Cicerone Training Tips from a Master

In an ongoing series, Brewer will take a small note from interviews of some of the Cover Stories stories it has run in print and give a small tidbit that didn’t make the issue but is still worth diving into. “Sugar Creek Mixes Tech Into The Brewing Process” appears in the September/October issue of Brewer.

It can take work and time, but the effort could mean a lot to a brewery’s quality. That’s what Joe Vogelbacher feels about his journey to becoming a Master Cicerone.

Vogelbacher is the 19th Master Cicerone in the world, passing his exam in December. Being able to taste and identify potential off-flavors​ can be helpful in upping many aspects of his brewery in Charlotte, Sugar Creek, which was the September/October cover story for Brewer.

​”Acetaldehyde is something that a lot of brewers are familiar with​,” Vogelbacher told Brewer in an interview back in March​. ​”​The beer is young when you smell it, but I can tell you for sure that shit is hard to find in a blind lineup unless you practice finding it.

​”​So how do you know you’re smelling ​acetaldehyde or ethyl acetate, they both smell very similar to me. That ethyl acetate smells kind of like nail polish remover and ​acetaldehyde more like latex paint​ …​ solvent​y​,​ or pumpkin rind or green apple​.​ Can you tell the difference between these two? Well, they have drastic differences on how you treat the beer based on which one’s in the beer versus the other one.​ ​​The point about this is that the better you are tasting the beer, the more tools you have to make better beer.​”

The credentialing program is tough and takes time, but Vogelbacher broke down the levels to help anyone that is looking at exploring this option to us.

Certified Beer Server — Level 1

“The CBS, they focus on the information that is most impactful for people that are in the front lines, serving beer,” he said. “So you’re looking at how to identify if a glasses is dirty or clean. How to properly clean the glass, how to pour beer, how fast the beer [pour] should be, which beer should have foam, which one’s at which temperature? What’s the Julian dating code? What’s first in first-out inventory, stuff like that. And then the basics of beer styles is what they focus on. And it’s perfect.

“That it really is important if you’re going to call yourself a beer professional.”

Certified Cicerone — Level 2

The stuff that was focused on for CBS is not there, he said.

“They assume you know it,” Vogelbacher said. “A lot of people don’t realize this, but they don’t test on that again. Now you’re getting into more of the nuance stuff: What’s the specific glassware for certain beers? Which beer style has a range of 2-4 SRM, 4.5-5.5 ABV, and 8-20 IBUs, what beer style could be that from Belgium, and you can say, ‘Oh, that’s Wit beer.’

​You’re expected to be almost the resident expert on beer if you’re a Certified Cicerone, where you could taste the beer before you serve it to the customer, and say, ‘Yep, this beer is good. This is what the beer should taste like. There’s nothing off in it and it’s fit to serve.’

Going through the basics, like is the beer oxidized? Is the beer buttery? Is the beer skunked? Or is it potentially infected?

“They focus on that and you have to have some background and some basic knowledge on brewing,” Vogelbacher said. “Enough to where if you were the resident beer expert, you could walk into the brewery with a short lesson from me and start conducting tours.

“So you’ll have the basics on how the mash works, how lautering works, how fermentation works, all that kind of stuff,” he said. “In addition, you should be able to know a lot more about styles, and then look at the restaurant’s menu and be able to pair the styles with the food menu that they have.”

Vogelbacher said that in testing — which is a four-hour written exam with 3-4 15-minute flights of beer. 20% of the exam is related to service, 20% styles, 20% brewing and ingredient, 20% beer and food pairing, and 20% for flavor training and if a beer is fit to serve or not.

“So take some more time in the industry, studying through that stuff and getting hands-on experience,” he advised.

Advance Cicerone — Level 3

Advanced is twice as hard as the Certified Cicerone, in Vogelbacher’s opinion.

“They move away a little bit from the detail that’s on level two, and they ratchet it up for level three quite a bit,” he said, noting the exam is eight hours with about six flights of beer tasting. “And you’re getting much more nuanced in there and you’re having more oral boards,” he said. “Now they’re expecting you to be able to present on beer. You’re the guy that’s training a couple Cicerones in [the exam room]. You’re able to talk in front of a crowd of people as an expert, and you might be the head beer purchaser for a hotel chain or for a series of restaurants.

“Now you’re able to put together multiple menus, deal with higher-end chefs, work with bigger budgets on beer and maybe even collaborate and brew a beer and really understand that sort of nuanced stuff.”

Master Cicerone — Level 4

Then when you get to the master exam, and Vogelbacher said it’s twice as hard as the Advanced.

“So instead of being an eight-hour test, with six flights of beer, it’s now 16 hours written with 12 flights of beer and more like a 20 hour-exam,” he said. “And instead of having four oral boards, you have eight oral boards. So each one doubles along the way.”

At the master level, you’re expected to be more of a beer industry expert or consultant to breweries, restaurants, and different places as such.

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