Sister Cicerones

Meet the women pursuing beer's most rigorous professional qualification


Fits of tears the night before an exam are not unusual. That this crisis of confidence came about through the inability to differentiate between different beer styles is less common. “I was trying to do a blind tasting between a saison, a tripel, and a Belgian golden strong ale,” says Natalya Watson, an independent beer educator based in London. “And I could not for the life of me tell the difference and I just sat there and cried.“ The exam causing Watson’s anxiety was the Certified Cicerone beer certification programme. Watson is one of a number of women working in beer attracted to programmes like Cicerone because of their interest in beer and their fascination with learning. It is also a way to have their expertise validated in an industry that still echoes to the hum of out-dated misogyny.

The Cicerone programme was founded by craft beer veteran Ray Daniels in Chicago in 2008 to recognise “significant knowledge and professional skills in beer sales and service.” From its American origins, it has become increasingly popular with people working in beer around the world, as London-based Watson attests. It’s not the only beer certification programme out there – in the UK there is also The Beer and Cider Academy’s Beer Sommelier programme. What sets Cicerone apart, Watson suggests, is its international recognition – something that the Cicerone organisers have actively pushed, adapting their syllabi and exams to local markets. “We’ve tried as much as we can to make the programme as relevant as possible for each of the countries it’s being used in,” says Pat Fahey, Cicerone’s Content Director. “The UK syllabus has for example a lot of focus on cask beer as you might imagine.” 

Step-by-step knowledge

The Cicerone process comprises four levels of increased difficulty – Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, Advanced, and finally Master Cicerone (there are only 18 Masters – three of which are women). Knowledge is tested in five categories: keeping and serving beer, beer styles, beer flavour and evaluation, beer ingredients and brewing processes, and beer and food pairing. “The levels all cover a similar body of knowledge,” says Fahey, but the depth of knowledge increases greatly with each step up.” For Certified Beer Server for example, which is an online multiple-choice test, someone with a reasonable knowledge of beer and the industry should pass. However, for the four-hour in-person Certified Cicerone exam that includes a tasting panel, multiple-choice questions and short essay-style questions, Fahey says they recommend around 100 hours of study before attempting it. 

For the Masters, I can count on one hand how many people have passed first time

The Advanced Cicerone exam requires another major leap into detailed beer knowledge. “It’s very, very difficult to pass the advanced,” says Emily Sauter, author, illustrator of the Pints and Panels web comic, beer educator and Advanced Cicerone, of the eight-hour exam. Sauter is one of only 121 Advanced Cicerones worldwide, and she is now preparing to take the Masters exam for the second time. Over a two-day exam held in Chicago, she will be tested to an extremely high level of detail on all aspects of beer. “For the Masters, I can count on one hand how many people have passed first time,” Sauter says, adding that she went into her first Master Cicerone exam not expecting to pass but to see what it was like before repeating it, better prepared for the psychological toll. 

The benefits of working in a brewery

Working for a brewery certainly helps prospective Cicerones. Sauter worked at US brewery Two Roads while preparing for her Certified exam, and Watson was working as the marketing manager for Duvel in the UK. “They gave me time to study, and paid for half the cost of the exam, which was wonderful,” Watson says. 

Alternatively, you could get a job with Brewdog, who require all their staff to pass the Certified Beer Server level within three or four months of starting with the company. Robyn Reid – an Advanced Cicerone herself and preparing to sit her Master exam – is responsible for shepherding Brewdog staff through their Cicerone training, and the company now has 40 female staff who have reached Certified Cicerone level, out of a total of around 120. 

“We definitely want everyone to focus on passing the Certified Beer Server,” Reid says. “It just gives everyone the confidence to know what they’re talking about, and enjoy talking about beer with customers and not be daunted by it.” Reid runs regular training camps for Brewdog staff, holding exams twice a year at Brewdog headquarters in Scotland. Of course, you don’t need to work at a brewery. The syllabus and recommended reading are available on the Cicerone website, and Cicerone offer scholarships to members of the Pink Boots Society to cover the costs of applying (currently only in the US, but likely to expand to the UK in the future).

