The Cicerone Certification Program is in the front line of that effort. Simply put, a cicerone is the beer world’s equivalent of a sommelier. Ray Daniels, an expert who has written more than two-dozen books on beer and brewing, founded the program in 2008 and it has grown quickly. It focuses on education, with the goal of keeping beer fresh through proper storage, handling and service. Like the Court of Master Sommeliers, there are different levels of achievement. The entry-level certification is the Certified Beer Server, a credential held by more than 28,000 people around the country. There are fewer than 1,000 individuals who have qualified as a cicerone, and a mere seven Master Cicerones in the country. To pass the master’s exam, a candidate must possess a near-encyclopedic knowledge of beer and beer styles, and survive several grueling days of written and oral testing and tasting sessions.
“A lot of people think beer is like vodka,” says Nicole Erny (below left), one of the few Master Cicerones. “They believe it will last on the shelf indefinitely, but that’s absolutely not true. Most beers have three to six months of shelf life, and shelf life affects taste.”
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Erny has been intrigued with craft beer since her college days. Although she grew up in Northern California and was “fascinated with flavor,” she never got involved with wine, because she felt “there was too much pretension to wade through before you got to the good stuff,” a sentiment echoed by a number of brewers and craft-beer aficionados. She works full-time as an educator for the Cicerone Certification Program, and is particularly concerned with service standards, such as cleanliness of glassware.
“When it comes to glasses,” she says, “there’s clean, and then there’s beer clean. Just a very small amount of chemical or detergent residue is going to impact the way the beer tastes. It can also make the beer go flat very quickly.”
Despite the growth of the program, don’t expect cicerones to replace sommeliers anytime soon in the world of fine dining. Beer generally doesn’t cost as much as wine, and there simply isn’t enough profit in it to justify a full-time staff member. Walk into an upscale bar or lounge, however, and you’re likely to find a cicerone. Apart from that, the greatest impact of the program has probably been to improve storage and transport conditions within the distribution chain.
The current popularity of craft beer has created several challenges for small brewers. The first is competition within the category: More than 400 craft breweries opened during 2012, but 43 also closed. The other challenge is external. The success of craft brews hasn’t gone unnoticed by the large commercial breweries, and many have started their own labels to regain a slice of the pie. Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer is made by Miller Coors, while Shock Top is produced by Anheuser-Busch; both have the appearance of craft beer, and insiders refer to them as “crafty” brews. The official price for a six-pack of Blue Moon is $11, but it’s not hard to find it for $8, and more than two million barrels were sold last year. Ultimately, craft beer—like boutique wine—may turn out to be in the eye (or on the taste buds) of the beholder.
Stone Brewing Co.'s brewery.