This article originally appeared in chicago.eater.com by Emily Gillespie.
Since 2007, the number of craft breweries in America has tripled, with more than six thousand operating brewpubs on record in 2017. That number is a stark contrast to the relative lack of growth during the decade prior. Throughout the boom, the beer selection transformed from mostly domestic brands and imports to a slew of options including hoppy IPAs, full-bodied ambers and rich, creamy stouts. Beer became a sensory experience that kept its fans close and attracted a strong and loyal crowd of new enthusiasts.
While craft beer was gaining a cult following, understanding of the sudsy beverage in the service industry lagged. Draft lines went uncleaned, bartenders were serving beer in the wrong glassware and servers didn’t know much about each beer style, much less which dishes paired well with each one. And then came Ray Daniels.
Raised as an Army brat who found a permanent home in Chicago in 1983, Daniels stepped in to bridge this disconnect between the quality of what was being offered and the literacy needed to support that higher quality. Ten years after launching the Cicerone Certification Program in 2008, Ray Daniels is lauded for his contribution to the craft beer industry: elevating beer education and increasing respect for the beverage America had long since loved.
“In the United States, we’re a beer-loving nation first and foremost,” said Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association. “Craft brewers today in the United States are helping beer reclaim its place at the dinner table and the Cicerone program is helping retailers be best equipped to present, sell and service their beer customers.”
The Cicerone program, Hertz said, helped fill a gaping void in beer education. Small and independent craft beer sales in 2016 brought in $107 billion, according to the Brewers Association. Wine sales, however, only brought in about $60 billion the same year, according to Wines Vines Analytics. Despite the disparity, there are still countless ways to learn about wine today and far less ways to learn about beer.
“Of the 600 culinary institutions in the US, we cannot document beer education as the same level as wine when you look at their accreditation,” she said. “Beer education is essential, it’s valuable, it adds value to the beer-lover experience and adds value to your bottom line.”
Because it covers a wide range of beer knowledge, the program attracts people who work in all avenues of the industry: from brewers to wholesalers, servers to pub owners and writers and hobbyists. The main goal of the Cicerone Certification Program is simple: Improve the quality of beer service to ensure that the beer reaching the customers tastes the way the brewer intended. It also aims to recognize beer professionals for their knowledge and motivates them to learn more about beer and beer service.
But the underlying motivation for founding the program was simple.
“I’m a guy who loves to drink beer,” Daniels said. “As a beer drinker, I’m sick and tired of getting crappy beer and I wish the world would pay more attention to beer service.”
Daniels remembers when he sipped his first Samuel Adams in the late 1980s, years after graduating from Texas A&M University where he studied biochemistry and journalism.
“It was just … wow, I don’t know what was going on there, but that is really good,” he said. “It really, really made an impression.”
The moment sparked a life-long love affair with quality beer. Over the next several years, Daniels became an award-winning homebrewer, got involved in the Chicago Beer Society and earned a diploma in brewing from the Siebel Institute. He wrote numerous articles on beer and went on to author four books on beer, including Designing Great Beers. In 1996, he launched the Chicago Real Ale Festival, a celebration of all things cask ale in Chicago that he financed, organized, and managed to break even on for seven years. In 1999, Daniels got hired on at the Brewers Association, the largest trade group for small independent breweries, where he ran their publications and worked as the craft beer marketing director.
While craft beer enthusiasts were forming their niche, Daniels was noticing a gross lack of knowledge about beer among the service industry. That fact became eminently clear one night in mid 2000s when Daniels was out for a cold one with colleagues.
“We ordered something fairly safe, a Sierra Nevada pale ale, and it came and it was just hideously awful,” he said. “Clearly the draft lines had not been cleaned in years, it was sour, cloudy. We’d known Sierra Nevada for 20 years, this is not what this beer tastes like. This beer’s not drinkable.”
The waitstaff didn’t seem to mind, he explained, arguing that other customers had not complained. It was a crystallizing moment for Daniels.
“Here I am, spending all my time trying to promote American craft beer, trying to get people to drink more craft beer and if the breweries are making fantastic beer and sending it out into the world and the retailers are messing it up in the last 10 yards before it gets to the consumer’s lips, then all of this is sort of for naught,” he said. “I said, ‘Geez, someone should do something about this.’”
And so, he did.
Most commonly compared to a wine sommelier program for beer, the Cicerone Certification Program tests aficionados on the wide breadth of beer knowledge that exists. In its four certifications levels, which escalate in difficulty, exams touch upon all aspects of the industry: ingredients and brewing techniques, keeping and serving beer, beer styles, flavor and food pairing, and even some history and economics of beer.
By promoting beer education, administering tests and awarding titles, the program has made a lasting impact. It’s participants go on to make, sell, distribute, judge and pour beer — doing so with more extensive knowledge and respect for the product’s complexities.
Each of the beer certification titles can be found throughout the local and global beer scene as more and more businesses in the beer industry are embracing the high standards that the program promotes. It’s a trend that can even be seen in Chicago’s newest breweries. Lo Rez Brewing founders David Dahl and Kevin Lilly, for example, are both Certified Cicerones, the second tier level of certification. Similarly, On Tour Brewing Company has four Certified Cicerones on staff. Open Outcry Brewing Company employs about a dozen Certified Beer Servers as it asks all new hires to take the course within the first few months. The certification is something founder John Brand said adds credibility to any brewery.
“We want our staff to be able to speak with authority and intelligence on the beer that we’re making and serving,” he said. “Ray Daniels put the program together, and if you know anything about the evolution of beer and who’s been on the forefront of the evolution of beer, his name alone runs a ton of credibility.”
