What pairs as easily with a hot dog that's been sitting in warm, stagnant water as with something cooked that been cooked sous vide? Beer, that sudsy liquid that Americans have long loved and savvy sommeliers are starting to incorporate into their beverage programs. As more somms and higher-end restaurants have started to push and pair craft beer (and the quality of American beer continues to rise), the Cicerone Certification Program has filled in the knowledge gap for more than 300,000 professionals-turned-certified-beer-serving-sales-force.
"[Founder Ray Daniels] found that with the rise of craft beer there was little knowledge about the beers and about proper beer service," says Jenny Pfafflin, assistant brand manager for the Cicerone Certification Program and a certified cicerone herself. "Ray founded the program to capitalize on beer's popularity by giving bars and restaurants the knowledge and skills they need to serve today's beer consumer. It's gotten to the point where [beer] deserves the same respect as wine."
Chef and cicerone Andrew Hroza of the Goose Island Brewpub in Chicago, appreciates beer and wine, though he says, "[Becoming a sommelier] is a harder process to just dive into. It's less accessible unless your restaurant sponsors the program, or unless you do a ton of research and spend a lot of money."
Craft brewers have spawned an educated and curious customers base, and with that crowd comes a need for staff that knows its liquid bread. "If you have somebody that can speak from an educated point of view, they gain trust," says Joe Salzo, beverage manager for the B.R. Guest Restaurant Group in New York City. "Maybe a guest will be willing to spend a little more on Trappist beer or a 22-ounce bottle from the other side of the world, but they won't want to unless they know it's something they will enjoy."
Chef Andrew Hroza's Duck Rillette with Pickled Green Beans and Swiss Chard paired with Goose Island's Seedling Farms Applewood Smoked Helles
Wild Boar Stew with Egg Noodles, Pearl Onions, Smoked Peppers, and Cured Egg Yolk paired with Rone Raike's Brown Lager at Cask and Larder
Hitachino Nest White Ale paired with Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad by Cicerone Liam Deegan
Beers on tap chosen by Rising Star Cicerone Michael McAvena at Chicago's The Publican
The Cicerone Certification Program has three tiers. The lowest is the Certified Beer Server (at a low cost of $69), achieved through an online multiple choice exam that covers basic beer knowledge—proper storage, different styles, etc. The middle tier, Certified Cicerone ($375), has an exam comparable to that of a sommelier, putting brew students through a tasting gauntlet, supplemented by a written exam spanning the fundamentals of pairing, the brewing process, and service systems. Beyond the Certified Cicerone is the Master Cicerone ($675), which requires an "encyclopedic knowledge of beer and highly refined tasting ability." There are only seven people in the world who have the Master Cicerone title, and the exam is only given once or twice a year.
The goal of the program is to make sure that those interested in beer have the most relevant knowledge. The certification program provides syllabi for all three levels and a thorough list of studying resources; classes are even offered. Of course, that's not to say they're giving these titles away: Pfafflin set aside eight weeks to study; Hroza spent six months getting comfortable with the vocabulary and his tasting ability.
The program is still in its infancy, but there are already more than 1,000 Certified Cicerones (compared to 2,483 American craft breweries), with the number of people who take the exam each year rising steadily. With the explosion in popularity of craft beer (sales rose 14.4 percent from 2012 to 2013) and its power to drive profit margins, building your staff's beer knowledge is an investment in the short- and long-term success if of your restaurant. The easiest way to up-sell, after all, is to actually know what you're talking about.
Ron Raike, a two-plus year beer vet and brewmaster at Cask and Larder in Winter Park, Florida, offers his advice on approaching the exam: "It's a tricky balance between becoming an alcoholic and trying everything you can, but that's what you need to do. You need to adjust your palate and your threshold for the chemical compounds." Consider the program a two-birds-one-stone kind of thing; it's not too often you come across an employer-approved, profit-driven exploration of a vice.