Brian Cendrowski, Certified Cicerone®

cicerone certificate

What are the primary flavor characteristics that define a Belgian wit?

I blanked.

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.

The Cicerone Certification Program is the beer equivalent of a sommelier for wine. It’s one way to validate that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to beer.

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.

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Cigar City Hunahpu’s Snafu

At Hunahpu's Day, you can drink Russian River Supplication directly from a double magnum.

At Hunahpu’s Day, you can drink Russian River Supplication directly from a double magnum.

In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.
– John F. Kennedy

Cigar City’s Hunahpu’s Day 2014 is a day that will long be remembered in craft beer lore. It was a day when joy turned to frustration and a craft beer magnate admitted defeat.

On Saturday, March 8, Cigar City Brewing held the 5th annual Hunahpu’s Day, a release party and festival for one of the nation’s most sought-after beers, Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout.

Hunahpu is #16 on Beer Advocate’s Top 250 list, and it’s limited availability has created a passionate following and intense demand. On Saturday, demand turned into debacle.

The first four years of Hunahpu’s release event were first-come-first-serve events where people would line up four hours in advance of sales. Last year drew an estimated crowd of about 9,000 people. In an attempt to make the event more manageable and fair, Cigar City made it a ticketed event and allotted 3,500 tickets.

In addition to selling bottles of Hunahpu, Cigar City turned the event into one of the premier beer festivals in the area, featuring over 150 rare beer and special batches from local and national breweries and six area homebrew clubs.


Now THAT is a tap wall.

Since this was the first time they charged admission to the event, you would expect there to be unanticipated logistical problems. However, when the unexpected results in way too many people getting in and not enough of the prized beer to go around, you might need to call out the National Guard.

I had the opportunity to volunteer at the event, so I was there an hour before the festival began. I was pouring beer at the Cigar City tap trailer for a couple hours.

I received my first inkling that things were not right when Nicole and I were asked to go up to the front gate around 1 pm to help get people into the festival.

It was pretty chaotic when we arrived at the front. The line of people went down the street and around the corner beyond where I could see. The volunteers quickly got organized help speed the process of putting wrist bands on the people coming in.

The people coming in were telling tales of being in line for over two hours. Most of them were in good spirits, knowing they were about to enter into a beer oasis.

The second inkling that things were not right was when my volunteer shift ended at 2:00. In the hour that I went from pouring to the front, the festival went from a fun, free pouring good time to a drunken grid-lock. It whole vibe shifted on a dime in less than an hour.

I decided to get in line for my free volunteer bottle of Hunahpu around 3:00. But the “lines” were not moving. The parking lot in front of the packaging warehouse where they were selling the bottles was just that, a parking lot of humanity.

It was at that point I decided to forsake my free bottle, and it was time to go home. The lines for beer and food were too long, it was nearly impossible to get from one point to another. I retired to go home to a relaxing steak dinner in my back yard with a phenomenal bottle of wine.

A perfect ending to an all-around great day, minus that I didn’t come home with any Hunahpu.

It wasn’t until Sunday morning that I read about the fiasco that the day turned into. Somehow, they ran out of Hunahpu bottles to sell. You can imagine the outrage.

Cigar City did the right thing by acting swiftly to take responsibility and to make amends with the festival goers:

“So, today did not go as expected. We realize that there were a lot of issues with duplicate tickets, way too long waits in lines, and all of that. We can promise 100% that we are going to make it right, whether it be refund, or whether we brew a batch of beer that we will bottle and make completely free to all attendees that had issues today. We’re completely sorry for all issues that happened today. It really sucked. We completely understand how much it sucked and hate how much it sucked. We don’t want it to suck ever again. We will do what we can to make it right.”

They decided to refund every person that bought a ticket through Eventbrite, and they opened up their tap room on Sunday for free beer the entire day.

In the week since the festival, many theories have come out as to what happened. I won’t dwell on speculation, but I do know that both Cigar City and many other individuals share responsibility as to what went down.

In my experience as a volunteer, Cigar City was not well organized and did not coach up their people very well. In particular, this was evident at the front gate, where all the issues stemmed.

While Cigar City may not be festival experts, I would have expected that their leadership had been to enough festivals, and spoken to enough other people that have put them on, that they would have learned what works and what doesn’t.

If nothing else, Cigar City’s faith in the craft beer faithful paved the way for the main culpri, duplicate tickets. Somewhere between several hundred and several thousand people acquired copied ticket printouts. The volunteers scanning tickets at the gate weren’t prepared for the onslaught of hundreds of cheaters who scammed their way in. Once those flood gates opened, it was all over.

