| Beer Gurus
Some in the beer community have a problem with the term "beer
sommelier" since "sommelier" is tied to the wine world and may imply a
professional certification that doesn’t exist. No one is working harder to
coin a new title, and certification, than beer author and educator Ray
Daniels. His ideal beer server is called a Cicerone (sis-uh-ROHN), a term he
trademarked for the beer training program he started in 2007. The name
comes from the word that can mean guide or mentor.
The program’s website states the claim that wine sommeliers might have
known enough to choose a good beer for you a few decades ago, but now
“the world of beer is just as diverse and complicated as wine. As a result,
developing true expertise in beer takes years of focused study and requires
constant attention to stay on top of new brands and special beers.” So
Daniels set out to build a testing and certification program to create a
standard level of knowledge and titles that would signify superior beer
knowledge to consumers, similar to the way a Court of Master Sommeliers
credential does for wine.
The industry has responded positively. A growing number of brewers,
bartenders, and servers have signed up and tested to earn the ascending
titles of Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone.
There are thousands qualified at the lowest level, who must pass a detailed
multiple-choice test of beer styles, service, storage, and science. Then they
are eligible to try the test for Certified Cicerone designation. Here the exam
includes tougher short-answer and essay questions, and naturally, taste
tests. There are 300 Certified Cicerones and counting. Less than half of
those who take that exam pass. Those who make it can attempt the
toughest test, and so far only three people have ever passed the Master
According to Daniels, “the intent of this program is to improve the quality
of beer available to consumers in every respect, without changing the
accessibility of it. We want Cicerones to be guides, not gods.”
The Cicerone program is well respected by many beer professionals, but
has a weakness in its singular focus on beer. This approach is enough for
beer establishments, but a server working in a restaurant with good beer
and wine should be knowledgeable enough to offer smart selections from
This is especially important for expanding the audience for excellent beer.
If a server is to steer a beer skeptic away from wine to a surprising new
experience, that server needs a strong grasp of wine to make the case. I
remain grateful to the Roman waiter who pointed me away from the wine
list toward a special bottle from Italy’s excellent brewer Baladin. The beer
was a far better match than wine for our spicy dishes, raising the dinner
from good to fantastic.
There are new signs all the time of beer’s increasing quality and culinary
esteem. With the recent publication of the weighty Oxford Companion to
Beer, it finally gets the same encyclopedic treatment Oxford has long
afforded wine. A restaurant festooned with Michelin stars now looks
outmoded if it doesn’t have substantial beer selections on its wine list. And
even average bars and restaurants without a craft beer focus will typically
offer at least a couple interesting beers. But all this is of little use to
drinkers if the beer isn’t carefully stored, chosen, and served.
Like great wine, great beer deserves well-trained people who can build a
strong collection of barrels and bottles, and know how pair them well.
And by the way, reading BeerNexus is one great way to learn the essentials
of good beer!