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Ask a Cicerone: What's the Best Way to Learn About Beer?

Editor's Note: Ask a what? A Certified Cicerone®. That is, a beer expert who has passed a particular certification exam administered by the Craft Beer Institute. You can think of them as beer sommeliers.

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[Photo: Shutterstock]

Does your New Year's resolution involve becoming a beer expert? Do you have a plan of attack? We asked our crew of Certified Cicerones for their tips: how to get better at tasting and describing beer, how to learn about all the many beer styles, and what books are definitely worth reading.

Here's what they had to say.

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An example tasting sheet from Rob Hill of Total Wine.

"The best way to learn is to taste, taste, taste beer! Try three to four-ounce tastings of multiple beers in a flight. Go to beer tastings and beer dinners. Have a 'bottle share' with friends where each brings a different beer for all to taste. Learn what to look for when tasting, what ingredients you're experiencing, and how to describe what your senses reveal, by using a good beer tasting sheet as a guide; several are available for free on the Internet including this one which I created."—Rob Hill (Total Wine & More)

"Try to go to as many beer events as possible. But don't go just to drink beer and get drunk. Meet the brewers and reps. Talk with them. There are a lot of smart people out there and one thing I have learned about this industry is we all like to share our knowledge and passion for beer. I also like to visit the Brewers Association website frequently."—Bryan Rounds (Central Coast Distributing)

"Some of my favorite books, ones that have played a part in my continuing beer education, are: Geuze & Kriek by Jef Van den Steen. It's a recently translated book from Belgium about the history of Lambics and the Lambic brewers and blenders. Belgian Beer On The Menu by Ben Vinken is another recently translated Belgian book where Belgium's top chefs pair meals with Belgian beers. It's a mouthwateringly good book. Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation by Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff is a must for any 'yeast wonks' like myself. Finally: Great Beers of Belgium by Michael Jackson. No list is complete without a book by the late, great Michael Jackson. The last edition, finished just prior to his passing, is a glossy, beautiful homage to Belgium's beers and breweries."—Christopher Barnes (I Think About Beer)

"When I first got into beer, every time I would get paid, I would go out and buy a dozen or so beers I'd never tried before and drink one every night until I got paid again. After a little while I started to notice the big differences between styles, the better examples of those styles, and what I was really enjoying personally. For books, anything by Michael Jackson, but more specifically, Michael Jackson's Beer Companion. It goes through beer style by style and gives great information breaking them down into what makes them what they are. It also has great beer history and food and beer sections. I read it cover to cover about once a year, and it was one of the most valuable resources I had in studying for the Cicerone exam."—Jesse Vallins (The Saint Tavern)

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"Exposing yourself to different styles, brewers, traditions and drinking cultures will teach you a lot about beer and what it represents. Supplement this drinking with note-taking and some good old fashioned book learnin' from Tasting Beer and the Oxford Companion to Beer, and you'll be well on your way. The best way to become a better beer taster is to make it yourself. I believe in going all-grain right from the start (as opposed to brewing with kits and extracts)—becoming familiar with the raw ingredients of beer and how to coax or suppress certain flavors from them will go a long way towards understanding what's in your glass."—Mike Reis (Lime Ventures)

"The best way to learn about beer is to immerse yourself in the culture. When I began my journey, I volunteered at a local brewery for two years and was lucky enough to be given insight to everything—I helped brew, ran the tasting room, did consumer education, line cleaning, deliveries...I absorbed every detail that I could."—Becki Kregoski (Bites 'n Brews)

"Consider looking at other culinary and food science books in order to gain a different perspective to tasting. Taste What You're Missing by Barb Stuckey and Neurogastronomy by Gordon Shepherd are two examples."—James Tai (Pinch)

"Homebrewing is the best path to becoming a better taster. Tasting the raw ingredients, and seeing how their contribution evolves throughout the process is some of the best tasting experience you can get. Enter your beer into local competitions to get some knowledgeable feedback, and then volunteer to be a judge, and you will learn so much. Homebrewing is also a great way to familiarize yourself with off flavors, because, despite your best efforts, they'll happen."—Michael Ferrari (Luck)

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"The best way to learn about beer is through thoughtful tastings, with a guide if possible. If you don't have an experienced drinker with you, use books or the Beer Judge Certification Guidelines to help you understand what the brewer was intending in the beer you are experiencing. Blind tastings and off-flavor kits are excellent practices for becoming a better taster and were vital for me in passing the Certified Cicerone exam. Try to identify beer styles in a blind test for a real challenge. Taking the label away helps get rid of preconceived notions and makes you a much more observant taster. One of my favorite books I read when first learning about beer was The Naked Pint. The authors are really funny and describe beer styles in a very accessible way for the uninitiated as well as the experienced drinker. I am reading The Audacity of Hops now which is a great read about the history of the craft beer movement in America."—Chris Kline (Schnuck Markets)

"The best way to improve your beer tasting skills is to really pay attention every time you drink a beer. Notice the aromas, move to tasting the flavors and give attention to the finish and how it leaves your mouth. Then, try to describe this aloud and doing this with someone else may help you notice other things about the beer and possibly learn new descriptors to increase your beer tasting vocabulary. A good way to start is by using a beer flavor wheel from Mark Dredge's Craft Beer World. The magazine Zymurgy, while primarily focused on homebrewing, has sections in which trained beer judges give an in-depth description of a few different commercial beers and this gives you the opportunity to taste and describe it first and then see what they had to say."—Judy Neff (Pints & Plates)

"There's no question in my mind that the best way to learn about beer is to make it yourself. Each time you brew it's an opportunity to learn about the historical development, ingredients, and techniques used for the style you're making, to understand how those flavors and aromas are created. The best source for general homebrewing knowledge is How to Brew by John Palmer. The best source for inspiring recipes and info on extinct beer styles you can recreate at home is Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher. Don't forget to join your local homebrew club!"—Chris Cohen (San Francisco Homebrewers Guild)

"Whichever way you go, enjoy it. If you're having fun, you'll stick with it. Taste thoughtfully. The best way to become a better taster is to pay attention to what you're tasting. Think about what you're tasting and all the elements that contribute to your enjoyment of it. How does it look? How does it smell? How does it feel in your mouth? What's your overall impression? Taking notes helps to make the info stick. As far as reading, you could get by on just Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer. I also learned a lot from Homebrewing for Dummies, and took my geekery to another level with John Palmer's How to Brew. The Brewer's Association has a series of books on specific styles, my favorite among them is Wild Brews, a book focusing on sour ales."—Joshua A. Cass (821 Cafe)

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