Becoming a Certified Cicerone: Part Five (The Feelings Edition)

The final installment of my Cicerone posts is a reflection on the things I learned over the months of studying, learning, tasting, testing, failing, and succeeding. I’m going into some pretty deep fee-fee (i.e. feelings, if you don’t talk in a sing-songy way like I do) territory, so if you’re uncomfortable reading about me getting all vulnies, then maybe you should skip this post.

Not being confident in my abilities was a pretty new and uncomfortable area for me. A lot of people have asked why I was taking the Cicerone exam and what I hoped to get out of it. I’m not in the beer industry professionally, just critiquing from the outer edges. I’m not in any industry at all where a Cicerone certification is particularly useful beyond impressing people and saving time trying to prove my beer knowledge to people who dismiss me or don’t take me seriously, usually because I’m a woman and they assume I “like” beer because my husband does.

Beer is not just something I drink and rarely has been – it’s living history, a seemingly endless educational opportunity, and a way to bond with people and places, however unlikely. One of my great joys in life is thinking about and experiencing the perfect beer to capture a day, a mood, a feeling, an occasion, a place. Some of my most content moments are enjoying beers that perfectly match the place mentally and physically that I am in. A suggestion from my sister way back in 2001 that I try a Boulevard Wheat instead of the Bud Light/Natural Ice staples of my college days opened my eyes to a world beyond adjunct, drink-for-the-sake-of-drinking beers. Sam Adams brings back the mirthful memory of asking for a variety pack of it in a Texas liquor store and being told that they didn’t carry Sam Adams because they didn’t consider it “real beer,” like Budweiser. Guinness will always have a little corner of my heart because on my first date with my now-husband, I ordered an IPA and the waitress brought me a Guinness instead. New Glarus Brewing is one of the most special places in the world to me because it is where my husband proposed to me while the Joderklub New Glarus played “Amazing Grace” on Alphorns (it was a weird day).

Honestly, I had been encouraging my husband to start studying for the exam for awhile and then one day, it occurred to me – why not me? Why don’t I study for and take the exam? I knew just as much about beer as he did, albeit different areas. We have very complimentary knowledge areas about beer. For instance, he knows more about the science behind brewing than I do, and I follow industry news as well as local beer scenes more than he does. So why didn’t I want that certification for myself? I wasn’t used to asking for things I wanted or saying that I wanted something. I’ve always been ambitious, but it wasn’t often that I would say out loud and emphatically that I wanted something and that I was going to get it. I can encourage and support anyone to succeed and will be your biggest cheerleader. Rarely do I give myself the same cheerleader treatment. Deciding to take the exam was a big decision for me, not just because having the certification was important to me, but also because I was boldly proclaiming that I was going to achieve something that I wasn’t sure I could achieve.

I’ve always been an exceptional student, usually getting straight As. I promise that is not a humble brag and was certainly not an asset studying for the Cicerone. When I got a B+ my last semester of undergraduate school – my only B on my transcript there – I cried. One of my economics professors put it thusly: students who get straight As are a special kind of manic and getting straight As is the most important thing, which was absolutely true in my case. I worked hard for As and not to master the subject. I was adept at picking out what my professors thought was important and giving it back to them on exams and assignments. Which is not to say that I didn’t have to study and absorb the material, quite the opposite. However, if someone asked me what I thought about a particular subject, chances are I would repeat what my professor said about it. It didn’t occur to me to form my own opinions about the subject matter – saying what I thought professors (and bosses later on) wanted to hear was the priority.

That form of thinking is really not a benefit beyond getting As and probably not even worth it then. It was not a good frame of mind to have going into an exam where I had to rely on my own skills to evaluate beers. As I’ve mentioned before, the process of conducting beer tastings was incredibly frustrating for me. I’m not used to getting answer wrong and don’t really process it all that well. I’m a poor winner and an even worse loser. During the course of doing tasting after tasting, though, I realized that it wasn’t a big deal to not identify a beer correctly. I was still developing my abilities to observe, taste, and describe beer. I could see the improvement in my palate and my beer vocabulary, which was a very empowering experience for me. Then it got to where I right more often than I was wrong, and I was relying on my own knowledge and palate to get those right answers. 

The tasting exam is made up of three parts – off-flavor identification, beer style discrimination (i.e. is it this or that, not should it be allowed to get married or live next door to you), and beer acceptance.