And while Cigar City may not have been prepared, that does not excuse people who took advantage using duplicate tickets or hopping fences. That greed and self-centeredness ruined the day for thousands, cost a beloved local business as much as $200,000, and destroyed a wonderful beer tradition. Joey Redner, owner of Cigar City, quickly decided to end Hunahpu’s Day and put the beer into distribution.

hunahpu bottleIt’s my hope that Joey and Cigar City will take some time to distance themselves once this has all blown over, and will reconsider Hunahpu’s Day for next year. It was a painful learning experience, but provides an opportunity to come back with a vengeance, stronger than ever, and to show the beer world that they won’t be defeated.

It’s often when companies are at their lowest that the opportunity arises to do great things. Imagine the storylines when Hunahpu’s Day is a great success next year. An already loyal fan base will go to war for Cigar City.

When customers are pissed off and furious, if you make amends and then go above and beyond, you create a loyal bond for life. Those people will fight for you, because they know you care about them.

If you are interested in seeing Hunahpu’s Day come back next year, I would recommend liking the Save Hunahpu’s Day Facebook page. I know I’m willing to go back next year.

Let’s bring back the tradition!

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A Vendetta Upon the Beer World

brian and nicole

Brian and Nicole unleash their Vendetta

It was a simple step. A chinchilla-soft launch. Barely a ripple in the Matrix.

But the wheels are turning.

Thursday night at the Brewer’s Tasting Room in St. Petersburg, FL,  the public had its first opportunity to drink a beer that I made. It was the launch party for Vendetta Blood Orange Wit.

This dramatic tale of life, death and citrus began well before brew day. When presented with the opportunity to brew a pilot batch on BTR’s 1-bbl system, my mind raced through eight years worth of recipes and ideas. You only get one shot at your first beer.

After consulting my culinary consigliere, Nicole, we settled on a long-forgotten recipe we brewed once in January 2011, a blood orange wit. The original inspiration for this beer came about as Nicole wanted to brew a series of beers that featured ingredients that were grown in the various European countries of our heritage.

The first beer in this series was a “Sicilian” recipe, a nod to my great grandparents. After a few minutes on the Google machine, Nicole found a few ingredients that are commonly grown in Sicily that were a fit: chamomile, coriander (seed of a cilantro plant) and blood orange. Hmmm, sounds like a great wheat beer!

This combination seemed a perfect fit for our debut. It’s a refreshing wheat beer, perfect as the Florida spring starts to ramp up in late February, and blood oranges are in season. Done and done!

The Beer

Just prior to brew day, we zested and juiced a dozen blood oranges and crushed five ounces of coriander seeds to go in 30 gallons of beer. Blood oranges are very pulpy and didn’t yield much juice. Next time I make this recipe, I’m going to add more juice to give the beer some reddish color.

We brewed the beer on Sunday, February 9. It was a gorgeous day and everything went very smoothly. It took about six hours from start to clean-up. The beer came in at 1.048 original gravity and we made a huge yeast starter, so we decided that giving it three weeks would be plenty of time to ferment and get ready for a release on February 27, just before Tampa Bay Beer Week.

Plenty of time, right? Well, maybe not so much.

The following Tuesday I went by BTR to check the gravity. It was sitting at 1.024. Uh oh.

My plan was to let it ferment for a week to 10 days, add the citrus and spices to sit for five days, then keg and condition for four. With the beer just over half way through fermenting, my window was suddenly closing rapidly.

We took evasive maneuvers and moved the fermenter out of the fermentation chamber, where it was sitting at about 65 degrees, and moved it into the outer hallway where it could hang out in the low 70s. We also rocked the fermenter like a hurricane to wake the yeast up a bit.

I came back to BTR that Friday night to check on the beer. Three days later, it was now at 1.020. Still too high, but it was now or never. I gave the yeast my best motivational speech, dropped in the zest, coriander and chamomile flowers, and closed it up.

A Belgian Wit should finish pretty dry, anywhere from 1.008 to 1.012. The goal is to make a clean, drinkable, refreshing beer. Belgian wits have enough perceived sweetness from the fruity esters of the yeast and the added citrus and spices. If the final gravity is too high, then it will be too thick and cloying, and it won’t be nearly as refreshing.

So there was a long way to go from 1.020 on Friday down to where it needed to be by the time it had to be keggd. Sunday afternoon, I went by again to see if the beer would be serviceable. Lo and behold, the yeast made a valiant push and got down to 1.012! Way to go, yeast!

I moved the fermenter to the cold refrigerator to crash cool it for a day before kegging, and all systems were go.

The Release

My name in lights!

My name in lights!

Nicole and I went out to BTR on Wednesday night before the release to take a final taste of the beer and check the conditioning. When we tried a sample from the keg, it was exactly what we hoped for.

