Recently the Cicerone Certification Program announced that six people had achieved the rank of Master Cicerone. There are now a total of 28 Master Cicerones worldwide. A Master Cicerone is similar to a Master Sommelier in the wine world but the focus is less on service/hospitality and more on general beer knowledge. The exam is frequently billed as one of the hardest tests not just in beer, but in the world.
Founded in 2008 by former Brewers Association Publisher, beer educator and author Ray Daniels, the Cicerone (the Italian word for “guide”) Certification Program awards four levels of beer certifications ranging from an online exam in Certified Beer Server to Certified Cicerone (a half day in person exam) to Advanced Cicerone (a full day in person exam) and then Master Cicerone. There are currently 173 Advanced Cicerones, 4568 Certified Cicerones and over 150,000 Certified Beer Servers in the world.
The Master Cicerone exam is a two day marathon of all things beer including three hours of essay writing per day plus one on one demonstrations with some of the most celebrated people in beer and food. An example essay may be creating a four course tasting menu for a fine dining restaurant using only one style of beer or an essay explaining how ions in water affect beer’s flavor and mouthfeel. Demonstrations can range from setting up a British style cask system for service to pairing obscure cheeses with beer styles and more.
There are also multiple tasting panels. This is where candidates have to look for off-flavors in beer like 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol (aka why your beer tastes skunky), write elegant technical descriptions about beers put in front of them or pinpoint exact beer styles in a blind tasting, which is extremely challenging as many beer styles overlap in flavor, aroma and color. To pass, your tasting, demonstrations and written scores need to average to 85.
Newest Master Cicerone Patrick Combs, Director of Liquids for Stem Ciders & Howdy Beer Co, left the exam feeling more confident as this was his second attempt at the exam but he joked, “Regardless of how many hours of preparation you’ve logged, I don’t think anyone leaves that exam thinking ‘Wow, I crushed that. I can’t wait for the phone call…’ you’re always on the fence about at least a few things.”
Prepping for the exam takes months of hard work and hundreds of hours of studying, tasting beers, memorization and more. Combs said he studied 45 hours a week, calling it “second job.” In an average year, usually 24 people will sit for the exam but only one or two people will pass. Six people passing has never happened before.
“Six people earning the title of Master Cicerone is an outstanding result. Their achievements reinforce the value of fostering a culture of continuous learning and will contribute to the continued health of the beer category for years to come,” said Cicerone Exam Director Chris Pisney. “It’s also a testament to the commitment and expertise that exists within the beer industry. We are elated.”
How did other Master Cicerones react to six new people passing the exam and joining their ranks?
“Of course I was shocked to see six people pass, but this also felt like a bit of a right-sizing,” said Senior Manager of Education and Training for Artisanal Brewing Ventures Max Finnance, who became the 22nd Master Cicerone last year. “These are six incredibly smart, hard working folks. I was hopefully optimistic that this would be the biggest cohort yet and I wasn’t disappointed.”
Shane McNamara, who passed the exam in 2021 and is a global director at ABInbev, was also very pleased more people are attaining this designation.
“As a Master Cicerone, it brings me immense joy each year to welcome and congratulate the new individuals who have earned this prestigious title,” said McNamara. “Their achievement showcases the hard work, extensive knowledge, and unwavering commitment necessary to reach such a high level of expertise in the world of beer.”
Passing the exam requires a lot of help from outside sources be it special classes in off-flavor training to asking loved ones and coworkers for help. Newest Master Cicerone Shelley Smith, who is a Senior Brewing Manager for Taprooms at Boston Beer Company was thankful for many people, including her coworkers as well as other new Master Cicerones like Jen Blair, who studied with Smith. Smith studied several hours a day and every weekend to be ready for the exam.
“I am grateful to all my coworkers that helped prep samples, mess up draft systems for me to fix, and quizzed me on every beer topic under the sun,” said Smith, “and to Jen Blair – we’ve had a goal to double the number of women Master Cicerones, so I love that we passed together.”
Blair, who runs her own beer education and consulting business Under the Jenfluence and also works for Cicerone as an exam manager credits her husband Tom in helping her pass the exam.
“Besides having to sit through ‘presentations’ on draught components, he also set up countless blind tasting panels for me and went through flashcards with me, which I think is one of the most boring things to have to do and it’s a testament to how much he supports me,” said Blair.
Combs was also thankful for his wife Megan’s assistance leading up to the exam.
“From her constant encouragement to the thousands upon thousands of samples that she curated and poured for me – she is the reason why I was able to make it across the finish line,” said Combs.