“So when are you going to get certified?”
That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot lately. I’ve had this blog for nearly three years now and all around me people are flocking towards beer certification programs like high school seniors are towards College and University pamphlets. It’s the big question that seems to pop up in conversations. “So how are you? How’s work going? Are you going to get certified?” And also similar to College and Universities, there are a number of different certification programs to fit your needs. The two that stand out the most to me are the Prud’homme Beer Certification Program and the Cicerone Certification Program.
More and more bars and breweries are using Cicerone and Prud’homme certifications as a requirement for their employers. While a chunk of that for bars is a publicity thing to attract the beer geeks, it’s also genuinely creating more informed servers and a better overall experience for the customers. (After all, a big way to ensure a customer doesn’t come back is, among many things, a staff that has no idea what they’re selling) Similar for breweries, who find it helpful to use the names “Sommelier” or “Cicerone” as an indication of a set amount of knowledge without the hassle of reciting a résumé every time they meet someone or want to craft a release. Although I’m simplifying it, these are good reasons to get certification.
But which of the two do I take? Both have a really good reputation and each appeal to different personal preferences for the people taking them. I’ve heard good things and bad from both and I’m feeling conflicted. So let’s sort this out a bit and learn something about the programs.
Things seemed to start for Roger Mittag in 1997 when he was hired on to be part of the sales team for Interbrew-owned Oland Specialty Beer Company. As part of his training, they took his team for a full-on crash course in beer education starting in Halifax and going through several countries across the pond. It was there he learned how to store, pour, smell, taste, serve, and talk beer. When they got back, they were then instructed to use what they learned to better educate their customers. It’s there he worked for four years before being tasked by head office to design a training course for the entire Labatt team as the National Sales Manager. Mittag excelled at this and won an InterBrew award for People Development.
In 2005 he founded Thirst For Knowledge, an organization dedicated to Beer education and in 2006 became the lead organizer for the Ontario Brewing Awards. In 2009 Mittag formed the Prud’homme Beer Certification Program, named after Canadian brewing pioneer Louis Prud’homme. While based primarily in Toronto, there are plans to expand the program across provincial and international borders.
There are three levels of certification in Prud’homme and they go: Beer Enthusiast, Beer Specialist, and Beer Sommelier. All of these courses require class time (with the exception of the Beer Enthusiast level, which has an online option). The most popular course is the first level of certification, as it’s the first step people take within the program regardless of their reasons (Work requirement or personal interest). The remaining two are technically geared towards people with an interest in pursuing or developing a career in the beer or hospitality industry, but to be honest I witnessed and heard from a healthy mix of people who were there for career and personal interest. In terms of education, you start out learning about tastings, pairings, and the serving process and go to how to develop a beer education event and host a pairing dinner.
A common complaint I’ve heard from people who have taken the program to completion who worked within the industry before attending the courses has been its level of difficulty. For a person already well immersed in the industry and with a near-encyclopedic knowledge on things concerning beer, it may feel like almost a waste of time to be there learning stuff you already know. But what makes this program so worthy of note is that it teaches you something that a lot of beer geeks and industry people often struggle with: how to talk to people about beer in an easy-to-understand way. A lot of people overlook this, but if you have any part of your mind set to teach people about beer, whether it is in a classroom, a brewery tour, a television interview, or even in a dinner with friends, you have to know how to take all that knowledge and boil it down for people in a way that doesn’t go over their heads, isn’t condescending, and encourages further education. As a professor at Humber College’s School of Hospitality, Roger understands the importance of that. I was invited to attend one of the classes in the Beer Sommelier level where students picked a beer style from a hat and had to form a presentation on the history of that style along with providing samples to taste. A focus was, of course, on knowledge of the subject (which the students learned very well), but you also had to make the presentation as if you were addressing a tour group filled with people of varying levels of knowledge. It’s that angle that makes Prud’homme unique to me.
Another admirable quality is the level of comradery from the classroom setting. I’ve talked with people who took the program years ago and still maintain friendships with their classmates. Even on the class I sat in on, there was the social and fun element of beer present, which made the experience enjoyable.
