fit into the larger conversation about the history of craft beer. Also, they give you the syllabus for a study guide and do not ask any questions that are not on that study guide. Study the topics they give you!
CG: Treat it the way you treated an exam in school. It is very much an academic test. I know lots of beer lovers who struggled, thinking that because they are a beer fan they would pass with ease. It definitely requires some strong memorization skills to get through some of the detailed sections (ie; knowing ABV/SRM/IBU stats for a wide variety of beer styles – you need to know the BA ranges and descriptions; not just a general idea).
JP: Don’t half-ass it. I know commercial brewers that have failed. I know beer reps that have failed. If I wasn’t studying at least 10 hours a week, I was pissed at myself. If I didn’t blind taste a minimum of 6 beers a week, same story.
- Do you feel like passing the exam has helped your career? In what ways?
KB: I believe it has given me more credibility in the industry since some people do not think that women know as much as men when it comes to beer and brewing.
CG: I felt it had an immediate effect. When I took the exam, my distributor made it optional for employees. We had 20 or so sign up, and I was 1 of 2 in the company to pass. They eventually made it a mandatory goal for all those in sales/marketing roles to pass the exam. That same 1 in 10 pass rate held on as more employees took the exam. I felt management paid attention to those who took it seriously and made the effort on their own time to pass the exam. I worked in several roles at that company, and definitely felt passing the Certified Cicerone exam was helpful for my advancement.
JP: In my “real” career? No. However it absolutely helped lend credibility to SaintBrewis.com. Our original intent was to just post local beer reviews and I knew that any schmuck on the street could do that. However, people wouldn’t buy into it unless there was a reason to trust me. Since every reader doesn’t know me personally, the Certification let them know that I at least halfway knew what I was talking about.
- Would you recommend the exam to others in the industry?
KB: I would definitely recommend this exam to sales representatives that wish to better understand the product they are selling.
CG: I guess it depends on what your goals in the industry would be. If you are hoping to work in the sales/marketing side, I think it demonstrates you have the knowledge/skill set to be competitive. Generally speaking, I think wholesalers place good value on folks who have passed the exam, as it shows they have a desire to learn a lot about our industry.
JP: Absolutely, without question.
- Do you plan to pursue any further certifications in the industry? (Advanced Cicerone™/Master Cicerone®“, BJCP Beer Judge, etc.)?
KB: I would like to purse BJCP judging certifications but currently do not have the time.
CG: Not at this time. Pretty content!
JP: I’ve kicked around the BJCP exam but for now, it’s not something I’m actively pursuing. However, I actually just told my wife (about a week ago) that the Advanced Cicerone exam is now on my to-do list. Just like with the level 2 exam, she’s awesomely supportive so hopefully before 2018 is done, I can add that title to my business card.
Currently Reading: Chris Cohen’s Study Guide and Flash Cards
The Cicerone Certification Program holds a trademark on use of the word “Cicerone” as it pertains to beer, beer service, beer education and beer events. The titles “Certified Cicerone®” “Advanced Cicerone™” and “Master Cicerone®” are also registered trademarks of the Cicerone Certification Program.
It is not appropriate to refer to an individual simply as a “Cicerone.” The titles “Certified Cicerone®”, “Advanced Cicerone™”, and “Master Cicerone®” should always appear in association with the name of an individual who has earned the appropriate certification.