A brief interjection, the tasting exam is made up of three parts – off-flavor identification, beer style discrimination (i.e. is it this or that, not should it be allowed to get married or live next door to you), and beer acceptance, which means you’re given the scenario of a customer saying a beer doesn’t taste right and you have to determine whether it’s fit for service. The entire tasting exam has a total of twelve samples and examinees are given 45 minutes to complete the exam.

The first time I took the tasting exam, I went into it feeling cocky. I didn’t need to study that much because I drank beer all the time. I realized quickly that I did not know nearly as much as I thought I did. I left the exam feeling dejected and knowing I had failed the tasting portion - once the tasting exam is over, the proctor will go over the tasting answers so you have an idea how you did. I wasn’t nearly as upset leaving that tasting exam as I was when I left the second exam. Although I did much better and thought there was a possibility I had passed, I was more disappointed in myself because at least twice in the tasting exam I had the correct answers the first time based on my evaluations and then doubted myself and changed my answers. It was basically like the exam said “This is a mammal that moos and gets milked and you make hamburgers out of it – is it a cow or a duck?”  and I went through a careful analysis wherein all indicators pointed to a cow and I chose a duck instead because I didn’t trust my abilities. As a result of that exam, I put off registering for another exam for four months. I started doing blind tastings at least once a week after that as well as studying for the BJCP.

The third and final time I took the tasting exam, I was far less nervous than I had been the previous two times. (It probably goes without saying that I had never had to retake a test before). I felt a sense of peace walking into the exam because I had spent the last four months honing my abilities and was confident that I could identify beer styles and off-flavors. Through all of my beer evaluations, I could (and can) usually distinguish ale from lager by aroma alone. I could correctly identify a SMaSH (single malt and single hop) based off flavor and body. I walked into the test with a strategy and told myself repeatedly not to doubt my abilities. I started with the section that had been the most challenging for me and worked backwards through the other two sections. (Exam tip: you don’t usually have to take exams in order from beginning to end, so start in the section you think will take you the most time and/or be the most challenging and get it over with. Plus you also have the rest of the exam to mull something over in your head rather than thinking of the answer as soon as you turn your exam in). Even if I didn’t pass this time, I could still do all those things, and those are pretty cool things to be able to do.

I completed each section feeling pretty confident that I was identifying every sample correctly. Except. Except for the last two samples on the test. I couldn’t tell if either one contained any off-flavors or if they were both fine. Or not fine. I felt the panic starting to creep up along with all the doubt that was waiting for the chance to take over my concentration and tell me that I couldn’t do it after all and that I wasn’t going to get it right anyway. Almost as soon as I had resigned myself to guessing and hoping for the best, my nose caught the faintest whiff of an off-flavor in one of the samples that my brain immediately identified. I wasn’t able to quite smell it as strongly again. I sat and thought for a couple of minutes. Do I go ahead with my guess, which was the sample didn’t contain an off-flavor? I couldn’t smell it as strongly, so maybe I imagined it. Or maybe I didn’t. In the end, I decided to trust my senses and my brain. Which turned out to be the right decision, because I got the answer correct. I got all the answers on the entire tasting exam correct except for one. Walking out of that exam was one of the proudest moments of my life. Not just because I knew I had passed the exam and was going to be a Certified Cicerone (I still had to wait for the official results), but also because I had relied on what I had learned and had trusted my abilities – no more calling a cow a duck because I wasn’t confident enough in my abilities.

Here’s where we get to the heart of deep fee-fee territory. After I walked out of that exam, I noticed a change in my daily life. I was more confident everywhere, not just when it came to tasting beer. I started talking to people more and joking with them. I started being a little more vulnerable with people and saying what I wanted. I started volunteering to do things at work that I wanted to do, instead of sitting there hoping no one else spoke up so I would get it by default. Not to give the impression that I was a shirking violet before, but I really had to psyche myself up for being social with people and kept my thoughts and observations to myself more than I shared them with people. I also started my beer blog I had been talking about starting for years because I had confidence enough in my abilities and what I had to say that I was willing to put myself out there in the world as someone who loves beer and wants to share her love with it with anyone who’s interested. It also gave me the confidence to write this post.

If you don’t take anything else away from this, please take this - do something that you’ve wanted to do but haven’t because it’s going to be uncomfortable and out of your routine. Whether you’re thinking of taking the Cicerone exam or anything else that seems intimidating and scary – why not you? I have confidence in you (and am also willing to be a study buddy if you need one.)