My New Year's resolution for 2015 was to hone my knowledge of various beer styles by studying style guidelines published by the Beer Judge Certification Program. The goal was to become a better, more skilled beer taster. I worked on this throughout the year, and the result was a more nuanced palate, as well as a deeper appreciation for the subtleties that differentiate similar styles.
I decided to kick off the new year by achieving the Cicerone beer server certification — the first of four levels of certification in the program.
What's a Cicerone? Think sommelier, only for beer. These are people who want to know everything there is about beer: what it's made of and what each ingredients might contribute; what the different styles are and how they relate to each other; how to brew it, store it, serve it, and even pair it with food.
The tiers of the Cicerone program range from entry-level server certification, which is intended primarily for professionals working in the beer serving biz, all the way to master — a prestigious title currently held by only 11 individuals.
Although I don't work directly in the beer business, I take beer drinking seriously and am always in search of beer-related knowledge. Why not test my knowledge of the business, identifying weak areas in the process? At a minimum, passing the exam would give me something to brag about.
The entry-level exam is highly accessible to the public, with a price tag of $69 and a test that takes no longer than 30 minutes. Scoring 75 percent earns you a passing grade, but come on, you really want to do better than that.
I wasn't surprised to find that the primary gaps in my knowledge of beer were related to the business side of the equation: how to ensure that your customers have the best beer experience possible when they order at your bar, or buy beer from your store. If you don't sell or pour beer for a living, you may think this is entirely useless, but it's not — knowing what constitutes good bar and retail practices will make you a better consumer in the process.
Have you ever gone to a bar and had beer served to you in a frozen (not merely chilled) mug? Has your bartender ever allowed the faucet to touch the beer in your glass? Ever confused about why your beer came in a tulip, while your friend's came in a pint? Maybe you've taken home a six-pack that tasted like the cardboard holder it came in.
Understanding the significance of things like these allows you to differentiate between bad, mediocre and great beer experiences. It's the difference between knowing when a beer is poured from a dirty line and simply thinking that's how the beer is supposed to taste. It's knowing why your bartender is pouring a full pint of foam rather than beer. If you can identify whether or not a beer has been properly stored and served, then you'll be a better beer taster as a result.
Good beer is now mainstream. That's a very good thing, but it's our responsibility to learn about the stuff that we enjoy so much, so that we can keep standards high and ensure that everyone's beer experience is as good as possible.
Ultimately, I passed the exam, and I feel better off for it. If you're serious about beer, I'd recommend at least pursuing the first level of Cicerone certification; it's well worth the modest cost and time investment, and you don't need to be an industry professional to benefit from it. Your friends probably won't think you're any cooler as a result, but what do they know? They don't even have a beer server certification.
Although I don't see myself on the other side of the bar any time soon, I have a better working knowledge of what's going on back there than I did before, which makes me a more informed — and thus, more skilled — drinker. To me, and maybe to you, that's something worth pursuing. Check out cicerone.org.
Contacts: [email protected]; @WordsWithJG.