In the first part of Sipping Toward Cicerone® I walked you through the 4 levels of Cicerone® Certification. In part 2, we covered my studying for and taking the Certified Beer Server exam (which I passed). In this post, part 3, we’ll look at my studying for the Certified Cicerone® exam. If you want to see how I did on the test, skip to part 4.
The Certified Cicerone® exam has a current pass rate of less than 50%. The test consists of approximately 150 fill in the blank questions, a few short answer questions, 3 full page (or multiple page) essays, a videotaped demonstration portion, and a tasting portion. To pass, you’ll need to get an 80% overall, including a minimum score of 70% on the tasting portion. Yeah, you’re not gonna have Google or even blind luck from multiple choice questions on this one. You’ll either know the answer, or you won’t so you’d better figure out a study plan. I sure as hell did.
I bought a Study Guide
While the Cicerone® Certification Program provides you with a syllabus to use as a study guide, it’s merely the bones of the topics and contains no meat. Luckily, the meat was provided by a fellow named Chris Cohen in the form of the Beer Scholar Certified Cicerone Exam Study Guide. Chris is a Certified Cicerone that took the syllabus and added in all of the additional details about each topic (with references!). It also included flash cards (about 350 total) of all of this info. My wife purchased this study guide for me as a “Yay, We Had Baby #2” present and it was something that I had within reach at all times while studying. While it provides a good base, it’s not a miracle cure so be prepared to do a heckuva lot more in order to get prepared.
I took things digital
Those flash cards I just mentioned above? Yeah, those. I went to Cram and made digital sets of them (it literally took me about 5 hours total to do it all). Before I did that, I separated the cards into chunks that made sense to study together (which wasn’t done by the author). My groups were: Tasting, Brewing, Glassware, Food Pairing, Keeping and Serving, Beer Styles, and Miscellaneous. This is VITAL for me as I could keep 350 flashcards organized and in my pocket at all times.
I bought and read books
I reread Tasting Beer. I bought and read Designing Great Beers. I bought and read The Brewmaster’s Table. I bought and read How to Brew. I downloaded and read The Draft Beer Quality Manual. These were all recommended as study materials by the program itself and if you’re serious, you’ll read them too.
I drank loads of different beers
This may sound like the fun part and trust me, it’s not terrible, but every beer I had, FOR MONTHS, would be consumed while I had the BJCP Guidelines app open in front of me. Reading everything about the style while you drink it lets you look for (and find) flavors and aromas you wouldn’t normally know to look for or find. Plus, the short and sweet summations of the history of each style are interesting and also part of what you’ll need to know for the test.
I did blind tastings
I can’t begin to explain how helpful the folks at the Craft Beer Cellar in Clayton were to my studying. One of the owners, Brandon, is a Certified Cicerone® himself and was more than eager to help me with the tasting portion. We developed a “Study Pack” system so that I could have any person on the planet, someone with no knowledge of beer whatsoever, administer a blind taste test to me. This was accomplished through CBC putting 6 beers that were “BJCP Commercial Examples” in each study pack (stapled shut inside a paper bag when I arrived to pick it up) along with directions to ask if each beer was Style A or Style B. Example: They might include an Avery White Rascal (Belgian Wit) and have a note for the person giving the test to ask if it’s a Belgian Wit or a German Hefeweizen. After making my guesses, whether right or wrong, I would finish the beer while reading the BJCP guidelines for both the beer it was and the beer it wasn’t. This made sure I was picking up what I was supposed to and ignoring things I shouldn’t.
I did off-flavor tastings
Knowing what flavors are in a beer is something you’ll have to know to identify styles. Knowing what flavors are not in a beer is something you’ll have to know to narrow down styles for identification. Knowing what flavors are in a beer but aren’t supposed to be is something you’ll have to know to identify off-flavors. On their exam details page, the Cicerone® Program describes the tasting portion and essentially 8 of the 12 beers you’re to taste rely on knowledge of off-flavors. If you don’t do an off-flavor course, you’re most likely not going to pass. Because I knew this, I did 3 of them. The first one was put on by a BJCP Judge from my homebrew club, the Garage Brewer’s Society, where the beers were spiked with do-it-yourself ingredients. The second one was at CBC where they ordered the actual off-flavor kit from the Cicerone Program and administered it to 8 paying participants. The last one was also at CBC where another Certified Cicerone®, Abbey, spiked beers with do-it-yourself ingredients. The bottom line is that you can read about the off-flavors all day long but if you don’t taste them in an environment where you specifically know what you’re tasting, you’re going to have a tough time putting two and two together.
I brewed beer
The brewing process and ingredients make up 15% of the exam so you’d best get to brewin’. Luckily, I’ve been brewing beer with my buddy Jake for years (all grain since 2010) so the process is a no-brainer and while the ingredients weren’t foreign, I knew I should study them a little more closely. For those that don’t brew their own, you’d better set aside a Saturday to help a buddy that does. While you won’t learn everything in one session of brewing, you’ll learn a hell of a lot more helping on that one Saturday than if you didn’t brew at all.
In a nutshell, those are all of the things I did to study for the test. While it took me an hour to type this up, I studied since December 2014 for a test that I would take in September 2015. For those that are lazy or just bad at math, that’s a full 10 months that I devoted to studying. I stopped using Facebook. I deleted every time sucking app from my phone (cracked.com, Words with Friends, Imgur, etc.) so my only choice when I had it out was to look at my digital flash cards. I was fully devoted to getting this done and at the same time, I constantly felt underprepared. I didn’t mention it above, but the off-flavor course I took with Abbey at CBC was done on a Saturday, 3 days before the test, specifically at my last-minute request because I was a nervous wreck (I told you they were awesome there).
So how did I do? Looks like we’ll find out in the 4th and final installment of Sipping Toward Cicerone® where I’ll cover the test I took and my results. Stay tuned.