Reflections on the Certified Cicerone Exam

For the better part of eleven months, I have been studying for the Certified Cicerone® exam. At some point in my life, I decided I wanted to become a Certified Cicerone. Beer had become my…for lack of a better word… hobby, but I’m no 12-pack pounding, 2am night out with the guys, beer guzzler. I appreciate beer for the artistry, the history, the community. As an academic, I’ve become interested in beer’s connection to religion. To become a Cicerone would coincide with my growing passion to celebrate beer in thoughtful, elevated, and sophisticated ways. So, I’ve been hard at it, investing significant time and money in pursuing the status of Certified Cicerone. I passed the first level exam (Certified Beer Server) in July and on November 16, I took my first attempt at the full Certified Cicerone exam.

I’m pretty sure I did not pass.

I write this nearly a week after the exam and my heart is still racing from that thought. I’m very frustrated.

Here’s how it all went down:

BEFORE THE EXAM:

My exam took place in Mesa, Arizona at Crescent Crown Distributing. Mesa is a city in the eastern portion of Phoenix and since I live in the far northern regions of town, I felt I should try to get closer to the exam site. Morning traffic here can be an L.A.-like nightmare, so I decided to spend the night in Mesa. Bad idea. I simply didn’t sleep well. I already have sleep issues, so unfamiliar surroundings didn’t help. I wanted to be fresh and alert in the morning for the exam, so I even abstained from beer the night before.

None of that worked.

I tossed and turned and woke up constantly. I got maybe four hours of decent sleep. I was so groggy in the morning that on the way to Crescent Crown, I missed the turn and ended up going about two miles out of my way. I arrived at the exam site in plenty of time but was not at my best. By the end of the exam period (about 5 hours later), I was yawning, my eyes were heavy, and I was spent.

THE EXAM ITSELF:

I’m contractually bound to not divulge actual exam questions, but I feel I can speak generally about the test experience. The study materials I used, such as The Beer Scholar’s Study Guide, were spot on in terms of what to expect from the exam. There were three sections: written, tasting, and performance. All as expected. I nearly aced the tasting portion, did fine on the performance, but am not confident about the written portion AT ALL.

Written Exam:

The written portion of the Certified Cicerone exam consisted of perhaps 10 pages of ‘fill in the blank’/multiple choice questions, along with two short answer and three one-page essay questions. Based on my totally unscientific observation and calculation, I expect a score hovering around 70%. That ain’t gonna cut it.

When I received the exam, I took a quick flip through all the pages, just to preview what was there. Bad idea. I caught a glimpse of the essays and my heart sank. One of the essays asked for a full history and flavor profile of ONE beer style…a style I was not overly familiar with. The other two essays I could handle, but the one about the one beer? Deep sigh. I asked myself, “Why THAT one?” It immediately put me in a foul mood. I turned back to the front page, hoping the exam itself would afford some clues as to what to write. It didn’t.

As I worked through the written portion, I was faced with the gnawing realization that I have been studying wrong. The study guide from The Beer Scholar is right on in terms of the information one needs to know. Every question on my Certified Cicerone exam was addressed in some way in those materials. However, the way I have been studying it was not ideal.

For example: I have been studying the quantitative qualities of beer in a very general way. Beer styles are known by three quantitative measures: ABV, IBUs and SRM (alcohol, bitterness, color). I have a very good handle on describing beer styles broadly, such as “Pilsners are typically, straw color, low alcohol, moderate-to-pronounced bitterness/Märzens are deep gold to amber color, moderate alcohol, moderate bitterness.” However, on the exam, I was asked to cite the specific ABV of several beers, within 0.1%. I was not ready for that.

Another example: The Cicerone organization places a huge emphasis on understanding off-flavors. A good Cicerone should know when a beer is bad. I studied off-flavors a lot in the two weeks leading up to the exam. I even took an off-flavor tasting course last summer (which worked wonders…more on that later). But, when I reached that portion of the exam, I realized that the questions were looking for significant depth of knowledge, not just surface stuff.