Following his dirty draft line-inspired epiphany, Daniels took the better part of a year to outline a program that would put into writing the standards of the beer industry and quantify the vast range of beer knowledge that exists. He collaborated with other big names in the craft beer world and adopted style guidelines set out by the Beer Judge Certification Program. He settled on the name Cicerone, which means “guide” in Italian.
In his efforts, Daniels was going up against a perception that beer was simple, an attitude cemented over years of flashy television commercials for mass-produced lagers.
“Beer in the 20th century had been reduced to the lowest common denominator,” he said. “Beer service was considered to be utterly simple. Literally all you had to know how to do was stick a glass under a faucet and pull forward on the faucet. You just poured a beer, what else is there to know?”
The short answer is: a lot. In 2007, Daniels published the Master Cicerone syllabus, a 20-plus page outline of everything a world-class beer expert should know about beer. The first Certified Cicerone exam was given the following year.
“It had an almost immediate consequence of causing people to respect beer more,” Daniels said. “Every sentence, every line of [the outline] covers a lot of ground … it made [people] realize there was a lot more to beer service, a lot more to being a beer professional, than just knowing how to pull on a tap handle.”
One of the people that Daniels sought input from when designing the program was Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery since 1994. A strong advocate for craft beer, Garrett has written three books on beer and has hosted more than 1,000 beer tastings and dinners in nearly 20 countries.
When Daniels reached out, Oliver didn’t hold back on sharing his thoughts.
“What I remember saying is, that’s a terrible idea,” Oliver said. “A proper sommelier should know beer.”
Old school sommeliers of the 80s and 90s, Oliver said, knew sake, beer, and spirits just as well as they knew wine.
“Most sommeliers who are around now are just wine waiters; that is a much diminished capacity,” he said. He remembers telling Daniels: “I would not like to see a beer sommelier in every restaurant, I would like to see the sommelier become a real one.”
However, with 20-20 hindsight of seeing Daniels’ larger vision, Oliver is quick to admit: “I was wrong, plain and simple.”
Though beer aficionados were slow to take the Cicerone certification tests at first and the program struggled during the recession, it eventually took off. Today, 10 years after the first certification test was given, more than 100,000 people have earned at least one level of Cicerone certification.
“There was a whole industry desperate to know about this,” Oliver said. “Imagine this: If you went to an Italian restaurant and, say, 70 percent of your guests knew more about Italian food than your chef, than the waiters —that is a disaster, an absolute embarrassing, humiliating disaster. The restaurant industry knew absolutely nothing about craft beer and not only that, there was no place for them to find out.”
The highest level of certification, the Master Cicerone, is a title reserved for the beer elite — the program says the test encompasses a lifetime of beer knowledge and doesn’t recommend anyone take it unless they’ve worked in the industry at least five years.
Today only 16 people claim the title of Master Cicerone, passing arguably the hardest beer test in the world to become experts in the world of beer.
The exam, held once a year in Chicago, takes place over two eight-hour days. It includes a written essay to prove extensive knowledge of each portion of the syllabus, an oral portion conducted by industry experts and a blind taste assessment which requires test takers give a descriptive analysis of styles as well as identify an extensive range of off-flavors, or flavors the brewer didn’t intend for the beer.
About 20 people take the exam every year, but on average, only one or two people pass. Those who have taken the test tend to describe it in one word: grueling.
“I break out into cold sweat thinking back on it,” said Jason Pratt, Master Cicerone and Senior Marketing Manager of Innovation at Miller-Coors. “(Studying) takes your every waking moment if you’re doing it the right way.”
At the time he was inspired to take the exam, Pratt was leading the beer giant’s education program, teaching sales representatives how to talk about products.
“I was up there, in front of people telling them beer education is a journey, what you should be doing is constantly pushing yourself to grow and evolve. I can’t with a straight face keep telling these people to keep doing that when I wasn’t doing it myself.”
He remembers that to develop his pallet, he blind-tasted everything: exotic fruit and spices; he’d try to parse out the flavors in jelly beans and smoothies.
After passing the test in 2015, Pratt was involved in more projects at the company and said that ultimately, it added a stamp of approval to the Miller-Coors education program. Education positions like Pratt’s are exactly who the Master Cicerone test is intended for. It is also meant for consultants, like Gavin Harper.
Preparing for the Master Cicerone exam made Harper capable of identifying 40 to 50 chemical compounds in beer, a skill that makes him uniquely qualified to work with breweries. After a sensory evaluation of the beer, Harper walks brewers through recipe adjustments and process manipulations that can be made to bring out some flavors and hide or eliminate others.
“That’s the value: being able to dial in a flavor profile from a quality standpoint, from a consistency standpoint and from a desirability standpoint,” he said.
Having always wanted to be a teacher, Harper said that down the road he hopes to use his Master Cicerone training to do more with beer education and continue to strengthen the beer industry that he loves.
The Cicerone Certification Program recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, and looking back on its impact it’s had on the industry, Oliver said that he appreciates Daniels for his forethought and vision.
“Within the brewing world, if there were such a thing, I would give Ray a knighthood. I think he’s done seminal work,” Oliver said. “Without that program, I think we would be distinctly behind where we are now as an industry. I think we’d be less advanced in the overall knowledge within the food service industry, especially about craft beer and that would result in lower sales than we have today.”
Daniels said that he has noticed more higher quality beer service since drinking that pale ale from dirty tap lines more than 10 years ago. But the Cicerone program, he points out, can’t take all the credit.
At around the same time that the Cicerone Certification Program launched, the Brewers Association came out with a Draught Beer Quality Manual, a technical resource for quality draft beer service. Medium to large size breweries were also starting to employ field quality specialists tasked with improving beer quality in bars and restaurants, Daniels said.
“The world has a lot more places to drink good beer these days,” he said. “We’re happy to be a part of that overall effect.”