What are the primary flavor characteristics that define a Belgian wit?
We’ve all been there. It’s a slow-pitch softball question. I’ve drank a hundred of these. The answer is in my brain and the neurons just can’t hit the target. I stared at the paper for at least 5 minutes before throwing in the towel and turning in my exam.
It came to me about 30 minutes too late. Orange peel and coriander!
I have spent the last 10 years tasting, brewing and writing about beer. So over that time, exactly how much have I learned about beer? There’s one way to find out.
I enjoy a challenge and competition, so I’ve long thought about going for the Cicerone Certification. Not so much for external validation, though that couldn’t hurt, but more to prove to myself that I could do it. It’s a rigorous process and costs about $400 by the end, so it’s not just something you knock out on a weekend in between batches of homebrew.
On a whim last March, I decided to take the first step to becoming Certified Cicerone. The first level of certification is the Certified Beer Server. To attain that, you must pass a 60-question multiple choice online exam, which I didn’t find too difficult. I was able to knock that out with the knowledge I had readily in my head at the time.
The next step to achieve level two is a much more intensive, and expensive, effort. It involves an in-person three-hour written exam and an hour-long tasting component.
Last December, there was an exam being administered in Tampa and I had a couple months to study, so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and go for it.
They provide you with an in depth syllabus to guide your study. There are also courses, recommended reading, beer style flash cards and off-flavor kits you can buy. Fortunately, I had already read several of the books they recommended and had 7 years of brewing experience under my belt, so I felt good in those areas.
The parts that I had to focus on were draft systems, keeping and serving beer, and beer styles. Having never worked in a bar, I found the Draught Beer Quality Manual to be extremely helpful and educational. I even learned a lot that I was able to apply to my home kegerator.
I probably spent 50% of my studying effort on memorizing beer style information. Even though I feel like I had a solid background knowing and understanding most of the beer styles that have been defined, there is a lot of detail to know. From the style’s characteristics and history, to IBU, original gravity and final gravity ranges.
The exam itself is a test of mental stamina. 10 years removed from grad school, it was a challenge to sit and concentrate for three hours. By the time you reach the tasting exam, it’s a welcome reprieve to be able to drink some beer. It’s just too bad that half of the samples are spiked with contaminants.
The tasting exam consists of three flights. The first has a control, for me it was Sam Adams Light. You then have four other samples, three are spiked and one is not. You have to identify what the spiked samples are contaminated with and which is not.
The second flight consists of four samples, and you have to identify the style between two choices. For example, distinguish the difference between an English and an American IPA. or a German Hefeweizen from a Belgian Wit. I thought this flight was pretty easy since the styles given were distinct.
The third flight was the most challenging. Of the four samples presented, you had to determine if the sample was fit for service, and if not, what was wrong with it. You were told what the beer was and whether it came from a bottle or draft. I called one that was fit for service that was not and said another was not when there was nothing wrong with it. Apparently, I don’t like Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat. I thought it was spiked.
While I was preparing for the exam, I did not invest in a tasting kit, figuring I could rely on several years of judging competitions and drinking beer. Apparently, I was mistaken.
Surprisingly, on my first try, I passed the written portion but failed the tasting. Because of the small number of samples compared to the questions on the written exam, there’s less room for error in the tasting portion. I missed a passing score on the tasting portion by one question.
So in a test of my resolve and determination, I had to drive to Orlando on February 8 to retake the tasting exam. At the risk of offending anyone from Orlando, I really don’t like Orlando. It was a tough pill to swallow.
I took my lessons from the first exam and passed the second try with room to spare. The nice thing about the tasting portion is that you review the results immediately after the exam to make sure there were no anomalies with the samples, so I was pretty certain I passed when I left.
Now that I’m a Certified Cicerone, what does it mean? I’m not really sure what will come of it, but I know it will only be positive. If nothing else, I know that I know a lot about beer.
And sometimes, confidence is all you need.