For example, it is well known that the off-flavor DMS generally smells like cooked corn or cabbage. Those are the two most popular descriptors. However, the exam wants you to get beyond those common descriptors and get the ‘third level’ of knowledge. I was asked to identify a common off-flavor for typical compounds, BUT the most well-known flavors were NOT even an option on the multiple-choice tables. You had to know very uncommon, rare, or special circumstance descriptors for each off-flavor. So, yes, DMS smells like cooked corn, cabbage and tomato juice, but what else? I don’t know and didn’t know that day.

A final thought about the written portion: You are allotted three hours to complete the written exam. I took every last second. My frustration right out of the gate led to poor pacing and I left myself with one hour for the essays and both short answer questions. Not wise. I needed a bit more time. What I was not expecting was to take so long with the open-ended questions. In my practice exams, I would fly through the open-ended practices in about 1 hour, maybe 75 minutes. But, I discovered that the practice tests were a bit shorter than the real thing. There were maybe two more pages to the actual Cicerone exam which threw my pacing off significantly. I hope the graders can make sense of my handwriting! It was pretty messy from going so fast.

Tasting Exam:

After I submitted my written exam, I was feeling pretty crappy. But I determined that if I did really well on the tasting portion, I could rescue my score. That’s what I’m banking on, because I did really well here.

In the first section, you are given four beers, three of which are spiked with an off-flavor. You are to find the three with off-flavors and identify what they are, thus identifying the fourth beer as “OK.” Here is where my trip last May to an off-flavor tasting helped tremendously. In the seminar, I got to actually taste these flavors and learn how I react to them. For me, DMS and Diacetyl are easy to detect. However, I also learned that I have a very difficult time detecting Acetaldehyde. My taste buds and allergic nose can’t sense it. So, when it came to the exam, I was armed with that experience. I found DMS and Diacetyl pretty easily, so I had to be careful about the last one. Since I knew I couldn’t detect Acetaldehyde at all, I focused on finding which of the last two beers was most like the control beer. I guessed right, thus acing the first section.

In the second section, you are given one beer and two style choices. You must name the correct style. Here, I got three out of four correct. The one I missed was a dark beer. It was quite delicious, and my choices were between an American version of an international style, or a native international style. I thought that there was no way an American brewery could produce such good flavors in a dark beer, so I chose the international style. Wrong. Once the brewer was revealed, I realized my mistake.

Finally, you are presented with four beers and asked “if a customer complained about the beer, would you pull the beer from service?” If you determine there’s a problem and pull the beer, you must state why. Here, I correctly determined which beers to keep and which should go. It helped tremendously that I was well acquainted with three of the four selections (they tell you the style and brewer). It made it fairly easy to ascertain which ones were faulty. I didn’t quite hit the nail on the head as to why I chose to pull the beers. I’m hoping my explanations earned me at least a few extra merit points.

So, on the tasting portion, I earned approximately 90%.

Performance Exam:

At the end of the day, you are asked to perform a task that a typical beer server might be asked to do. It is videotaped and graded later. There are a lot of options here and multiple rumors as to what test-takers are asked to perform. Without violating my agreement with Cicerone, I will say that The Beer Scholar’s advice in his study guide was spot on. I believe my performance exam went down exactly as he described it. I am hoping it was enough to put my score over the top. I was really tired by then and was probably talking 100 miles per hour on the video, but I knew the material and the task.

AFTER THE EXAM:

Immediately after the exam and as I was leaving, I experienced huge self-doubt. I began to think through portions of the exam where I could have done better and I became seriously frustrated. I don’t know if this is common among test-takers. I know I seriously want this. I want to earn the title of Cicerone. Yes, I don’t work in the beer industry, but that is not to say I never will. I’ve been studying earnestly for a year and I do want to pass. Knowing I likely blew several very easy questions frustrated me greatly. It took me at least two days to calm down.

When I was able to look through my study materials, I learned that I did, in fact, get at least four questions right that I thought I missed on the written portion. By my calculations, I left feeling I had scored around a 70%. With the few additions, I’m hovering right on the edge of passing. I won’t know for at least 8 weeks (or so I’m told). I am hoping I get a Christmas gift from Cicerone!

Thanks to Master Cicerone Chris Pisney for proctoring the exam. I know I have learned an incredible amount about beer in the past year. I trust it was enough. If not…back to the books!

Prost!

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