It was citrusy and aromatic, juicy but finished clean. You could taste all the elements individually: the blood orange, coriander and chamomile, but no single one dominated. It was eminently drinkable.

Despite the great initial tasting from the night before, when I woke up Thursday morning I started to get a little nervous, and the usual doubts started to creep in. Is everyone going to like it? What if no one shows up? Will people regret paying money for it?

I knew that the beer turned out well and that it was a very drinkable and accessible style, so I decided to let the night unfold and the beer will take care of itself. It’s the risk you take when you put yourself out there in the public realm. You have to be ok with the feedback, positive and negative.

tap wallWhen Nicole and I arrived at the Brewer’s Tasting Room at 6:30, there was already a crowd from a law firm that was having a happy hour there. Many in the party were already drinking the Vendetta. It was a proud moment.

The night reminded me of my wedding reception. It was a steady stream of guests and well-wishers. I barely had time to refill my glass and post a photo on Instagram! Nicole and I made our way around the room like emissaries at a United Nations summit.

I received some great feedback from the servers and bartenders that people were speaking very highly of the beer. I was really appreciative of all the support that I received from our guests and random people alike.

I had several people tell me who were not “beer people” tell me that they really enjoyed it. The best comment was from a friend, who will remain nameless, who said, “I would drink one of these over a Budweiser.” You have to trust me that that was a compliment!

My favorite moment from the evening was when someone walked out with two growlers of Vendetta to take home. Forget bottle shares at homebrew club meetings or scores in beer competitions, the ultimate affirmation of a beer is when someone will pay with their own money to take your beer home with them after they’ve already tried a pint.

On Thursday night, I didn’t make any money. There was no big speech or fanfare. I got to see my beer on a tap wall with the likes of Cigar City, Founders, Great Divide and Rogue. And I felt like I belonged.


I won!

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Quick Reference Guide to Tampa Bay Beer Week 2014

tbbw logo

Tampa Bay Beer Week is upon us! In fact, it was upon me in full force yesterday at the Brewer’s Ball. And I am still feeling its weight!

As we get into the week, are you feeling overwhelmed at all the events and choices? Too much beer, not enough blood to hold it?

I have studied the event list like it was a final exam in college, and I have taken the pulse of the beer community. I have boiled down the multitude of events into a couple to choose from each day. It’s very likely you will find me at one of these throughout the week.

In particular, I’ll be pouring one of my beers with Special Hoperations on Thursday night at Florida Avenue Brewing. It’s the club’s annual TBBW party, and I’ll have my “Maizen” on tap. Come out to try it and hear how I created a new beer style.





  • Special Hoperations TBBW Party: Florida Avenue Brewing. 8 kegs on tap from Special Hoperations homebrewers, including my Maizen.
  • There’s nowhere else you should go.



  • Hunahpu’s Day: It’s sold out, so if you’re going to this, you already know. If you’re not, check out these other events.
  • Gasparilla Music Festival: Flaming Lips and RJD2 headline, accompanied by local craft beer and restaurants providing food
  • Dunedin Craft Beer Fest


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The Commercial Debut of Vendetta Blood Orange Wit

The Brew Crew: Nicole Cendrowski, Brian Cendrowski, Mike Thompson (our sherpa), Yeast

The Brew Crew: Nicole Cendrowski, Brian Cendrowski, Mike Thompson (our sherpa), Yeast

It’s the day you’ve all been waiting for. After eight years of giving my beer away for free, you’re finally going to have the opportunity to pay money for it! On February 27, my first commercially available beer will debut at The Brewer’s Tasting Room (BTR) in St. Petersburg.

Brewing is glamorous work!

Brewing is glamorous work!

This past Sunday I brewed the Vendetta Blood Orange Wit. It’s a Belgian wit with blood orange zest and juice, coriander and chamomile added after fermentation. Vendetta pays homage to my Sicilian roots with blood oranges and chamomile, which are commonly grown on the island and throughout the Mediterranean.

Brew day went exceptionally well. BTR has a 1-bbl brewing system that features three steam-heated kettles, pumps, an electronic control board, the whole deal. It’s an easy-to-understand miniature version of the systems that the big boys use and is great for pilot batches and learning how to brew away from home.

I’m honored to be one of the first handful of brewers in BTR’s new program that will allow homebrewers and pros from other breweries to brew pilot batches on its system, then have the beer for sale on the tap wall at the tasting room.

While guest brewers won’t receive any revenue from the sale of the beer, it’s a great opportunity to learn on a small commercial system and get free exposure in the market. It’s the only way to get truly honest feedback about your beer: Will people pay money for it?

I would like to invite you to the release party on the 27th. And bring a friend or 12! Stay tuned for more details, and in the mean time, save the date!

Visit the event page on Facebook.

