Siss-er-what?

Cicerones dispense sudsy knowledge

Author David Nilsen prepares for the Cicerone exam; photo: Melinda Guerra

By David Nilsen

For most of the 20th century, beer had a bad (and, sadly, sometimes fair) reputation in the US as a low-quality drink that couldn’t compare to the quality of wine and spirits.

With the emergence of the craft beer movement over the last few decades, many American drinkers have now realized beer can be produced with the same craftsmanship and tradition as those drinks, but craft beer remains a niche market, and is still often the victim of misleading and inaccurate gibes.

Beer industry veteran Ray Daniels recognized ten years ago that if beer were to ever emerge from the shadow of its own bad PR once and for all, the public would need some re-education. For that to happen, he needed an army of accredited, proven beer experts to share the truth about good—and bad—beer. In 2008, he administered the first exam for his Cicerone® Certification Program. Almost ten years later, I decided to take the exam myself and become a Cicerone.

What is a Cicerone, you ask? And how on earth do you pronounce the title, as my kind editor has inquired? Cicerone is an Italian word that loosely translates to “guide,” and for English usage you pronounce it “siss-er-own.” Daniels chose the term because he wanted to certify beer industry professionals who could serve as guides to beer drinkers who were either overwhelmed by the number of options available in the exploding craft segment, or who had fallen victim to the beer-related untruths and half-truths that were propagating in our nation’s bars and taprooms faster than brewer’s yeast.

Since that first exam, the program has qualified over 2,500 Certified Cicerones, the flagship level of the program that designates the individual who earns it as a “beer expert.” As with the Court of Master Sommeliers for wine experts, there are four levels of Cicerone certification. Cicerone Certified Beer Server is an introductory level that is intended to allow service staff to give basic guidance to customers and follow good beer handling practices, while the Advanced and Master Cicerone levels represent the top minds in the industry (as of this writing, there are only 13 Master Cicerones in the world).

While I had been learning about craft beer for over a decade, I decided in 2015 that I wanted to make my hobby a profession, and I started down the road to becoming a Cicerone. As Lucy Burningham, author of My Beer Year, can attest, this is no easy task. Her book recounts the long road she traveled (much more than a year) to become a Cicerone, including countless hours of studying, extensive travel, wild swings between overconfidence and self-doubt, and—when she found out she had passed—jubilation. “It was a difficult journey at times, and for a while I wondered if I’d ever be able to simply enjoy a beer without analyzing it,” Burningham says. “I aspired to take the Certified Cicerone [exam] for years before I actually took the leap and committed to studying for the test,” she elaborates, “It’s a huge undertaking!”

Reader, she ain’t kiddin’.

In February 2017, I hopped on a plane to Chicago and sat for my Cicerone exam after months of intense study. If you’re starting out as a novice, there’s no easy way to begin preparing for the exam, so the two years leading up to those final months were spent reading as much as I could and drinking a lot of really good beer (in the name of learning, of course). I traveled to several counties and spent a lot of time with my head in my hands, believing I would never be ready in time. After a nerve-racking four-week wait following my exam, I got my results, and found out I had passed. It was one of the proudest moments of my professional life.

Not everyone is a fan of the Cicerone program, and now and then I’ll hear some backlash. Some feel the program is unnecessary. You don’t need to be a Cicerone to be a beer expert, and some of the most knowledgeable beer professionals I know—including quite a few talented brewers—are not Cicerones. Their craftsmanship and expertise speaks for itself.

Given the amount of misinformation currently prevalent in the beer world, however, I find it beneficial for individuals like myself who write about beer, lead classes and tastings, and work in service environments to have a professional accreditation reassuring our readers and customers we know what we’re talking about. We’re not snobs (at least, most of us aren’t), and we want to make craft beer as inviting and welcoming as possible for drinkers at any level of experience and knowledge. I would be embarrassed to hear of a Cicerone shaming someone for what they don’t know about beer. That’s not what we’re about.

As a Cicerone, I want to help you enjoy and understand your next beer as much as possible, just as becoming a Cicerone has helped me enjoy my favorite drink more than ever. As Lucy Burningham said to me, “Beer will forever be different for me after passing the test. It’s a more complicated and wonderful drink than I ever realized.”

I’ll drink to that.

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David Nilsen
David Nilsen is a beer writer living with his wife and daughter in Greenville. He is a Certified Cicerone and National Book Critics Circle member. You can follow him at DavidNilsenBeer.com and reach him at DavidNilsen@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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