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Which Beer Certification Program is Right for You?

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The author, holding up his Certified Cicerone diploma.

So, you want a career in beer? You want to rock a beard and mash paddle, play matchmaker to thirsty drinkers and quenching brews, or sell the suds you love to bars and bottle shops? Say no more, I get it. After eight years working in the legal industry I knew I had to move on to something I love. And I love good beer, the craft of making it, and the community of beer lovers—you probably feel the same way.

The craft beer industry has exploded in recent years and all those new bars, brewpubs, beer distributors, and breweries are creating new jobs for people with beer smarts. There's room on this train for you, too! If you want a beer biz job or want to move up the industry ladder, a beer certification can be the key to being taken seriously.

Let's give these beer certification programs a look, shall we?

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP)

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[Photo: Chris Cohen]

The BJCP program is a nonprofit volunteer-run organization with the mission of training beer judges who will serve at homebrew competitions. Almost everyone involved with the BJCP is a dedicated homebrewer—we're talking 10th level beer geeks who are in it just for fun.

A judge needs to learn how brewing techniques and ingredients affect the final product, how to identify common beer off flavors and their causes, and how to compare beer aroma and flavor profiles to the eighty recognized beer styles in the BJCP Style Guidelines. A judge must be able to sniff and taste a beer, analyze it, note any off flavors, and then fill out a score sheet describing the beer and offering the brewer suggestions for improving it.

Are these skills necessary for most jobs in the retail beer industry? Absolutely not...unless you want to be a brewer.

These skills go beyond what you'll need for most industry jobs. But let me tell you a secret...The BJCP training courses are the best way to prep for the Certified Cicerone exam! As I've mentioned before, my BJCP training course alone got me halfway to where I needed to be to pass the exam.

The Cicerone Certification Program

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You stumble, thirsty, into a bar and attempt to order a pint. The bartender obviously doesn't know much about the beer on the chalkboard and when you order, you watch him or her dunk the tap into the beer as they fill the glass, then bring you a beer filled to the brim with zero head? Maybe it even tastes off. Happened to you? Yeah, me too.

Ray Daniels launched the Cicerone program (pronounced "sis-uh-rohn") in 2007 after tiring of constantly receiving poor beer service. The Cicerone program seeks to change that through education and testing, and it has quickly become the standard beer certification for industry pros in the US.

According to Daniels, the Cicerone Certification program is really for "people who sell and serve beer for a living." If you want to prove your beer chops to potential employers or want beer guru bragging rights, this is the way to go. Cicerone certifications are great for industry professionals because they focus on a broad set of beer knowledge with an emphasis on service. As you study for the Cicerone tests, you will learn to properly pour beer, select and clean beer glasses, clean tap systems, pair beer and food, plus you'll gather knowledge about beer styles, brewing ingredients, off flavors, and world beer cultures.

The Cicerone program has three levels: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone. It's sort of like Ant-Man, Batman, and Superman. Here's how they break down.

Certified Beer Server: This initial certification requires a basic level of beer knowledge that, frankly, every bartender and beer sales rep should (but definitely doesn't) have. To get your CBS ranking, you'll need to study the material on the CBS syllabus provided on the Cicerone program's website and then pass a 60 minute online exam that costs $69 for two attempts. To aid beginners and companies wanting to do full staff trainings, the Cicerone program offers an online training program called BeerSavvy. In the process of learning the material, you'll gain skills necessary for work in the beer biz.

Certified Cicerone: To pass the Certified Cicerone test, you'll need a fairly commanding level of beer knowledge ranging from service to styles to pairing to tasting. It's tough, and only 33% of takers pass the test. These folks get to say, "I'm a Cicerone", and this is where bragging rights and solid industry employment opportunities tend to kick in.

Want to be sure you'll pass? Give yourself a one year timetable to:
1) Memorize all the info in Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher (flash cards will become your best friends);
2) outline the other material recommended by the Cicerone program;
3) take an online beer judging course offered for BJCP training; and,
4) do at least one off-flavor tasting to train your senses (you can get a kit for spiking beer with common off flavors from the Cicerone program).

The Certified Cicerone test is several hours long and consists of a written portion with essays, a tasting portion testing you on style recognition and off flavors, and a brief demonstration of a skill such as taking apart and cleaning a tap faucet. The in-person test costs $345. About 1,000 people in the US have passed the Certified Cicerone test to date.

As the program becomes better known, this certification becomes more and more valuable. Employers know that a Certified Cicerone can talk beer at a high level with customers, giving you a big leg up when applying for jobs at top beer bars, restaurants, breweries, or distributors.

Master Cicerone: If you can pass this test, you are a beer geek god or goddess. An encyclopedic level of beer knowledge from years of study, industry experience, sampling, and beer focused travel is required to become a Master Cicerone. Only 10% of takers have passed the two-day-long test, a total of seven people to date. You can't just study up and pass this test, beer has to be your life!

Doemens Bier Sommelier Program at the Siebel Institute of Technology

The Doemens Academy in Germany and one of the US's most prestigious commercial brewing schools, the Siebel Institute in Chicago, have teamed up to offer this two week beer education course. The program is geared toward service industry professionals looking to boost their beer knowledge and make industry contacts. Very little beer knowledge is required going in, though it helps to already know the basics.

After taking a series of classes covering proper beer service, beer styles, food pairings, and brewing basics, students that can pass the final test are awarded the title of Doemens Bier Sommelier. The program ranges from $4,100 to 4,450, depending how early you sign up, plus it requires a two week stay in Chicago where the course is taught. It's an expensive fast track to a certification and though I may be biased, it doesn't appear to be as thorough as the training required to pass the Certified Cicerone exam.

Other Beer Sommelier Training Programs

20131212prudhomme.jpgThere are a few other training programs, all of which require in-person classes, and some with an online component as well. There's the Prud'homme program is based in Toronto, which features three levels of training to earn the title of Prud'homme Beer Sommelier. The first level can be completed in person or online, the following two levels require attending classes in Toronto to earn the title of Beer Specialist and then Beer Sommelier. In total, all three courses will run you about $1,450 Canadian.

There's also the Master Brewers Association of the Americas Beer Steward Certificate Program based in St. Paul. And finally, there's the Beer Academy Accredited Sommelier program based in the UK.

Have you considered or completed one of these beer certification programs? How has it helped your beer career? Leave any questions and share your experience in the comments section below.

About the Author: Chris Cohen is a Certified Cicerone, beer consultant, and the founder and President of the San Francisco Homebrewers Guild. He recently left his gig as an attorney to work toward opening SF's next great beer bar.

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