Becoming a Cicerone: Part Two

In part two of this series, I describe which resources I used to study for the Certified Cicerone exam, which ones I found the most useful, and which ones I didn't find as useful. 

The most effective study method for me was working through the syllabus, all 20 pages of it. 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.

As you will quickly learn once you start studying the beer styles, there is a ton of information to learn about every beer style. Beyond the stats and flavor profiles, there is also historical information and recipe profiles. Your best bet is the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Guidelines. You will find all the base level (and some advanced level) information you need to know in the Guidelines. I started studying for the BJCP exam after I passed the written portion of the Cicerone, but I recommend downloading and reading the BJCP Beer Exam Study Guide and using it concurrently with your Cicerone studies.

In particular, the Beer Exam Study Course was immensely helpful to me because it outlines a ten-session course for studying for the BJCP exams. Each week is broken down into styles and technical topics. Although the study guide lays out the study course as a more formal, classroom-type activity, I modified it for my needs by making each “class” a week on my calendar. Most sessions had about six different beer styles, organized into categories, i.e. Light Lagers, and a technical topic, such as malt. I printed out four months’ worth of blank calendar templates (January – April) and assigned each class a week, then assigned each day a beer style or a technical topic. That way, learning the information for all the beer styles was not as overwhelming and I really only had to do a few minutes’ worth of studying each night. On nights when I really wasn’t feeling it, I would tell myself that I had to spend – at most – maybe five minutes reading over a beer style. It was also helpful to have the guide so I knew each day what I was going study and could also see how much progress I had made. I think if I could go back now and retake the beer styles portion, I would have knocked it way out of the park.

My March study calendar

My March study calendar

I ended up using quite a few resources, but would highly recommend buying The Oxford Companion to Beer, Tasting Beer, and Beer Pairing. I’ve used The Oxford Companion and Tasting Beer numerous times beyond my studies because they are such incredible books. I bought the Cicerone beer styles flashcards, but did not use them very much as they aren’t comprehensive of all the beer styles on which you’ll be tested and don’t provide the amount of information you can get by downloading the BJCP Guidelines. The BJCP Guidelines are also available as an app for most phones, which comes in handy when I’m nerding out in the beer aisle and want to know whether the beers I’m considering are considered commercial examples of styles I’m studying. I also bought the Road to Cicerone: Keeping and Serving Beer workbook and it was amazing. It may seem pricey at $99.00, but it is absolutely worth it. I worked through the entire workbook in the last few weeks leading up to my exam and the Keeping and Serving Beer section ended up being the section on which I scored the highest, which is 100% due to the workbook. I didn’t buy any of the other Road to Cicerone workbooks, but I’m guessing they’re all just as high quality, comprehensive, and helpful as the Keeping and Serving Beer workbook.

The other Cicerone resource I would highly, highly, highly recommend ponying up for is the Off-Flavors Kit. I was fortunate enough to be able to take one of the in-person off-flavor classes at the Cicerone offices in Chicago, but I bought a kit to use at home as well. I get it, $149.00 is a lot of money to spend to make beer taste bad, but it is worth it. First, a sizeable portion of your tasting exam is based on identifying off flavors in both spiked and commercial beer examples, on which you have to score at least a 70% to pass the exam. If you don’t know your off-flavors, you won’t pass the tasting portion of the exam. The webinar that accompanies the kit is also educational and helpful, so don’t skip that portion of the off-flavor training.

Beyond the expense of the exam itself, which is $395.00, the other costs can up quickly. However, the good news is that if you don’t have a lot of cash to throw around, it’s still completely possible to have all the study materials you need for next to nothing, minus the cost of printing the guides. The syllabus, the practice exam, the BJCP Beer Exam Study Guide, the BJCP Guidelines, and the Draft Beer Quality Manual are all available online for freesies. The BJCP Beer Exam Study Guide even contains guidelines for doctoring beers with lists of adulterants, most of which are pretty common and/or cheap, so it’s not impossible to create your own off-flavor samples.

There are a ton of resources available to you when studying for the Cicerone. I encourage you to take advantage of the free resources first and see what you need after spending some time absorbing the information in those. It can be tempting to run out and buy every book and every study aid available, but it’s probably not going to be necessary. Before buying anything, check around to see if anyone has some of the resources already who is willing to lend them to you. However, I think it’s totally possible to study for and pass the exam only using the free resources.