Becoming a Certified Cicerone: Part One

My road to Cicerone was a long one full of hard work, failure, and self discovery. In this series of posts, I'll talk about how I approached the exam, the resources I used, how I conducted tastings, how the day of the exam went for me, and what I learned along the way. If you've gotten this far and are wondering what a Certified Cicerone is, head over to the Word of the Week for a primer on the Cicerone Certification Program.

After making the decision to register for the Certified Cicerone exam, I had to determine how I was going to prepare for the exam and began with the syllabus. The syllabus and exam are broken down into five main sections: Keeping and Serving Beer; Beer Styles; Beer Flavor and Evaluation; Beer Ingredients and the Brewing Process; and Pairing Beer with Food. Each section is further broken down into the specific areas of knowledge tested on the exam.

While the most intensive part of the syllabus is the Beer Styles section, I found the Keeping and Serving Beer to be the most difficult to me, largely due to having almost nonexistent firsthand experience with draft systems. I’m not a very hands-on learner, nor do I have a mechanical - or even common sense – mind, so while reading about how a draft system worked made it seem simple enough, I really suffered by not having experience draft systems and their maintenance. If you are lacking in experience like I was, I would suggest reaching out to a local draft line cleaning business and asking if they have any opportunities for you to observe their draft system maintenance. Reading through the Draft Beer Quality Manual was helpful, but again more of an academic exercise until I paired it with the Road to Cicerone: Keeping and Serving Beer workbook (more on that below). When I found myself getting confused about how to do things like troubleshoot draft systems, I found a surprising amount of how-to videos on YouTube that demonstrated how some of the components worked or were disassembled.

The Beer Styles section ate up most of my time, simply because there is a lot of knowledge you are expected to know about every beer style. I ended up making my own flashcards. I listed the beer style on the front and then the color (in SRM); the perceived bitterness (in IBUs); and alcohol on the back along with at least two other relevant pieces of relevant information, such as the region from where it came or the characteristics that distinguish it from similar styles. After completing the flashcards, I had my husband go over them with me. And over. And over. And over. Most nights of the week we would do some of the flashcards. Although I tend to be a lone wolf when it comes to studying (being a student who made good grades made me extremely wary of people wanting to study with me), it was really helpful to have him help me make memory devices to remember beer styles. As an aside, the Cicerone Certification Program does an awesome job on Twitter of helping you find other people in your area who are also studying for the exam. I would recommend checking their Twitter feed for groups in your area.

Some of my study materials

Some of my study materials

The beer ingredients and brewing process section wasn’t too difficult for me because I had been homebrewing for almost two years when I took the exam, so I already had enough knowledge about the process and ingredients that I didn’t spend too much time on that section. However, I still took the time to work through that entire section of the syllabus.

The food and beer pairing section of the syllabus is truly pretty sparse compared with the other sections, so I recommend reading and rereading the Beer and Food chapter of Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer. I had another friend who also used Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table and found it helpful. In the time since I took the exam, Julia Herz and Gwen Conley’s fantastic book, Beer Pairing, came out and that seems like it would be an incredible study source. It’s an engaging read, for sure.

The most important part of studying for the Cicerone successfully is to have plan of how you’re going to tackle all the elements outlined in the syllabus. I LOVE to organize, prioritize, and plan, so for me, making a study schedule was a fun exercise. I get that it might not be quite as fun for most people, but you have to know what you’re going to study when so you can make sure you have enough time to cover all the topics and still be able to go back and review before the exam. I started at the end with the day I was going to take the exam and worked backwards from there. I signed up in late August for an exam at the beginning of November, so I didn’t leave myself with a ton of time. However, I think that signing up too far in advance may not be beneficial because you don’t have quite a sense of urgency – it’s too easy to fall into thinking you can always study tomorrow.

I knew I didn’t want to still be learning new material the week or so before the exam, but rather wanted that time to be spent reviewing, especially the topics I would study first. I left myself a couple weeks’ of review time and then counted backwards through the weeks to determine how many weeks I would have between signing up and reviewing and divided the syllabus up accordingly. Be realistic when you’re doing this – you’re not going to learn all the beer styles in a week, you’re just not. I gave myself three weeks with the beer styles, but continuously reviewed the flashcards throughout my studying. Once you have a basic plan in place, studying for the Cicerone is less stressful. Of course, you have to stick with your plan, but allow yourself some flexibility – if there was a night where I just DID NOT feel like studying, I would move that night’s topic to another night when I estimated I could cover both topics thoroughly.

When figuring out your studying strategy, don’t overlook the importance of getting everyone in your life on board with your study schedule. It’s an important exam and you are going to work hard to pass it, so everyone you interact with on a regular basis needs to understand the exam and the effort you’re putting into it. But also remember that not everyone you know is taking the exam or as invested in beer as you are and make an effort to talk to your loved ones about things other than beer.