Every now and then I tend to make snap decisions and dive into things at the last minute with little preparation. Sometimes things work out and sometimes I fail miserably. This past weekend I sat the Certified Cicerone exam with only two days of preparation. I was looking through emails on Wednesday evening and saw a somewhat older email from Nicole Erny of the Cicerone program and remembered that the brewery was hosting the test on Saturday. I’m not sure why exactly I thought it would be a good idea to try to get into the test on such short notice but  a few emails later and I had secured an open spot from someone who had dropped out of the exam.

On thursday I took the Certified Beer Server exam on the Cicerone website (which you are required to pass before sitting the Certified Cicerone exam) and passed with a 59/60 score. I was feeling pretty good at that point but had heard that the actual Cicerone test was on a completely different level, so I knew I had to get down on some studying.

The test is broken down into a written part that is short answer and several essays, a tasting portion, and a demonstration portion. While going to brewing school, I took classes on beer styles, sensory analysis, beer and food pairing, and draft systems, which are basically what the essence of the exam is. The one area that I never use day-to-day though is draft service and maintenance. My friend Mike Reis, who works for Lagunitas and is himself a Certified Cicerone, was adamant that I know the Brewers Association Draught Quality Manual inside and out if I wanted to do well on the exam, so my studying basically consisted of reading the manual front to back.

So for the rest of thursday and friday before work I sat down at the computer and powered out, which a little cross-referencing with the draft service chapter in the MBAA Practical Handbook for the Specialty Brewer that I have. After getting off of work at 5:30 AM on Saturday I went home, got two hours of sleep, and drove back up to Paso to make it to the 10 AM exam. To say I wasn’t in top mental condition by the time I got there would be an understatement, but a generous cup of coffee from Joebella and I was ready to take it on.

There were only five of us sitting the exam, with Veronica our hospitality manager and Tim who does events and marketing from the brewery and two sales people that I had not met before who drove to Paso for the exam. The written portion was up to three hours but I took a little over two. I was surprised to be the last to finish, but I guess maybe I shouldn’t have been that surprised as I tend to go on about styles and wrote a particularly long style essay about strong bitters. The only section that I know I got at least one wrong on was draught (no surprise there). Just remember that it takes one day to chill a keg from 48F to 38F, not two! There were lots of specific brewing process and styles questions as well, so anyone who is interested in the exam should be very familiar with the Brewers Association Style Guidelines and the basics of how wort production and fermentation work. Beer and food pairing was also a significant part, so being familiar with flavor concepts and being able to defend your choices is key. I may have botched some of that as well, but we’ll have to see.

The tasting portion was very challenging and I have to hand it for the test organizers for  a very well-constructed test of tasting skill. It mixed off-flavor identification, style-appropriateness, and product acceptability. So basically, you need to be able to identify common off-flavors compared to a control sample, be given a sample and tell whether it is appropriate for a certain style, and assess if there is in fact a real problem with a beer that a customer has sent back because they do not approve of it. I think there were 14 samples in all and you have to go pretty quickly to keep up with the timing. I did the demo last but I don’t want to give anything about it away out of respect for the test.

All in all, I felt I did well and I’m just glad that all the study, classes and work that I have done in the last couple of years pretty much prepared me for the exam despite a lack of specific study for the exam due to the last-minute nature of things. The Cicerone program has done a great job at crafting an exam that is a true test of knowledge and skill for someone in the beer service/sales industry. Any bartender, server, manager, buyer, salesperson, or otherwise on that side of the industry should consider preparing for and sitting the exam. As a brewer, it isn’t exactly geared for what I do, but I plan on branching out a little with writing and events for the company, and this was a great way to refresh my knowledge and get me in the right mindset, especially with beer and food. I have to give a huge thanks to Nicole Erny, who was a wonderful test proctor, and Nathan Smith, a host at The Brewing Network who helped her out and stuck around after to talk beer over a pint at the Tap Room.

While I really think the test is very well done, I do have a couple of criticisms. I tend to be a little looser with styles as I think most brewers are. We brew beers with specific flavors in mind, and often don’t worry about fitting well in any specific styles. Some of the style questions were more specific than I am comfortable with as far as promoting on the service side of the industry, especially one with regards to Scottish ales. But Americans generally have a very narrow and misinformed view of Scottish brewing, as Ron Pattinson has show recently on his blog. I’m trying to fight the good fight for the Scots, but it won’t be easy, as years of BJCP and Brewers Association indoctrination are pretty entrenched. Finally, I have to say that expecting us to reject Pilsner Urquell because it’s skunked is a little ridiculous. That beer has been skunked every singe time I have had it in the bottle. If bars started taking back samples because they were skunked, that beer would have no market left! Hopefully my acknowledging that the beer was skunked in my answer was enough to at least get me partial credit.

Well now the waiting starts. I’ll update in a month or so when I get my results back.