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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 02/28/2011

Beer: Guides named for Cicero

By Greg Kitsock

Thor Cheston of Brasserie Beck is the first publican I’ve ever known to yank a beer off-line because it was pouring too clear. Brabo Pils, a house brand made for Robert Wiedmaier’s restaurants by the Huyghe Brewery in Melle, Belgium, is supposed to be a Keller Pils, an unfiltered pilsner with a hazy gold hue and a bready, yeasty flavor to augment the hops. What I tasted on Feb. 2 was perfectly crisp and clean and drinkable, but more akin to a Stella Artois or Bavik than what Cheston had in mind. The pils has been placed on indefinite hiatus.

“The quality and consistency of the beer was too much of a problem for us to continue with the project,” said Cheston, who added that he is in negotiations with a different Belgian brewery to take over the brand.

When I tried the Brabo Pils I was seated at a table with Ray Daniels, who for the past 18 years has been brewing beer, writing and editing publications about beer, and organizing beer festivals. Daniels was at Brasserie Beck to host a farmhouse ale beer dinner. He was also in town to administer a beer certification program that he founded four years ago.

Most bar managers and servers are not as savvy as Cheston in recognizing when a beer isn’t pouring right. The biggest misconception, asserts Daniels, is that “beer is indestructible, like a can of Campbell’s soup.” He hatched the idea for his Cicerone Certification Program after visiting a bar in Durango, Colo., where “you’d order something like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and it would be cloudy and buttery and stink of vinegar.”

The phrase “beer sommelier” is often used to denote someone skilled in the selection and proper storage of beer, but Daniels wanted a term that he could trademark, not some jargon borrowed secondhand from the wine world. “I was looking up synonyms for ‘guide’ in a thesaurus when lo and behold, I saw the word ‘cicerone.’ I thought, that’s it!”

Derived from the ancient Roman orator and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero, “the word cicerone has been used in England for 400 years to indicate a knowledgeable and learned guide,” Daniels noted.

Daniels drew up a syllabus that covered five areas: 1) the keeping and serving of beer; 2) beer styles; 3) flavor and tasting; 4) the brewing process and ingredients; and 5) pairing beer and food. He set up an exam process for three levels of certification.

To become a “certified beer server,” the most basic level of competence, all you need to do is log on to his web site and pass a 60-question, multiple-choice test. A passing grade is 75 percent; time limit is 30 minutes. The test is available 24/7. The pass rate is about 82 percent, according to Daniels; a total of 3,556 had made the grade as of early February. This basic test costs $69, and if your beer education has some gaps, you can register for an on-line tutorial followed by the quiz for $149.

The requirements to become a “certified cicerone” are more stringent. The certification process involves a three-hour written exam that includes fill-in-the-blanks and essay questions. The candidate is also required to sample 12 beers and identify any off-flavors that would make the beer unacceptable to serve.

Earlier that day, Daniels had administered the exam to four candidates at Brasserie Beck. (He still hasn’t informed me who they were or whether they passed.) You need to get 80 percent right to make the grade; the pass rate last year was only 50 percent, said Daniels. Cost is $345.

The exam for “master cicerone” takes two days and is given only in Chicago, Daniels’ hometown. This trial by ordeal includes eight hours of written questions, a two-hour oral exam, a tasting component and a test of mechanical aptitude. The examiners deliberately foul up a MicroMatic draft dispense system and the examinee has to troubleshoot the equipment to make the beer pour right. The entire exam costs $595. According to Daniels, 13 people have taken the test, and only three have passed. (You’ll find a complete list of certified cicerones and master cicerones here.)

Daniels said he might return to administer the test again around the time of SAVOR, June 3-4. In the meantime, you can gauge your mettle by answering these five sample questions from the Cicerone web site.

1) How much beer is contained in a standard half-barrel keg?

a. 15.25 gallons
b. 15.5 gallons
c. 15.75 gallons
d. 16.25 gallons

2) In the beer world, “SRM” is a measure of what beer characteristic?

a. bitterness
b. alcohol content
c. color
d. malt character

3) Clove or nutmeg flavors associated with 4-vinyl guiacol (a phenol) are typically found in what style of beer?

a. pilsner
b. American wheat
c. Kolsch
d. weizen

4) A properly operating draft system delivers cold, carbonated beer with an attractive foam head at a rate of almost one gallon per minute. What three elements of the draft system must be in balance to achieve this?

a. temperature, applied pressure and resistance
b. temperature, carbonation level and alcohol content
c. temperature, bar height and carbonation level
d. temperature, total resistance and keg volume

5) What beer style is likely to have the highest alcohol content?

a. Scottish ale
b. brown ale
c. oatmeal stout
d. Scotch ale

Answers: 1) b 2) c 3) d 4) a 5) d

By Greg Kitsock  | February 28, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock, beer  
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Great article, love that this is being covered but I must say some fact checking must be done. I scrambled to the cicerone website thinking that the $69 fee for certified beer server exam had been dropped. It has not, mr. Kitsock I think is referencing the example cicerone exam from 2008 which is posted for free.

Posted by: Timmyp123 | February 28, 2011 3:21 PM | Report abuse

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