Why Stem Ciders’ Combs Wanted Be a Master Cicerone

Patrick Combs, Director of Liquids for Stem Ciders, has joined an exclusive group of only 28 individuals throughout the program’s history to earn the honored distinction of Master Cicerone.

Becoming a Master Cicerone, the highest level of the Cicerone Certification Program, requires individuals to master every technical and aesthetic aspect of beer and possess an encyclopedic level of knowledge across all facets of beer expertise. Candidates participate in an intensive two-day examination that includes multiple written, oral, and tasting components. 

Combs’s journey spanned several years of exams and an incredibly intensive amount of studying and preparation and shared insights with Brewer. 

BREWER: Did anyone at Stem encourage you to do this or was this a personal goal?
COMBS: This attempt (my second) had been in progress since before my tenure began at Stem, early 2020. I deferred the exam twice because I did not yet feel that I was ready to take it on again. Because it requires such intense daily dedication, the preparation is both mentally and physically exhausting which for me meant many years of constantly trying to find the time.

BREWER: Why did you want to try to achieve the Master Cicerone certification?
COMBS: I think it is akin to the same reason people climb mountains – Because it’s there! This certification was not a requirement to any part of my current career, but rather a test of the abilities I have acquired over the years. My long-held belief is that the perfect beverage can be a truly life-altering experience. Becoming a Master Cicerone allows me to further equip myself so that I can create those types of experiences for people in everything I do.

BREWER: How do you feel having this certification helps you as a member of a cidery?
COMBS: The benefit to Stem is indirect – by honing my skills and understanding of the art, history, and science of beer, I can apply those lessons learned to our cidery operations. The benefit to our beer brand, Howdy Beer, is much more tangible. We have just partnered with a new co-packer that I believe will soon have one of the most technologically advanced production facilities in the world. I am incredibly excited to apply my knowledge to further tuning our delicious, easy drinking American lager – I really think we are going to make a splash with the new liquid we will be making in early 2024.

BREWER: What were some of the toughest parts for you in the exam and how did you prepare for it?
COMBS: Tasting seems to be where people struggle most, but early on this was something that I felt was attainable and came naturally to me. The hardest part of the exam for me was the written portion. The essay questions can require up to 4-6 pages of hand written content to fully answer the question. Pacing myself appropriately for these portions of the exam was the most difficult element. I would perform timed writing drills using a bank of questions I entered into a flashcard program, and then share those essays with industry friends for relentless grading. Even with all of that preparation, I still had at least a couple of essays on the exam that were only partially complete due to time constraints.

BREWER: Can you share some words of encouragement to other cider makers and employees in the cider industry that are thinking of doing this and why they should?
COMBS: The lines in the beverage industry continue to blur on many levels. To remain competitive from a skill standpoint, people need to look within their own industry and those adjacent to them. If you are working for a cidery, winery, or distillery, something like the Cicerone program will offer a different view into a world close to your own. By analyzing historic beer history trends, you may even find some insight into the chaotic marketplace that we find ourselves in now. Beverages are not immune – history will continue to repeat itself!

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