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Sure, the four-hour exam was grueling. But if you ask Sam Fitz and Tim Prendergast, the worst part about becoming the District’s first two Certified Cicerones—like sommeliers, but for beer instead of wine—was the blind tasting.
“They give you something like Tripel Karmeliet in the bottle and ask if it is fit to serve. You taste it and have to explain what probably happened to it and what should be done,” says Prendergast, who works with Fitz managing the beer programs at Meridian Pint and Smoke & Barrel. Fitz adds, “I tried one, and it was the most infected beer I’ve ever had. I wasn’t expecting it to be that bad, so I took a big drink and I almost threw up.”
Even without the skunked beer, it’s a tough test. Only about 35 percent of those who take the exam pass, according to program founder Ray Daniels, author of several books on beer and brewing. Daniels has certified about 300 people around the country since he first started offering the exams four years ago. And it’s not a cheap exam, either. Taking the test will cost you $345—and another $75 to $150 to retake it if you fail the first time, which many applicants do.
The program represents a watershed moment. It’s a sign that diners and restaurateurs alike are taking beer as seriously as wine, and that the latter see value in providing expert advice on how best to enjoy it. The idea is to professionalize beer service; the name “cicerone” comes from an old term for museum guides or curators. According to Daniels, the curriculum is derived mostly from a brewery’s perspective of how beer should be handled, treated, and presented. “If you’re going to be a beer professional, you should know this body of knowledge regardless of whether you’re going to use it day to day,” he says. Patrons at restaurants or bars where certified experts work shouldn’t have to worry about whether the tap lines are cleaned properly or the beer’s being poured the way the brewery intended.
But the formal education process has some beer enthusiasts around town asking a question that would have been unthinkable a few years back: Do you really need a certificate to prove you know your beer? Greg Engert, beer director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s family of brew-centric restaurants and bars, isn’t sure. “The programs are wonderful at filling a gap where people are looking to study and become better caretakers of beer, but where I get nervous about it is this whole idea of certification,” he says. “I wouldn’t want it where if you don’t have it, then you have no business speaking about beer.”
Engert isn’t averse to training; in fact, he makes new hires at Birch & Barley and ChurchKey read his 120-page manual. The training is intense. Employees are given homework assignments, and they get hands-on experience with beer and food pairings. And, they’re tested too. The difference is, it’s Engert’s test. “We are not doing it to be pretentious,” he says. “Yeah, it’s just beer, but it tastes really fucking good when it’s at the right temperature and in the right glass.”
At Meridian Pint and Smoke & Barrel, though, Fitz and Prendergast are the vanguards of a new wave of certified beer experts. Owner John Andrade paid their fees, and also covers the $69 charge for employees who pass a less-intense, half-hour online Beer Server exam that’s run by the same Cicerone program. Prendergast conducts a 16-hour training and exam prep course loosely based on the topics in the Cicerone syllabus. “Staff are chomping at the bit to learn,” Fitz notes. Prendergast says one of their texts, Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink, “has become that Led Zeppelin tape that everyone trades around. There’s only one copy at the Pint, and we can never find it because someone has it.”
The training has led to some new obsessions. “I find myself being anal about any little thing,” Prendergast says. “This or that cleaning needs to be done. Business gets in the way of that, but I have hawk eyes now. In my mind we’re not serving decent beer unless we’re doing all these things.” Fitz has to step in and calm him down. “We do not cut corners here. We clean our lines religiously,” says Fitz. “But there are times when you’ve got to say, ‘Okay, our priority right now has to be to open above everything else. Maybe a beer isn’t pouring perfectly and we could tinker with the pressure for two hours and figure it out, but we have to get those 10 kegs off the floor before the restaurant opens in an hour and children will be sitting there. That beer’s just going to have to wait a couple hours.’”
But while it may make for more educated servers, Engert isn’t sure the certification necessarily translates to the customers. “Just because you can pass a test, does that mean that you can engage at the table?” he asks. “I find that some of the programs that are popping up are still mired in a lot of beer-centric reality. They have a lot to do with brewing technique, style, and off-flavors, all of which are good to know, but I think they’re lacking a little bit in general restaurant decorum and work—what it means to serve beer at a restaurant or what it means to speak about beer and food together in pairings tableside.”
In other words, just because you get your drafts from a place that doesn’t have a Cicerone on staff doesn’t mean your beer won’t taste good. By the same token, a Cicerone may not be able to suggest the perfect pint to go with whatever you’re eating. It’s a step toward more and more specialization, though, and a way for restaurants and bars to indicate that they’re intense about their beers.
And, maybe most importantly, a way for Fitz to shine back home. “I’m thrilled to be certified,” he says, “but not nearly as much as my mom is for me. About three-quarters of the Facebook posts I got that week were from her friends that I’d never met before, and I think if you were to drive down her street right now she probably has a sign that says, ‘Sam Fitz is a Cicerone.’ I’m not joking.