Back when I first applied to UW-Madison, it took me three times of applying to get in. Hysterically, they refunded me my application fee the third time along with an acceptance letter.
Similar to the Cicerone Certified exam, I took it three times.
The first time I took the exam, I passed the writing portion and failed the tasting portion.
The second time I took it, I decided I would retake the whole thing just to feel better about it.
I was able to sort of self-graded myself along the way and know that I passed the writing portion again, but, again, I didn’t pass the tasting portion.
Third time was the charm. I retook only the tasting portion and passed with flying colors.
As a result of this whole endeavor, I’ve pulled every resource possible to help you study for this exam. Consider it a comprehensive study guide for the Cicerone Certification exam.
Before we dive in, know that you need to take and pass the Certified Cicerone Beer Server exam before you can take the level two Certified Cicerone exam.
Study this Certified Cicerone Beer Server study guide and then take the exam and you’ll ace it.
Since the Beer Server exam is online, it’s open book, but if you plan to take the Certified Cicerone exam, you should be able to flawlessly pass the Beer Server exam without looking at notes.
Alright, let’s get into all the resources to prep for the Certified Cicerone exam.
Certified Cicerone Flashcards
Here are a series of online note cards to practice from. Bookmark them. Revisit them. Revisit them again:
When you open a page of note cards, most of the links provide more links to other similar flash card packs to continue studying from. It’s a rabbit hole worth going down.
Certified Cicerone Draft System Studying
When it comes to draft systems, Micro Matic is king.
They have a remarkable beer dispensing training program that is completely worth the $300ish dollars it costs.
I guarantee you will get more than what you pay for in food, beer, experience and education … and you’re sure to meet some other remarkable people in the industry from cooler builders to draft line designers and brewers.
Regardless of whether or not you’ve worked on the draft side of the industry, this course is a must.
Certified Cicerone Demonstration
After your writing portion, you’ll be asked to perform a demonstration.
The two times I’ve taken the full exam, I’ve had to explain the faucet: name every piece, how to clean it, how often to clean it, noting when you should replace a component of it etc,.
Basically, you want to share as much knowledge as you can within your three minutes.
Talk about the different types of faucets (vent and ventless). Talk about how you should upgrade any brass to stainless steel. Talk about wearing safety gear when cleaning the faucet and what caustic solution you should be using (2%).
This is your moment to share as much knowledge as you can about the piece of equipment and how you use it. It’s impossible to share too much info.
Certified Cicerone Beer & Food Pairing
This is likely the most fun part of the exam because it’s equally objective and subjective. You’ll be asked to either create a menu and beer pairing or to explain what beer you would pair with a given menu item.
While a Saison/Weizen is a safe one to go with (even Garret Oliver says he’d grab Saison du Pont for a dinner that he doesn’t know what will be served at), I challenge you to riff on a different style that matches intensity, compliments the flavors of the dish and cuts or contrasts other flavors in the dish.
This is the portion of the exam where you get style points.
Don’t write: “The alcohol of the imperial stout cuts through the richness of the cheesecake.”
Do write: “The hotness of the alcohol in the traditionally higher ABV imperial stout cuts through the thick and rich sweetness of the cream in the cheesecake like a hot knife through a stick of butter while at the same time cleansing the palate for another satisfying but not cloying bite.”
It’s a bit of a word vomit, but your role in this portion of the exam is to play up that you know how to describe food and beer pairings, even if you ramble.
Certified Cicerone Tasting Portion
Having taken the tasting portion of the exam three times, you can say I’m an expert at it. The most important piece of advice I can offer in preparation of the exam is to make tasting fun.
Grab multiple bottles of the same style of beer. Put one in the sunlight and have a friend or significant other or sibling help you with a blind tasting after you bring the light-struck beer back to the same temperature as the others. Identify the skunked beer!
I highly suggest ordering the Off-Flavor Kit the Cicerone program offers. I reached out on my local beer community Facebook page to see who else would be interested in buying in and experiencing off-flavors. I ended up only having to pay $20 for the kit after others pitched in.
If you can, discuss with your local homebrew supply shop if they are willing to hold an off flavor class. It’s easy for them to break even on their purchase of the kit!
Once you have your off-flavors down, work really hard on style differentiators. Is it a saison or a wit bier? Is it a dubbel or a dark strong ale? Is it a helles bock or a pilsner?
The best way I figured out how to do this is to go to a brewery, order a flight and have someone you’re there with ask you what style of beer you’re tasting. Talk about what you’re tasting and relate it to the description on the brewery’s menu.
You can also buy similar styled beers and have someone set you up to sample which is which. (Bonus points if the person pours the same styled beer in both glasses!)
Again, this ought to be fun, but also serious.
When it comes to the exam. Take your time and don’t feel rushed. Let your gut influence you, but also gut check your gut. Smell and taste your samples until you’re confident.
Oh, and not every sample has an off flavor. With my first time taking the exam, I searched for an off flavor in everything … and found one, but three of the five ended up not having any.
p.s. they will pour nitro beers early so that you can’t tell by the foam that it’s a nitro. Be careful with deciding whether it’s an dry stout or a porter.
Certified Cicerone Books You Need To Read
- If there was only one book you read, it needs to be Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer. The entire exam has questions pulled from this book. At minimum, read it once before you dive deep into other books and notecards, then read it again before you take the exam. I really can’t stress how important this book is to you passing the writing portion of the exam.
- Julia Hertz of CraftBeer.com co-wrote a remarkable book that covers pairing, aptly named Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from Pairing Pros.
- In The Brewmaster’s Table, Garret Oliver explains how and why to pair beer with food while also giving you plenty of background on beer styles.
- If you don’t homebrew, I suggest you read John Palmer’s How To Brew and then brew! You’ll learn more from doing than you will from reading about it. Any local homebrew group would be happy to show you the ropes, and if there’s not a club near you then reach out to a brewery. They typically have pilot systems they brew on and can walk you through the process.
- I also read Yeast, National Geographic Atlas of Beer, Beer Food and Flavor, The Beer Geek Handbook and the Oxford Champion to Beer. Although they helped with the exam, I wouldn’t consider these required reading to pass the Cicerone, but fun to read nonetheless.
Certified Cicerone Study Guide
If you would like a study guide that will guarantee you pass the exam, go to Chris Cohen’s Beer Scholar page and buy a copy of his excellent Beer Scholar Study Guide for the Certified Cicerone Exam here: http://www.thebeerscholar.com/
When it comes to luck, you create your own. Study more than you think you need to and work hard to know your palate. Start an Instagram account where you post flavor reviews of beers and tag me and the bar (@thegarthbox @garthsbrewbar) so I can follow your journey!