The further you go in the Cicerone process, the more and more time you will have to spend studying. In preparation for her Master Cicerone exam in October 2019, Sauter studied for 830 hours over 18 months. She’s even taken to watching US cooking show Top Chef to brush up her culinary knowledge for the beer and food pairing section of the exam. “They’re very particular in the Master about cooking techniques,” Sauter says. “They don’t want you to [just suggest] seared salmon. They want to know how was it cooked, what it looks like, what did the sear do to the flavour. If you watch an accomplished chef put out these dishes, it’s very informative…I’ve learned a lot from watching Top Chef.”

Advancing to Advanced

With enough mental exhaustion and emotional drama to rival an episode of Top Chef, and a high failure rate, why do people put themselves through it? Because alongside the emotional weight are moments of pure elation. When Sauter got the email telling her she’d passed her Advanced exam (she expected to fail), she flung her computer across her bedroom and screamed so loud that she startled her husband in another room. “Even though I was sick, I had a cold!” she laughs. “It scared the shit out of my husband…he thought something terrible had happened!” 

The further you go in the Cicerone process, the more and more time you will have to spend studying

For others, it was about career advancement. Abby Scott, special projects officer at Brewdog, attributes in part her getting taken on to support Brewdog’s co-founder James Watt to his recognition of her high marks in the Certified Cicerone exam. Asa Stone, a lecturer in a New Mexico university, progressed from Certified Beer Server to Certified and now Advanced in order to demonstrate to her college employer that she had the skills to work as a beer educator. “I thought, if I become a level 3 [Advanced Cicerone], I can actually demonstrate that I know beer as much as a qualified instructor,” Stone says. She is now the only Advanced Cicerone in the state, an instructor in brewing and beverage management and coach to aspiring Cicerones.

Then there is the issue of having the confidence to get their knowledge recognised in a traditionally male dominated industry. “I find a lot of men in the UK and Europe who seem to be quite well-known in the beer industry do not have any certification, but most of the women who are well-known do,” Watson says. “Because it is traditionally more male dominated, [it was important] for me to be able to say, ‘I’ve held myself to a standard, I know what I know, and these people have tested me on it and I can go and speak about it confidently.’” 

“Pushing me to prove them wrong”

The industry is changing, and Watson, Sauter, and Scott all say they have not experienced outright misogyny while working in beer. Others have been less fortunate, and getting a beer qualification is one way to push back against this. Gina Nicholls, another graduate of Reid’s training programme and now Brewdog’s regional sales manager for west London says that in her work “you get quite a lot of people that are a bit confused about why you work at beer… They tend to think that men know more about it than women, and tend to be a bit sort of derogatory about it. But actually that tends to push me to try and prove them wrong.” Nicholls is now working to pass her Certified exam at the second go.

Whatever the reasons behind their decision to enrol in a beer certification programme, many of these women are just passionate about beer, passionate about increasing their knowledge about beer, possessing an intrinsic desire to master their subject. And, as Watson says, it’s important to remember this during a challenging process. “It’s also good to remember that, yeah, this is something we’re studying for the love of it and that we’re passionate about it,” Watson says. “Even if you cry the night before the exam you can still love what you’re doing!”

How to become a Cicerone - five tips and tricks -

“Definitely make sure you’re really interested, it’s a big time commitment!” – Robyn Reid

“Start with the book Tasting Beer from Randy Mosher. It covers everything that’s on the assessment, in a really friendly way.” – Natalya Watson

“Going to a shitty brewery is really helpful – a way to try the off-flavours that doesn’t cost a lot.” – Emily Sauter

“I always recommend that people get the BJCP app on their phone, you can…look at the style of beer you’re drinking on the app, get to know the words used to describe it, and have that bank of descriptors in your mind.” – Watson

“Drink a lot of beer. Go to your local craft bar. Not even just for the exam, if you’re working in beer you should want to immerse yourself in different beer styles.” – Abby Scott

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