The Cicerone program training expert 'beer sommeliers'

If a sommelier is the wine expert of the hospitality field, what is the equivalent in beer?

The answer is a Cicerone. And while the term is certainly not yet mainstream, it soon will be if Ray Daniels has his way.

Chicago-based Daniels is founder of the Cicerone Certification Program, which tests and certifies beer expertise, similar to the wine world's Master Sommelier program. And he's bringing it to Australia.

An expert of some 20-plus years' experience brewing, judging, promoting and writing about beer, Daniels says the need for such a program became glaringly obvious during his constant travels across the US.

Bad serve

Whenever he deviated from specialist beer bars, he'd often find venues were doing a terrible job of serving beer. Their bar staff typically didn't know anything about what they were selling, or how to identify if a beer was 'off'. Sometimes they were serving it in glasses that were not optimally clean, which ensures the beer displays an attractive looking foam or head.

Only one in 15 people that sit the Master Cicerone exam pass.

Ray Daniels

"When someone asks me, 'what prompted you to start the Cicerone program?'," he says, "my answer's quite short: 'Bad beer'."

Daniel says the 20th century rise of global megabrands like Budweiser and Heineken made beer into a ubiquitous commodity that people didn't give much thought.

Craft wars

With the rapid emergence of craft beer over the last few years, the knowledge of frontline bar staff hasn't necessarily kept pace with the explosion of breweries and beer styles and the myriad issues around beer quality, storage and service that have become increasingly important.

"I think so many of us grew up with beer as a mass-produced product and we kind of looked at it as a tin of soup that you could buy in the store and leave it for a year or two years, whatever," says Daniels.

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"People for a long time have thought of beer in the same way, as this immutable product that's going to be fine no matter what you do to it."

In reality, Daniels says, "beer can be bad, it can be harmed and in fact destroyed by the way it's handled and the way it's treated".

Cicerone direction

Having realised his calling, one of the first matters of business was to settle on what to call the program and its graduates. He wanted an honorific that was not derivative of wine, such as a beer sommelier, and one which was "protectably unique", so that no-one could claim it without having completed his program.

"One day I looked up 'guide' in the thesaurus and boom! There was cicerone. I'd never heard of it before, but it actually does have hundreds of years of use in the English language, it's just a rather obscure word," says Daniels.

A cicerone is defined as 'one who conducts visitors and sightseers to museums and explains matters of archaeological, antiquarian, historic or artistic interest'.

"It was great because that was the sense of what I really wanted – people who were going to be guides to the world of beer," says Daniels.

Gruelling examination 

Founded in 2007, the Cicerone program covers five key areas: Keeping and Serving Beer, Beer Styles, Beer Flavour and Evaluation, Beer Ingredients and Brewing Processes and Pairing Beer with Food.

Around 55,000 people have completed the base level Certified Beer Server accreditation. Only those who successfully pass a more gruelling written exam with a tasting and a demonstration component can progress to the next level and call themselves a Certified Cicerone, of which there are just under 2000 worldwide.

The pinnacle is Master Cicerone, which Daniels says is frightfully difficult to achieve: Just ten people have claimed that title.

"Only one in 15 people that sit the Master Cicerone exam pass," says Daniels. "The topics run the gamut from quite technical, even mathematic in their required skills. At the Master level you actually do have to be able to do calculations relating to beer carbonation and draught system design," he says.

Mastering the art

The Master syllabus also requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of beer styles and commercial examples of those styles, which for many people may involve a trip to Europe. Then there's modules on beer and food pairing, which Daniels describes as an artistic discipline, "driven by only the vaguest of rules".

"A lot of it is quite a matter of experience and opinion and the ability to articulate your perceptions about flavour," he says.

Daniels says sommeliers from some of the world's top ranked restaurants are starting to take the Cicerone exams, and it's only a matter of time before there's a dual qualified Master Sommelier and Master Cicerone.

"I think it's a much more dynamic, much more challenging process to have a great beer list and to have it match your foods than it is for wine," he says.

Local knowledge

"The big challenge for beer lists is that beer gets old. It's not like wine where you can sort of stock your cellar and top it off every year – you have to be really working that beer list week in, week out."

Beer-focused Australian venues such as The Local Taphouse in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as Perth's new Petition Beer Corner, have already put their staff through the Certified Beer Server accreditation.

Daniels will be returning to Australia early next year to stage the country's first ever Certified Cicerone exams.

"It will be an open exam, anyone who's interested in trying it out will be able to give it a shot," he says.

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