Sommelier is a common term found in hospitality and wine circles, and is widely understood to mean ‘wine expert’. But a Certified Cicerone — a qualified ‘beer expert’ — is a far less familiar phrase.
Despite that, the number of people seeking to gain the qualification is growing, and New Zealand has recently gained a further seven Certified Cicerones, to take the total number in New Zealand with that qualification to 27.
Twenty-seven cicerones may not sound like a lot, but with only 4,300 people having achieved this qualification across 52 countries – with more than 3,500 in the United States – Aotearoa is punching well and truly above its weight.
So what exactly is a Cicerone? There are four qualification levels across the Cicerone Certification Program: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, Advanced Cicerone and finally, Master Cicerone – there are only 20 people in the world who have achieved that level.
Neil Witte, a Master Cicerone and the lead trainer for the program, says each level requires much more knowledge than the last, and becomes increasingly difficult to pass. Those attempting to achieve the Certified Cicerone level must sit a three hour written exam, a tasting exam, and a video demonstration, which covers everything from beer styles to brewing processes and ingredients, to serving beer and the systems involved, and whether a beer is faulty or fit for service.
Witte says only about 40% of people who attempt the Certified Cicerone qualification pass, and by the time you reach master Cicerone level, the pass is just 10%. To become a Certified Cicerone you must gain 80% overall — including at least 70% in the tasting exam.
Fortune Favours head brewer Dale Cooper is one of the most recent New Zealanders to achieve the qualification. Cooper has brewed professionally for a decade and has his BJCP beer judge certification. He says there is no doubt the Cicerone qualification is challenging. “The main thing is just the breadth of it; it covers off so much — from the beer, the serving of beer, the systems for moving beer from one place to the other, brewing faults, glassware — everything.
“For me, it’s an interest of mine anyway but it opened up a bunch of stuff I didn’t really know that I didn’t know. There’s a whole lot of things that could trip you up. And just the way the assessment works, you really have to know your shit — you can’t just bluff your way through it. So you know that anyone who’s got their certification has done the hard yards and knows what they’re doing.”
Cooper was one of about 20 people who signed up to a series of fortnightly tutored courses, run over about six months by Certified Cicerone, Steph Coutts of beer tour and tasting company, Craft Beer College.
The courses Coutts ran were thanks to the support of Garage Project, which has backed many of its own staff from all areas of the business to gain the Certified Cicerone qualification since 2017. Rob Wilkinson, Garage Project’s head of new venues, says they had been toying with the idea of putting some staff through the programme when an American with the qualification, Reema Shadid, joined their team. She tutored several Garage Project staff and other Wellingtonians in the beer industry through the syllabus, many of whom went on to pass the qualification — including Coutts.
Last year Coutts held a similar series of tutorials for people interested in becoming a Certified Cicerone, but this time people could join from across the country, via zoom. It also meant when the Covid lockdowns occurred, everyone could still continue to attend the classes.
George Daroux, Garage Project’s head of direct to consumer sales, says the brewery sees huge value in helping their staff gain certification. “I think it’s really awesome to be able to equip the staff with an internationally recognised qualification. We’ve set our sights on being measured amongst the best internationally wherever we can and I think that flows through all parts of what we do.
“Yes, there’s only a small percentage of the staff who’ve done this … but as soon as you start leveling up a couple of people, that knowledge does start to seep throughout everyone and it flows through to people who haven’t done the course directly.”
A third of all of New Zealand’s Certified Cicerone’s are from Garage Project, something Wilkinson says they’re proud of. “No one holds a candle to Garage Project in terms of the amount of Certified Cicerones there are in New Zealand. So it’s quite interesting that it hasn’t really been adopted by other breweries as a thing.”
Garage Project also encourages staff members at their venues to work towards getting their Certified Beer Server qualification — with more than a quarter of New Zealanders with that certification coming from Garage Project. It’s quite the investment, with beer server exams costing more than $100 NZ per person, and Certified Cicerone exams around $650 per person, if you pass on the first go.
Witte says any level of qualification can be valuable for people within the beer industry. “Certification denotes a certain level of beer knowledge that employers look for in particular beer industry jobs. Having Cicerone certification can help someone get a job as a brewery or distributor salesperson, a beer portfolio manager within retail, or a number of other beer industry jobs that require a broad knowledge of beer.”
Coutts says the value of the qualification is recognised more widely overseas — particularly in the US, UK, parts of Europe and South America. “It is that demonstration of your knowledge of beer and beer service and your ability to advise people on beer and beer and food matching,” she says.
“I think we’re just starting to gain some of that recognition here in New Zealand and it’s really coming about from the fact that people are gaining the qualification and are clearly able to demonstrate their skills. The more people that do it and realise that it does come with challenges and that you have to really study hard — that it’s not a tick box type of qualification — I think slowly but surely, we’ll build recognition of the value of it here as well.”
Coutts has further plans to continue to increase the awareness of and access to the Cicerone programme in Aotearoa “I’m looking at next year setting up and online course where people can buy boxes of beer and join fortnightly learning sessions, where we’ll work through the basic curriculum and hopefully get more people qualified.”.
We asked New Zealand’s newest cicerones to name a beer they love, and why
Dale Cooper, Fortune Favours
Beer I Love: Emerson’s 1812
Why? That was the craft beer that really tipped me over the edge, it was so good – back then it was the hoppiest beer you could get in this country. At that point I couldn’t afford to buy it all the time, but I really liked drinking it, so I realised I was going to have to learn how to make it. So that’s when I got serious about homebrewing and that’s what led on to becoming a professional brewer.
David Wood, DTBG Consulting/Golding’s Free Dive
Beer I Love: McLeod’s Longboarder Lager
Why? One thing I miss the most from my time spent in Europe is the clean, quenching, yet satisfying lagers of Germany. Longboarder Lager from McLeod’s captures the essence of a classic German Pilsner with a slight Kiwi twist. The mixture of hops provide a citrusy, melony aroma and assertive bitterness which is beautifully balanced with just enough bready malt to make you keep coming back. Goes great with fish & chips, a long bike ride, a hard day’s work or Friday afternoon.
Denise Garland, Beer Writer
Beer I Love: Shining Peak Octopus Clamp
Why? Dark lagers are consistently underrated and undervalued in New Zealand, and to me, there is something about the combination of the roast malt aroma, light coffee and chocolate notes on the flavour, drying bitterness on the finish and overall lightness and refreshment of the lager yeast that is both comforting yet thirst quenching in each and every mouthful. Shining Peak Octopus Clamp is the perfect example of all of these elements. Highly recommend it alongside an Indian curry.
Marcus Ebert, Fortune Favours
Beer I Love: Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA
Why? A special beer saved for a special moment. Big and boozy with rich raisin and toffee, balanced with a decent hop bitterness. I’m loving this beer at the moment not only because it’s a big beaut of a beer, but also because I saved it to celebrate the birth of my twins!
Si Jin Lee, bStudio
Beer I Love: Brave Brewing Co Tigermilk IPA
Why? I love Tigermilk IPA as it’s locally brewed, has got heaps of beautiful hop flavours and is easy-drinking despite a pretty high ABV!
Tim Witton, Garage Project
Beer I Love: Garage Project Yuzukosho
Why? Every single flavour shines through, with its green yuzu, salt and chilli all shining through in tandem. The sour acidity is so lip-smacking as well, which works perfectly with the flavour. The ultimate refreshing beer — I would drink it year round if I could.
Brad Wyatt, Garage Project
Beer I Love: Gueuze Lambic
Why? They are quite a process to brew but the real part that fascinates me is the terroir of the yeast and the process of blending the different aged lambics together.