Category Archives: Cicerone Exam

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 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.


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.

Update in the time of waiting for test scores

I’ve been in kind of holding pattern since taking the Cicerone exam waiting on my scores to come back.  I have a feeling I will have to take the tasting portion again, but regardless I’m actually surprised how anxious I am to get the word yay or nay.

So in the meantime, I’ve been occupying myself with other pursuits outside of beer just to get my mind off it.  That includes reading Moby Dick.  Yes, I read the whole thing and it was quite enjoyable.  I know have a great understanding of how 19th-century whaling ships killed and vivisected whales.

I have also been planning out more blog posts and ideas for what happens after I get the scores back.

Hopefully, I’ll the scores back before I have to resort to reading Ulysses next.

Hello, again

It has been over a month since I posted and wanted to let everyone know everything is well.

I took some time off to study for, take, and recover from the Cicerone exam.  I found studying for the exam and working 50 hours a week at my job was exhausting so I’m currently on a mini-vacation. However, there will new posts coming in the next day.

I will post my thoughts on the Cicerone exam and the thing I learned studying for it.  I will tell you my palate is better then before, but I realized some other interesting things studying styles.

I will also have a post on my thoughts about the Wicked Weed sale.  I am actually glad my break to study occurred during the sale and the resulting social media outrage. I not only took a break from writing but also a break from Twitter in a meaningful way.  That may have saved my sanity during that week.  Anyway, I just wanted to drop a post and let everyone know what was going on with me.

Stay tuned to this space later today for the new post.

Thoughts on becoming

I am in a study group for people planning to take the Cicerone exam this year.  It is being held by one of our distributors and most the people in the group work for the distributor.  Everyone in the group is a busy person. Either they are a rep or brand manager for the distributor or like me, they are a decision maker at a bar/restaurant.  This group and the test are major commitments.   They not only have jobs but families as well. So, for most of the people taking it, the goal is simply to pass the test to put the title on your resume.

That means during the class, the leader, who has passed the test, gets, “Will this be on the test?” when he gives out information.  I understand, these people are busy and they are trying to improve themselves professionally and make themselves stand out from the crowd at their company.  It never occurs to me to ask that question.  This isn’t a value judgment, but I’m just in the room for a different reason.

Some people find their thing when they are young.  How many times have we read a story about a successful doctor, scientist, lawyer, or teacher who says they always knew that is what they wanted to be.  From an early age, they pushed themselves to become the thing that they are and they love their life.

Then there are some people for who, becoming is the whole point of life.  It takes these people a while to find their thing.  Sometimes, however, when these people find their thing, they treasure it more than the ones who’ve always known.  The people who find their thing later in life value the thing because finding it is the point of their journey.  For them, finding their thing isn’t the end of the journey, but the next phase of it.

For me, the Cicerone exam isn’t an end.  It is a line of demarcation in a journey that will take me to whatever it is that I’m to become before I die.  I work in craft beer not because I expect to make lots of money from it or get famous because of it.  I work in craft beer because I find the whole thing interesting.  From beer itself, how it is brewed, and how subtle changes in just 4 ingredients can affect the look and taste of what we drink; to the laws that govern beer and alcohol in this country; all the way to how craft beer culture often reflects the best and worst of American culture at large.

Yes, I want to ace the Cicerone test.  I want to do it to learn as much as possible about beer and to continue my journey of becoming who I am.  Getting as high a score as possible will prove to myself that I have a good knowledge of beer and a base for the writing and work I want to continue in the industry.

Becoming A Cicerone 132 Days Left

One of my favorite questions I get behind the bar is, “What’s a saison?”  I can answer that question a little better now, even though the answer to that question is rather vague.

My first week of Cicerone study concentrated on Belgian style beers.  Belgian style beers are probably my favorite family of beers to drink.  Belgian style beer guidelines are sometimes vague.  See saisons.  That helps make them some of the most interesting and flavorful beers.  I have found every Belgian style beer I’ve drunk to be interesting.  It was a good week and I know a lot more than when I started.

This week will be the British family of beers.  These were the first beer styles I really got into.  The first craft beer I ever drank was an English style brown (Pete’s Wicked Ale) and I drank and enjoyed English style IPAs before I ever drank a west coast hop bomb.

I’ll have at least one more update this week.  Until later.

Becoming A Cicerone, 138 Days Left

Yesterday, I continued my journey through Belgian beers by with Trappist Ales:  Dubbel, Tripel, Golden Strong.  I like the way the outline groups similar beers from a style grouping.  It helps you associate beers together which makes it easier to learn.  Next up will be the pale Belgian ales and other Belgian style beers.

I will be joining a study group in the next few weeks.  That will help with the tasting/off flavor portion of the test.

These updates will vary in length and in frequency.  I can say at the very worst, they will appear weekly.  Most likely they will be mostly daily.  Until tomorrow.

Becoming a Cicerone, 139 Days left

So, I’m taking the Cicerone exam in May.  I am, as they say in poker, pot committed.  I plunked down the money for it, so I’m taking that exam barring some unforeseen event.

I began the process of studying yesterday.  The first thing I did was take the practice test to see what my deficiencies are.  It wasn’t as good as I had hoped, but not as bad as it could have been.  I need to go over the draught manual again and reread Tasting Beer mostly for the beer and food pairing, but that was kind of expected.

The main area I need to concentrate on are the styles and flavor/evaluation section. That is 25% of the test.  There are details about styles that I had forgotten that are important.  That is going to be my main area of study for the next 5 months.

This week I’m starting with Belgian family of beers easing my way in with Lambic, Gueuze, Fruit Lambic, Flanders Red Ale, and Oud Bruin.  It’s the details.  Going in, I knew these styles, but I didn’t know these styles.  It’s the subtle differences that make them all different and make it important when you get a question asking about a spontaneously fermented beer made with wheat.  That is a Lambic.

I know that now and know the difference between the different versions of Lambic and the difference between Lambics and the Flanders style sours.

For the next few days, I’ll be walking through the rest of the world of the Belgian beers. Next up Dubbel, Tripel, Belgian Dark Strong Ale.