Vendetta Release Party
The Brewer’s Tasting Room
11270 4th St N, St. Petersburg, FL 33716 (map)
February 27, 2014
7 pm

The Vendetta awaits you!

The Vendetta awaits you!

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Septembeerfest will include one of my homebrews


On Saturday, September 28, one of my beers will be on tap at Septembeerfest at Southern Brewing and Winemaking. There will be 20 homebrews on tap representing five area homebrew clubs. Fest-goers will vote for their favorite and award the People’s Choice winner.

Proceeds from the event will benefit the Epilepsy Services Foundation. Food and beer are included in the price of admission. It’s also a family-friendly event, and there will be kids games to occupy them while their parents get snockered.

When: Saturday, September 28, 5-8 pm
Where: Southern Brewing & Winemaking (map)
Cost: $25 in advance / $30 at the door
Tickets: Online at / click “Donate” / confirm by sending an email to or bring your receipt to the door

I don’t have to tell you who to vote for…

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We’re Halfway There

I think we could all agree, every week should be beer week. So, an entire year between Beer Weeks is simply too long. The good folks that coordinate the annual Tampa Bay Beer Week in March came up with a solution: The Halfway There Rare Beer Festival.

Strategically placed on September 7, the Halfway There Festival was, indeed, halfway between the actual Tampa Bay Beer Weeks.  The Halfway There Festival was created as a rare beer festival to keep the excitement and momentum of the Tampa beer scene going.

The festival featured only beers that were either not available in Florida, or were not sold outside of the breweries’ own tasting rooms. Given those parameters, I was surprised that most of the participating breweries were local Florida breweries. Overshadowed by other regions on a national level, I’m continually impressed with the creativity and uniqueness of the Tampa Bay beer scene.

Nicole outside of the Cuban Club

Nicole outside of the Cuban Club

The Cuban Club

The festival was held at the Cuban Club in Ybor City. The Cuban Club was probably something back in the day, but it’s been ridden hard by years of partying. The “ugly lights” were on much too bright and it was showing its age. Or lack of care.

On the positive side, the venue features a spacious outdoor courtyard, a must to take advantage of the nine months of great Florida weather. There was a band on stage, and about half of the breweries were situated outside.

At a beer festival, assuming the logistics and bathrooms are adequate, the venue is secondary. It’s all about the beer. And at this festival, the beer was the star.

VIP Access

I splurged for a VIP ticket, which granted me access to the festival an hour before the common man was allowed in. However, that was really the only bonus. For an extra $25, I had hoped for a little more. Perhaps some VIP-only beers, or a VIP section with complimentary food to snack on throughout the festival.

What VIP access did provide was excellent networking opportunities. During the VIP-time, most of the pouring stations operated by the brewers themselves or brewery staff. Once the masses were let in, many of the stations were taken over by volunteers.

The Beer

The Halfway There Festival did not disappoint me in my quest for new and unique offerings. I’ll touch on a few of my favorites.

Cigar City, Tampa Bay’s flagship brewery, brought out the big gun: Brandy Barrel Aged Hunahpu. Yes, it was as good as you can imagine. They also brought an excellent Humidor Series Peach IPA, which as the humidor implies, was aged on cedar. The cedar, hops and peach flavors meshed together exceptionally well.

St. Somewhere debuted a couple new beers: Merde de Singe, a wild fermented saison brewed with tamarind, and Fluer de Soleil, a funky sour blend of cabernet barrel-aged Lectio Divina and fresh Pays du Soleil.

Rick from Southern Brewing posing in front his the Oreo-filled randall.

Rick from Southern Brewing posing in front his the Oreo-filled randall.

Southern Brewing & Winemaking won my “Most Creative” award. They randalized their Moonraker Stout through Oreos. They let the Oreos soak in the randall for about 20 minutes before serving, and the flavor came through very well. They even gave you an Oreo to dip in the beer. Forget milk, it’s stouts from now on.

Continuing to prove that homebrewers can compete with the pros, Dan from Special Hoperations brought one of my favorite beers of the day. It was a perfectly smooth and balanced coffee stout. I don’t know what that man does during the day, but he has a gift with fermentation.

Peanut butter also had strong representation. Funky Buddha sent emissaries carrying their widely renowned No Crusts, which is a liquid peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Not to be outdone, Rapp Brewing countered with a Chocolate Peanut Butter Stout, which was like drinking a Reeces Peanut Butter Cup. I don’t know if I could pick a favorite between the two, let’s just say we were all winners.

After such a strong showing last Saturday, I feel primed and ready to experience my first Tampa Bay Beer Week next year. In the mean time, you have six more months to seek out and support your local breweries. We’re up to around 20 by my last count in the Tampa Bay area, and there’s still room for more!

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