So, optimistic Certified Cicerone, you think you are ready to take the Advanced Cicerone Exam? Be afraid. Be very Afraid.
I was in the inaugural group of
suckers candidates to sit for the first exam on February 2nd in Chicago, but held this post publication until now, March 30, 2016. Today, a group from the Spring 2016 class is taking the AC Exam in Washington, DC. Another group of candidates took the exam in early March in San Francisco. I thought it best for the first victims to get past the ordeal before going public. I didn’t want to freak them out. And maybe, from a schadenfreude perspective, I wanted them to face the unknown terror the same way I did… with no idea what to expect. The next round of candidates will be taking the exam this fall at three locations around the country. If you are registred for the fall exams, hang on. It is an intense ride.
Everyone Certified Cicerone I talk to wants to know how challenging the Advanced exam is. Compared to the Certified exam, it’s quite difficult. During a break I found myself longing for past days of the “easy” Certified Cicerone test. I get asked if it is twice as hard as the Certified exam. You wish. I cannot quantify it, but it felt significantly more arduous. If you did well on the Certified Cicerone test and think you can quickly brush up on your beer knowledge and do well on the Advanced, you cannot. This is a whole ‘nother level of beer knowledge. And it’s not just the subject matter that gets you, it’s the marathon you’re undertaking. We started at 9 AM and finished at 5:45 PM, thoroughly spent. It’s mentally and physically exhausting.
I’m not going to give anything away, and there is plenty information available about the exam on the Cicerone website. I can give you study tips, but I can’t tell you specifics about what you’ll be tested on. Besides, Cicerone exams evolve. The one you take will be different from mine. In a nutshell, if something is on the syllabus, you need to know it. Deeply. Backward, forward and sideways. You must more know more than facts. The Advanced exam is more about “Why?” than “What?” You’ll need to be able to thoroughly articulate your knowledge.
Start by memorizing the BJCP Style Guide. After 90 some styles, those quantitative specs and flavor profiles start to blur. Then, get all the books on the resource list and read them. I bought every book and I am glad I did. I gleaned useful information from all of them that I was able to use on the exam. Some of the books are better than others, but all were useful. FYI, the MBAA books are expensive, but very helpful for the brewing ingredients and process section.
You’ll need to go beyond basic beer and food pairing, you’ll require way more food knowledge than you did for the level 2 exam. Don’t gloss over the food part of the syllabus. And taste a lot of beer. Buy beers from every style then have a friend serve them to you blind so you can guess the style. I found grouping similar beers made it more difficult, but was great practice. Buy the off flavor kits, both the level 2 and level 3 kits, and practice. Ideally, get a friend to help and also taste off flavors blind. Know how to completely setup, troubleshoot and maintain a draft system. The Road to Cicerone Keeping & Service Beer Course was very helpful here, especially if you can do the math problems in the book. Make note cards along the way. I ended up with somewhere around 750, and that probably wasn’t enough.
The oral exams are intimidating. The examiners know their stuff and you cannot bullshit them. My examiners were stone-faced. You don’t know if you’re killing the questions or they’re killing you. In Chicago we were examined by Master Cicerone Jason Pratt and Mr. Cicerone himself, Ray Daniels. When Mr. Daniels is questioning you in an oral exam, anxiety can trump preparedness. I felt like a pre-law undergrad arguing before the US Supreme Court. Really, I’ve never felt more stupid about beer.
The tasting exam is tougher too. There are now 12 off-flavors, not 5. The style-identification section has more options to throw you off. And then you have to intelligently and accurately describe beers in both consumer and technical language.
Ideally you should be strong in all five knowledge areas of the exam, but realistically, we all have our weaknesses. I was weaker in Beer Styles that I wanted to be, and Beer & Food Pairing has always been my weakest area. I tried to overcompensate with my strengths: Keeping & Serving Beer, Process & Ingredients, and Flavor and Evaluation. If you are weak in one area, make sure you are really strong in another. Review the exam details, know where your points are coming from and play to your strengths.
I will not know my result for another month or so and I have no idea what to expect. I did not ace it, nor do I feel I failed it miserably. I’m somewhere in between. I did my best and I feel like my result is going to be close to the pass/fail line. It could go either way. Regardless, I learned many things about beer that I never knew before. My depth of beer knowledge is materially more extensive. And if the journey is more important than the destination, I count the journey as a success.
The test is difficult. Even more so than I imagined, and I imagined it would be demanding. However, the test is fair. I would not want it to be easier. Passing it will be a significant achievement for anyone passionate about beer. I walked out thinking the Advanced exam is a great half-way mark between Certified and Master. I also realized this is my stopping point. The Advanced exam was all the stress I can stand. I’m not willing to put myself through what the Master test will require, nor do I think I’ll ever have a good enough palate to go to the top level.
Thank you to Ray Daniels, Virginia and the entire Cicerone team, it was a great experience and you were wonderful hosts. And props to Master Cicerone Pat Fahey, the Cicerone Content Director, for putting together a great test.