Certified Cicerone Exam Day

The morning of Thursday, February 27, I woke up early and had a big breakfast on my way out of town.  Driving into the sunrise, the song “Daybreak” by a friend of mine, Dave Osoff, was a perfect soundtrack.

Arriving at Merrimack Valley Distributors in Danvers, MA, I made my way upstairs to the conference room to find a number of somber-faced people awaiting the start of the exam.

Although there was not much talking going on, a couple of things were quickly apparent:  first, that most of the people there worked for MVD – and second, that the majority of the test-takers were re-taking the exam.  Two were on their third re-take.  Obviously, this is NOT an easy exam.  One examinee had come up from Pennsylvania for the exam!

The sheets on our desks restated the fact that discussing the contents of the exam in any sort of detail is grounds for revoking your certification.  We also had to pick a seven-digit “blind number” to go on each page of our exams.  This unique exam id # lets the graders split up the exams page-by-page to send out around the country for impartial grading.

The written portion of the exam is closed-book and scheduled for three hours.  It is mostly shorter write-in answer questions with a couple of longer ones and three full-length essays to write.  For many of these questions (and especially the essay ones), partials credit is available for imperfect answers . . . but not having taken the exam before, I’m not sure how generous they tend to be.

While I can’t discuss the specifics of what was on the exam, I will say that I was shocked at how much of the exam aligned with the practice exam available on the Cicerone web site.  Yes, there were some of the same questions (and many that were VERY similar), but more than that, the style and type of questions were consistent with the actual exam.  The biggest difficulty of this exam isn’t the individual questions – it’s the breadth of knowledge that you are expected to know in-depth and not knowing which of the details will be asked.

The was one question that actually stumped me – on long-draw draft line troubleshooting.  I’ve asked the question of a few brewers since (without mentioning the source) and they’re stumped too . . . one suggested it is a Kobayashi Maru scenario.   The one that really got me was a simple blank-out.  I’d studied the list of Trappist abbeys and when called upon to name a number of them, I blanked out after writing in Westvleteren and Chimay.

I finished the written portion in a little over two hours, a little less than halfway through the pack.  A couple of the examinees worked right until the last minute.  After a short bathroom break, I amused myself doodling until we were ready to start the tasting portion of the exam.

The Cicerone tasting exam consists of three parts.  You are expected to complete all three parts in 45 minutes.   For the first portion, you are presented with a sample beer that is your undoctored control and four samples of the same beer.  One is a control sample that matches the original and the other three have been doctored with adulterants to mimic common off-flavors in beer.  It was not hard to separate the doctored samples from the control, but the the levels were subtly low and it was difficult to pick out WHICH off-flavor we were tasting.  (We got to talk about the samples in the period after the tasting was over – the same sample had as many as three or four people detecting something different!)

The second portion of the tasting exam involved four more samples.  For each, we were told it was one of two styles and had to select the correct one.

The third portion of the tasting exam was the trickier real-world scenario of evaluating a returned beer.  Each of four samples was given to us.  We we told the brand of beer and whether it was from bottle or draft.  Our task was to decide it was worth serving – and if not, the reason why and probable cause.  This was very tough and it seemed nearly everybody got at least one wrong.

Finally, was the much-mysterious demonstration portion of the exam.  This is the part that had me pretty well freaked out – with the amount of material, I really had no idea what to expect and searched the net exhaustively for hints.  The best I found was a vague comment that it *might* have something to do with draft systems.  Yes, it did, but I won’t tell you what we had to do for our demonstration.

We each had three minutes alone in a small meeting room in front of a recording digital camera to demonstrate and explain our given task.  If you are concerned about this portion of the exam, take a good long look at the Draft Quality Manual – know your systems and parts, their names and what each part does, and ideally you should have taken apart each piece of equipment mentioned.  If you’re comfortable with that material, the demonstration will be a breeze.

Overall, it was a great experience that really tested the limits of my knowledge in the fringe details.  I’m positive that I didn’t ace it, but am equally confident that I didn’t bomb it either. I definitely know that I made some mistakes – with the partial credit possible, I honestly have no idea whether or not I’ll end up with a passing score, but am confident in how I did overall.  Fingers are crossed that I won’t need to re-take, but I’ve got a 1-3 month wait to find out.  At this point, I’m glad I can stop studying so hard every night and can relax a bit more for a while.

Time to brew something!