Cicerone, however, isn’t a course. It’s a test. Well, THE test, it seems. Founded by famed beer writer, event organizer, publisher, Veteran beer judge, and award winning home brewer Ray Daniels, the Cicerone Certification Program’s levels are a good indication of technical knowledge and skill in all aspects of beer. It initially started when Daniels grew tired of going in to bars and being served a spoiled beer as a result of poor beer handling. The idea of a knowledge set for bars then grew beyond to brewers, distributors, and educators. With the premise of bringing knowledge in to the hands of the people who handle beer, a complete A-Z list of virtually everything about beer was formed, and the tests were created.
There are three levels in the program: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone. Each test has it’s own syllabus and list of suggested resources, including an optional paid online course called BeerSavvy for the Certified Beer Server level. The Certified Beer Server test is taken online and requires a 75% or more to pass. The other two levels are tests that must be done in person, with schedules and locations for the test put up on the site.
The more you read about the Cicerone Certification program, the more you realize how incredibly industry focused it is. While a home brewer or someone interested in beer is welcome to study and take the tests, these may not be the waters for them. Many bars with a focus on craft beer are making their staff take the Certified Beer Server test as a way to improve the serving experience (and, as I said earlier, publicity that beer geeks appreciate). And with a syllabus that is updated every five years or so, the program does an excellent job of keeping current on techniques and equipment used. A wonderful aspect to the studying is the formations of local study groups for the different levels. Together the groups meet up to go over their notes, quiz each other, and even take field trips to breweries and bars to learn about their systems.
As of writing this, the US-based Cicerone Certification Program just announced the much-anticipated launch of the Canadian branch of the program. Spearheaded by renowned beer consultant, Beerology founder, and Canada’s first ever Master Cicerone Mirella Amato, Cicerone Canada will issue exams and syllabi that reflect the Canadian beer market. The new tests and syllabi will be out March 1st of this year.
So that’s the two of them, boppers. While Prud’homme teaches a lot of great things about beer in a relaxed and warm setting to a varying group of people with both a professional and personal interest in beer, advanced students may find it frustrating despite the valuable lesson of being able to actually talk about the stuff you know, which is an incredibly essential skill to have. At the same time, Cicerone does not seem to have that warmth that Prud’homme does, but upon completion of the exams you may very well be a talking encyclopedia of beer knowledge, which is also incredibly essential.
It should be noted that, based on experiences people have shared, doors will not suddenly open for you upon certification. Many people have often had to explain what a Beer Sommelier or Certified Cicerone actually is to media outlets, and several employers throughout the industry are starting to use certification as a minimum requirement along with experience needed. I say this just to underline that certification will help you, but it is in no way a guarantee to success.
The biggest common factor with the two, and one that Roger Mittag and Ray Daniels both readily agree on in regards to their programs, is that the certification you get at the end is minuscule compared to the knowledge and skills you acquire in the pursuit of it. Like Mirella Amato told me once ages ago, “You’re learning this stuff anyways, so you might as well get something for it”. And you do get something for it. A title that can be put on a résumé to indicate that you have a certain knowledge and skill set. An indication that you know what the hell you’re talking about. One or two words that you can carry with you instead of a list of qualifications.
I initially started research for this post in an attempt to figure out which course to take for my own personal development. As I mentioned earlier, there is this pressing urge in my brain that I should look towards certification as that next big step, and I wasn’t sure which route to actually take.
But in the end as I’m typing this, reading through the notes I’ve made, checking on the e-mails from people who have gone through certification, and reflecting on my observations, I see that, like picking the right beer with the right cheese, the two programs complement one another. Learning everything on the technical aspect of beer along with proper handling (among many other things) is incredibly important to me. But so is being able to talk about it with people and to teach them about this world in a wonderful, laid back setting. So I’m in the position of finding it’s not one or the other, but a combination that may be needed.
While I am essentially back where I started in my mindset, I now have the required knowledge to move ahead with a decision. Figures!