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Want To Be A Beer Expert? Chicago Is Home To One Of The Most Exclusive Beer Programs

Only 20 people are master cicerones, or certified beer experts. People from all over the world come to Ravenswood to take the exam.

Chris Pisney manages exams for the Cicerone Certification Program.
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CHICAGO — Ravenswood has become home to one of the most challenging — and rarely rewarded — certification programs for beer experts.

The Cicerone Certification Program takes beer lovers from around the world and makes them into experts in picking and serving brews, like a sommelier but for beer. While more than 4,300 people have become certified cicerones in the program, just 20 have managed to reach its highest level: master cicerone.

Ray Daniels established the Cicerone Certification Program in 2007 to create an industry standard for the sale and service of beer.

Daniels had previously worked at the Brewers Association and had seen how beer could be damaged in the process of going from a brewery to a customer’s glass, said Chris Pisney, the Cicerone Certification Program’s exam director. Draft lines could get damaged or dirty, or beer could be mishandled, Pisney said.

Daniels had also encountered servers who did not know much about the beer they were serving, Pisney said.

“In most industries, there are standards of knowledge,” Pisney said. “People that sell and serve [other items] have a great deal of knowledge about the products they’re selling and serving; why shouldn’t [there be that standard] for beer?”

Enter the cicerone program. A master cicerone has been described as a sommelier, but for beer, but Pisney said he avoids that description because people have different perceptions about wine than they do beer. It costs hundreds of dollars to take the exam to become a master cicerone, and it’s only offered once or twice per year.

As for why Chicago was chosen as the bastion for beer expertise — that’s because Daniels lived here, Pisney said.

There are other beer certification programs, but many focus on the manufacture of brews rather than their sale and service, Pisney said. These programs may require classes that can be cost- and time-prohibitive, though the cicerone program posts materials online so people can study however they wish.

“The target audience is somebody who works in the beer industry, for sure,” Pisney said. “It’s not something that a casual enthusiast would necessarily gravitate towards.” 

There are four levels of Cicerone certification: People start with becoming a certified beer server, and then they can become a certified, advanced or master cicerone.

Each level requires taking an exam, which participants must pay to take. It costs $69 for the certified beer server exam and just less than $1,000 for the master cicerone test.

More advanced certification exams require hours — or even up to two days — of testing. The tests include oral exams and taste tests. Participants are given beer samples to identify, and they must do a taste test to determine which of 30 flavors have been added to samples of beer.

Pisney is one of the 20 people who have achieved the master cicerone level. He said he started on the program because he was well-versed on the brewing side of the equation, but he needed to work on his knowledge about draft systems and beer and food pairings — an important part of the test.

“I was so blown away and really happy [when I passed] — and [when] I went home, I had to clean up the litter box. We’re all human beings,” Pisney joked.

Austin B. Harvey decided to pursue his advanced cicerone certification because he wanted to “be able to communicate the expertise in education and experience that I bring to the table,” he said. He co-owns Beermiscuous, a Lakeview lounge with more than 300 craft brews.

What Harvey got through the cicerone program was about more than just learning about beer — he wanted to be able to explain his expertise to customers and other beer fans, he said.

“It’s the ability to communicate that knowledge, not just to someone who knows what they’re doing and knows what they’re talking about, but also to someone who’s just getting into this stuff for the first time,” Harvey said.

Some beer companies have begun paying for employees to take the cicerone exams or saying it’s a bonus if people applying for a job are a certified or advanced cicerone, Pisney said.

“You’re sending a message to your customers, to your employees and to your colleagues that you are dedicated to the craft,” Pisney said. “That’s the long and short of it: You’re sending a message that you have invested heavily in your professional development.”

People from all over the world have flown to Chicago to try the master cicerone exam. The program has expanded its syllabus to fit the the United Kingdom’s market.

“If you’re a producer, if your job is to sell beer or produce beer or distribute beer for a living, your job relies on people wanting to purchase beer loving beer,” Pisney said. “The way that happens is for beer to be excellent and for consumers to have great experiences and have great-tasting beer.”

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