If you've been to a fancy restaurant, you've probably seen a sommelier — those wine experts who make sure you get the best possible match for your meal. But what if you don't want a chardonnay or pinot? What if you want a nice cold beer?
A new program is working to bring this same level of knowledge to the world of malt and hops by turning out batches of certified beer experts known as Cicerones.
Ray Daniels, a Chicago brewer, started the Cicerone Certification Program five years ago. And he jokes that he did so for a fairly simple reason: bad beer.
"You'd go into a place that had a lot of taps, that you'd think might know their beer. And they really didn't," Daniels sighed. So Daniels came up with the Cicerone exam to standardize a canon of beery knowledge.
There are three levels of of Cicerones, starting out with Certified Beer Servers (an online exam), Certified Cicerones (an in-person test, complete with a tasting component), and the top level of Master Cicerone (an in-person exam lasting two days). The exams focus on five basic components: keeping and serving beer; beer styles; flavor and tasting; brewing process and ingredients; and beer and food pairing.
This may sound a bit complex. And it is: Only about a third of test takers pass (and the numbers are even lower for the Master Cicerone certification). But Daniels stresses that he's not trying to set up some elitist system. Enjoying a beer is a simple pleasure. It's just that beer itself isn't so simple.
"Beer is a fragile product," Daniels notes. "It can be ruined instantly by certain types of handling. So the people in the beer business — from the brewery all the way to the waiter or waitress — need to understand the complexity of beer."
So far, only seven people have achieved the top level of Master Cicerone. But about 900 have passed the regular exam, and an additional 27,000 have become Certified Beer Servers. And the beer world is taking notice.
Many breweries encourage employees — from brewers to servers to distributors — to study for the Cicerone exam. Portland-based craft brewer Widmer Brothers has gone a step further: It pays for exams and sets up study programs, and it will even require the basic level for certain employees by the end of the year.
Widmer's brewing manager, John Eaton, says it makes a lot of sense. "The last thing a brewer wants," he says, "is for a consumer's first interaction with your beer to be not the beer that you wanted them to interact with."
And that bad interaction can happen when there's something wrong with the beer — from dirty keg lines to brewing mishaps — which the Cicerone training will help employees identify. But Eaton says a bad interaction could also happen when someone just doesn't know how to give you the right beer. While wine has its own language, beer servers are often at a loss as to how best to match a drinker to the right beer.
"That's actually one of my biggest pet peeves," Eaton notes, "is people will say something like a dark beer is automatically heavy or bitter — neither of which is necessarily the case. All different colors of beer can be all different ranges of bitterness and can be all different ranges of density."
And when Cicerones study up so that they understand — and can communicate — these differences, there's a better chance that they can help get the right beer into customers' hands. And that's something that any beer lover can drink to.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
If you've been to a fancy restaurant, you've probably met a sommelier. How I'm pronouncing that correctly. That's one of the wine experts that recommends a wine to match your meal. But what if you don't want sauvignon blanc or pinot. What if you just want a nice cold one? Deena Prichep reports on a program that's turning the same expert eye to the world of malt and hops.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: People pour a glass of beer for a variety of reasons: To relax, to share a moment with friends and usually because they like the taste. But in a big conference room in Portland, Oregon, a half dozen people are intentionally sipping beer that tastes bad, really bad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Like rotting vegetables, or like grass that's been sitting in your recycle bin for too long.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Basement.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Cardboard on the palate.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wet basement.
PRICHEP: The people in this class - brewers, servers and beer distributors - are tasting some truly nasty beer for a very good reason. They're learning the telltale smells and tastes that let you know when something's wrong with your beer. It's just one part of becoming a certified beer expert, a cicerone.
RAY DANIELS: The cicerone program is divided into five areas of knowledge.
PRICHEP: Chicago brewer, Ray Daniels, created the certification five years ago.
DANIELS: Keeping and serving beer, beer styles, flavor and tasting, brewing process and ingredients, and then finally is beer and food pairing.
PRICHEP: This may sound a big complex, and it is. Only about a third of test-takers pass. But Daniels stresses he's not trying to set up some elitist system. Enjoying a beer is a simple pleasure. It's just that beer itself isn't so simple.
DANIELS: Beer is a fragile product. It can be ruined instantly by certainly types of handling. So the people in the beer business, from the brewery all the way to the waiter or waitress, needs to understand the complexity of beer.
PRICHEP: So far only seven people have achieve the top level of master cicerone, but about 900 have passed the regular exam and another 27,000 have become certified beer servers. And the beer world is taking notice. Widmer Brothers is a Portland-based craft brewery that bottles about 500 beers a minute. Since last year, Widmer has paid for any beer-handling employee who wants to take the cicerone's server exam.
In fact, brewing manager, John Eaton, says by the end of the year, Widmer will require it.
JOHN EATON: I mean, the last thing a brewer wants is for a consumer's first interaction with your beer to be not the beer that you wanted them to interact with.
PRICHEP: Eaton says these sorts of bad interactions can happen when there's something wrong with the beer that brewers and servers should recognize; dirty keg lines or some problem with he brewing. But Eaton says a bad interaction can also happen when someone just doesn't know how to give you the right beer.
EATON: That's actually one of my biggest pet peeves, is people will say something like a dark beer is automatically heavy or bitter, neither of which is necessarily the case. All different colors of beer can be all different ranges of bitterness, it can be all different ranges of density.
PRICHEP: And when beer professionals better understand these different qualities, and can talk about them the way we do with wine, there's a better chance these cicerones can help people discover a beer they like, or Easton says, discover they like beer at all.
EATON: Every brewer feels like there's a beer for everyone, even for people who say they don't like beer. We sort of take it as a challenge that we'll find a beer that you will like. And so, gaining a common set of terms that we can all use in the same way sort of makes it more approachable, not less approachable.
PRICHEP: And making beer more approachable is something that all beer brewers and beer lovers can drink to. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Oregon.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEER GARDEN")
SIMON: That's the Duke, "Beer Garden." You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.