Cicerone Exam Advice From The Beer Counselor

On May 22, I took the Cicerone Certification exam.  I did not pass.  I did well enough on the written portion, but not well enough on the tasting portion.

That is OK, I kind of expected it from the beginning and when we went over the tasting portion that day, I knew I would need to take it again.  I will take the whole test again in November.  I want to not only pass but leave no doubt that I passed.

Even though I failed the first time, I did learn some things that will help me study for my next attempt in November.  These are things that I believe will help me and may help you if you are thinking about taking the exam.

Know The Styles

As you would expect, beer styles are the core of 95 percent of the exam.  Besides questions that specifically ask about a style, the pairing and tasting portions of the test lean heavily on you knowing and understanding the styles and their attributes.

The best way to learn the styles for me was to make flash cards and just review them 2 or 3 times a day.  My goal was to know them and not just memorize them. Make sure your cards have the pertinent information like country of origin, ale/lager, appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, ABV, SRM, and IBU.  Also, list 2 commercial examples of the style and memorize those.  Trust me you will need those.  There are multiple questions that ask you for a specific commercial example of a style.

Make these flash cards as soon as you decide to take the test and just run through them every day.  You can buy flash cards with this information, but the act of writing them out yourself will help you remember the facts better.

Read The Suggested Books

The Cicerone website lists almost all the books and other materials that will help you prepare for the test.  Like the flash cards, as soon as you decide to take the test, buy them and start reading and studying them.  Again, it isn’t just about rote memorization.  It is about ingesting the information so that it becomes second nature.

Yes, part of the test is just regurgitating what you remember, but once you get to the essays, you will need to be able to construct a convincing narrative with the facts you know.  That is why it is imperative you understand the food pairing ideas in Tasting Beer more than just memorizing what Randy Mosher wrote.

Take Practice Exams

Find practice exams and take them under conditions as close to exam day conditions as possible.  The practice exams do 2 things.  First, it will reinforce the things you are learning.  Second, taking them under exam conditions helps ease exam anxiety the day of the exam. Third, it will help you see how the questions are framed and shows you the depth of information you need to know.

Work On The Practical Video

From everyone who I’ve spoken to who has taken the test, the practical video portion is always the same: Explain how to take apart and clean a tap faucet.  With that in mind, you should write down and then study each step of cleaning a faucet.  Yes, more flash cards. Then you should use your cell phone to record yourself explaining each step and each part as you will have to do on the day of the exam.  Go back and watch it and make sure you didn’t miss any steps.  Do this a few times.  If you played sports you understand.  Practice is about rehearsing the actions you will perform in a game until you do them without thinking.  Acting purely on muscle memory.  Work on the video with the same idea in mind.

If you don’t work at a bar, find a draft tech and take him out for a beer.  Get him to let you borrow a tap faucet and walk you through taking it apart and putting it back together.  Also, please download and read the draft manual put out by the Brewers Association.

Tasting Exam Run Throughs

Find other poor souls studying for the exam and everyone pitch in to buy an off-flavor kit.  Then, buy Amstel Light and maybe Sam Adams Light.  Then run through a tasting exam under conditions like you will have during the day of the test.  This is the one part of the test I did not like because the tasting portion is not like you will experience tasting for off-flavors in the real world.

Here is how the tasting exam works.  On the day of the exam you will arrive at the site, check in, get handed your test and you will begin the 3-hour written portion.  That also includes the practical video, but for the most part, it is 3 hours of writing.  Usually, an hour in the proctor will begin the process of spiking the beer for the tasting exam.  The spiked beer then sits for at least an hour and a half out on a table or counter.

Then, once the tasting exam starts, the beers are sampled out into cups. One group of 4 is for the off-flavor identification portion.  One group of 4 is for the style identification portion.  The final group of 4 beers is for the serve/no serve portion.  The serve/no serve portion questions count for half the tasting portion. This was the hill I died on that day.  My suggestion is to do the serve/no serve and the style identification portions first.

Why?  Your palate is fresh.  Hit the style section and get it out of the way.  Then, do the serve/no serve because you must ID the style and the off-flavor, and then tell whether the beer is servable to a customer.  You have all 13 cups (one control for the off-flavor) in front of you and you can do it in any order you want.  At least, that is what I’m going to do this next time.

Pick 2 Styles and Know Food Pairings For Them

You will have a food pairing question where they will give you a dish and then ask you to pick a style and explain why you picked it and why you believe it will work.  Knowing that pick 2 styles and think of as many food pairing ideas as you can with them.  As practice, write out why you think they will work.  My 2 styles are saison and amber ale.  You want to know your styles’ characteristics so you can pair them with whatever dish they throw at you.  There is no “right or wrong” answer.  However, you must be able to make a logical and coherent case for the style you picked.  This is also where knowing a few commercial examples and their attributes will come in handy.  Picking a particular beer and explaining why its characteristics make it the best choice for that style will get you points.

Do Blind Tastings As Often As Possible

Find a bar that does flights with a wide selection of beer and become friends with a couple of the bartenders.  Go in once a week and have the bartender give you a blind flight and then go through a real tasting and figure out what you are drinking.

Also, at least once a week buy beer you’ve never had before and taste them.  Really taste them.  Download the tasting sheet from craftbeer.com and go through that with each new beer.  Start with appearance, then aroma, then taste, then mouthfeel, then the finish.  Here is a handy and more in-depth guide on how to taste a beer.

Finally

The most important thing is to give yourself enough time to really know and understand the information.  There is too much to learn to cram into a few weeks.  There are little details you will miss that seem like nothing but become extremely important particularly in the long answer and essay portions.

Anyway, I’m going to flip through my flash cards and start the next portion of this journey.