Cicerones, Beer Guides You Can Trust

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“What’s the Santa Rosa IPA?” the customer asked.

“It’s an Indian Pale Ale. It’s from India,” the waitress said.

“Then why does it say Santa Rosa?” the confused customer replied.

The waitress, flustered about the seeming interrogation, insisted that the beer was from India and walked away.

-1992 conversation, recorded for posterity, in Teachings from the Tap: Life Lessons from our Year in Beer by Merideth Canham-Nelson.

If that conversation occurred today, some guy would whip out his iPhone and the next day the YouTube video would go viral, with beer enthusiasts all over the world snickering at the server’s lack of knowledge.

These days we have plenty of beer geeks, beer snobs, beer sommeliers, beer connosieurs and beer every-sort-of-experts. But what do such titles really mean? And most importantly, how much can the house “expert” educate you about the IPAs at a new brewpub or regional selections at a liquor store during your beercation?

You can bet the last bottle in your six-pack that breweries care a lot about what happens with their beer after they ship it out the door and out of their control. It’s typically trucked to a distributor’s warehouse where it’s unloaded and soon re-loaded for the trip to the point of purchase, usually a retail store or restaurant. Those selling and serving the product to the public then need to properly promote it. Education and training are vital.

Leslie with Ray Daniels at the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, Oregon

Leslie with Ray Daniels at the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference in Portalnd, Oregon

In the last decade, possibly no single individual has done more to advance beer-serving education in the United States than Ray Daniels, founder and director of the Cicerone® Certification Program. Daniels has brewed and written about beer for over a quarter century, collecting numerous awards along the way. Since becoming a certified Beer Judge in 1992, he has judged thousands of beers. He worked with the Brewers Association for nine years, including a stent as director of Brewers Publications, the largest publisher of technical books on brewing. He left in 2007 to start the three-level Cicerone (pronounced sis-uh-rohn) program, wanting to create a series of titles that would immediately be recognized and valued in the beer world. Centuries ago in England, a “cicerone” referred to a museum guide. Indeed, his concept involved beer guides.

The success of Daniels’ vision has been, and continues to be, impressive. I emailed Virginia Thomas, Cicerone’s business manager, who graciously provided the following information on the three levels of certification.

“As of today there are 55,732 Certified Beer Servers. Certified Beer Servers are typically qualified in entry level, customer facing positions. The skill focus at this level is the basic 42 beer styles and their qualities and characteristics and heavy service focus, including pouring a perfect pint, how to get a beer clean glass, how to change a keg, etc.

As of today there are 1,852 Certified Cicerones. Typical positions/titles that a Certified Cicerone® might hold include any managerial/supervisory role; any staff member involved in education or training; Distributor or Brewery Sales Representatives; Beverage Directors, Beer Buyers.

There are only 10 Master Cicerones as of July, 2015. Master Cicerones have shown an encyclopedic knowledge of beer. Amongst the current 10 who have earned this title are brewery owners, beer educators, and consultants.”

Certified Cicerone Zach Rosen

Certified Cicerone Zach Rosen

At the Beer Bloggers Conference in North Carolina, earlier this month, I met a Certified Cicerone. At 22, Zach Rosen became a Certified Cicerone. Six years later, Rosen is widely known in Santa Barbara, California where his articles appear in local media. He uses his experiences as a Cicerone to organize and host abstract beer pairing events that bring together beer with art, music, and movies for small groups up to major festivals. “The events are limited to no more than 500,” Rosen said, “I feel like you lose some of the intimacy if the event gets too much larger than that.”

Certified Beer Server Amanda Dickinson and Leslie

Certified Beer Server Amanda Dickinson and Leslie

Meanwhile across the country, Certified Beer Server Amanda Dickinson, known on social media as “A Babe in Beer Land,” manages Lupie’s Café in Huntersville, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte. Eight years ago when Dickinson came on board, Lupie’s beer menu consisted primarily of Bud, Miller and Coors, all sold in bottles because there was no room for a bar or taps. Many of the customers were traditional beer drinkers with little knowledge of craft beers. None of that deterred Dickinson. Today, she oversees a rotating selection of 30-40 bottled and canned beers at any given time. Around 50% of beer sales are craft varieties.

Some of Dickenson's offerings at Lupie's

Some of Dickenson’s offerings at Lupie’s

“The growth of the craft beer industry in the Charlotte area is booming,” Dickinson says, “and I wanted to bring more of it to the suburbs.  The purpose of a Cicerone is to be a guide and this is a great way for me to practice that in my training. Some examples of the beers that I’ve introduced are: Fortnight ESB, Aviator Cretaceous, Pisgah Pale Ale, Blind Squirrel Belgian Triple, and Green Man Wayfarer IPA. All of these are North Carolina breweries.”

At the conference, I was humbled sitting beside Dickinson and listening to her describe the various beers we sampled. The customers at Lupie’s Cafe are indeed lucky to have her looking after their brews. I raise my glass to Dickinson, Rosen and all Certified Beer Servers and beyond.

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