I still get very little time off, after nearly six years with Craft Beer Cellar’s flagship store in Belmont, Mass. and, of course, the emergence of Craft Beer Cellar – The Brand; 24 stores open and operating in 11 states, and 17 in-planning. It’s been a welcomed, overwhelming elation of excitement and butt-kicking work, all at the same time. So, yeah, we work long hours almost every day to get better, smoother, and more efficient.
When I received an email last Friday from Cicerone Certification Program Founder Ray Daniels as I was walking out the door to head to Portland, Maine for the weekend, I didn’t really want to have my weekend become about an exam that I had taken back in April, for good or otherwise. The email stated that the results from this spring’s Master Cicerone® exam were in and that they would be released at 3 p.m. via email. The email explained that Ray would be traveling the following week (last week) and would not be available for phone calls, as par normal, except for that day.
Those who know me well know that this exam has been an enormous part of my life since 2013, when I first began my trek to the pinnacle of beer academics. I was accepted to sit for this exam in the spring of 2014 and did not pass. At that time, I vowed to continue my studies and dethrone the mysticism of this exam, which far too many have taken without favorable results – this exam has a 9 percent pass rate!
After not winning the title of Master Cicerone® in 2014, I took the remainder of the year off from studying. Though, as soon as I turned the calendar over in 2015, I began the trek again, without actually having a definite seat in an upcoming exam. I focused on restructuring my materials and previous work, tasting sessions, brewery visits, reading, experimenting, cooking with beer, and everything in-between. We began running blind tastings at Craft Beer Cellar Belmont, twice a week, for our customers and training store owners, which also allowed a member of my team to pull six to eight classic styles each session, putting me in a simulated master tasting environment. We developed tasting sheets and Kate and I, especially, began tasting beer under time constraints: two-and-a-half minutes is a minimal amount of time to assess appearance, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, and finally make some educated guess as to a beer’s color, level of bitterness and alcohol, before deciding what style it is.
In these sessions, it was important for me to be able to properly identify the style, but also regurgitate its quantitative range for bitterness, color, and alcohol. After all, the Cicerone Certification Program very clearly states that candidates “must demonstrate encyclopedic knowledge and an in-depth understanding of all issues related to brewing, beer and beer service.” The syllabus for this exam is some 20-plus pages long, with a list of additional resources that includes 35 books and five manuals, with strong recommendations for travel to classic beer-producing countries, to better understand history, ingredients, and process.
I’m lucky. I work in an industry that I absolutely love, with some of the most amazing, kind, and brilliant people I have ever known. I do beer, really amazing beer and all the intricacies that come with what Craft Beer Cellar has become. But, at the end of the day, it’s still just beer! Over the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve crossed paths and studied with some of the best in our industry: Master Cicerone® Neil Witte, Boulevard Brewing Company; James Tai, beer consultant for NY City bars and restaurants, and Ambassador for Guinness; Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewer’s Association; Brendan Woodcock, beer consultant and one of AB-InBev’s High End Sales & Marketing Managers; Brett Robison from DC’s Black Restaurant Group; Master Cicerone® James Watt of Brewdog; and Ken Smith, Head of Education for Boston Beer Company.
And this barely does service to the number of talented individuals that I encounter on a daily basis, right here in New England, that have held me up, pushed me and taken me on, when they had a million other things to do: Brewmaster Will Meyers, Cambridge Brewing Company; Megan Parisi, Head Brewer, Boston Beer Company; Andrea Stanley, Valley Malt; Meagan Anderson, SteadyServ (formerly a Boston Beer Company Educator); and, of course, my team at Craft Beer Cellar and Craft Beer Cellar Belmont!
Getting through the first day of this daunting exam in 2014 was a relief, but it came with the painstaking reality that I had not done enough work. I grinded it out and got through both days, taking my own experiences as my prize and holding my head up high for how far I had come in actually understanding beer. This time around, I knew what to expect from the two days of brutal beer academics, more grueling than those who haven’t been through it can imagine. It was two days of writing, tasting, and oral examinations with some of the most respected members of this community. I knew better than to go in there, this time, without having done all of the work.
When Ray called me last Friday, I was very relaxed, as I had been feeling extremely confident since returning from Chicago in April. I felt that I had worked so hard, had come an enormous distance, and could possibly have earned the title of Master Cicerone® this time around. I was a bit shocked to learn that I had scored basically the same as my 2014 turn with this exam. And while I would like to offer some reasons as to my exam results and final grade, I will not be able to do that until I have received all the feedback from the dozen or so graders that participate in adding marks and commentary to the final results of this pinnacle of beer academics. Though I would say there are only two ways to go, Pass or Fail, and it takes an 85 to win the former. My point is that anyone would be happy with an 85 and that was not even remotely within my reach. As I have begun to divulge the news to my family and innermost colleagues, I feel confident in saying that leaders are, in part, a product of their experiences!
At this point, the climb to the title of Master Cicerone® will only be achieved by first conquering the title of Advanced Cicerone™. You all likely think I’m crazy, but I hope to earn a spot in an Advanced Exam later this year, so I may continue my climb. And yes, I am crazy.
If you follow me on the social webs, you’ll continue to see me use the hashtag that I gave life to, #MasterCiceroneInTraining. I look forward to seeing you out there and around the shop in Belmont. If you have specific questions for me about my experiences with the Master Cicerone®, please feel free to reach out – I’m always around and I love talking about beer!
In full disclosure, I occasionally assist in proctoring the tasting portion of Certified Cicerone® exams in and around the Boston area. Craft Beer Cellar has enormous respect for the Cicerone Certification Program, and while some may believe there are internal connections between Cicerone and Craft Beer Cellar, that’s just not true. Cicerone shows no favoritism when testing and/or grading, on any level.
#MadLuv and #BeerSpeed