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Cicerone Smackdown II tests the palates of beer connoisseurs and brewing professionals
Expertise in tasting is the focus of a competition at Dexter's Pub
Cicerone Smackdown II at Dexter's Pub hosted five certified professionals.
Credit:Julia Burke

As craft beer picks and chooses pages from the wine industry's book, from emphasizing specialized stemware to arranging pairing dinners, it's only fitting that the title of "beer sommelier" has entered the beer geek lexicon. Sommeliers are experts in the history, styles, and service of wine, and since craft beer establishments can increasingly benefit from the same level of expertise, beer certification programs have become popular for those who want to improve their judging and reviewing capability or land jobs at outstanding beer businesses.

The term "sommelier" does not refer to a particular wine certification program (and there are many), and neither does "beer sommelier." However, Cicerone has positioned itself as the most recognizable beer service certification program, and those who have obtained the proper qualifications often refer to themselves by that name.

The Cicerone program emphasizes the selection, service, and enjoyment of beer. It builds tasting skills, particularly blind tasting, as well as knowledge of beer and food pairing, which can be particularly helpful to those in the restaurant business. Cicerone hopefuls in Madison will be trying their luck at an official exam on Friday, August 8, one day before the celebration of regional craft beer that is the Great Taste of the Midwest.

As with the various wine certification programs, the beer community can foster successful professionals both with and without official certification, which is something aspiring connoisseurs must take into account when deciding whether to invest in the nearly $400 fee for the "Certified Cicerone" test.

In that context, events pitting Cicerone-certified industry professionals against those who've learned beer purely through work experience has a fun and illuminating element. Just how useful is that certification? Will the better palate win out every time, or does the academic approach lead to better tasting capabilities?

Nick Zabel of Dexter's Pub hosted a lighthearted "Cicerone Smackdown" last year during Great Taste week. Its purpose was to test the skills of his Cicerone-certified colleagues against non-certified challengers, including Zabel himself and Dexter's bar manager Kari Ballweg.

The competition was so much fun, Zabel says, there were no doubts about repeating it this year -- especially since he and Ballweg won the inaugural title. This year's Cicerone Smackdown II was held Tuesday night at Dexter's.

"It's good knowledge to have, and it's good for the industry," explains Zabel, praising the way the Cicerone program helps professionals push themselves and further their education. "If we all drank beer long enough, we'd eventually have plenty of knowledge about it, but Cicerones have that extra edge. It's understanding the little things -- obscure styles, the history -- that sets them apart."

Another certification program, the Beer Judge Certification Program, or BJCP, is geared toward competition judging and emphasizes style guidelines rather than service. BJCP costs $40 for first-time students and requires a $10 entrance exam.

"It's more categorical, which can be good and bad," says Zabel about BJCP, noting that some brewers find adherence to style guidelines limiting. He knows people who hold both Cicerone and BJCP certifications, which, for those with the time and resources to undergo both programs, might be the best of both worlds.

Zabel says the growing awareness of certification programs also improve craft beer's image, providing a comparable achievement to what's possible in the wine world.

"People have been treating beer more like wine since I started in this business," Zabel explains. "They're willing to pay more, and they're not just slamming beer but enjoying it." He adds that many professionals find beer styles harder to identify in blind tasting than wine.

That's why Zabel enjoys bringing professional tasters and newbies together for Cicerone Smackdown II, which hosted five certified professionals. "Next year I'd love to get more -- not many people have the level two," he says.

Zabel is referring to the advanced "Certified Cicerone" program; the company's first level test yields the title of "Certified Beer Server" and costs $69.

More participants may be likely in future editions of Cicerone Smackdown. Zabel says he's seen a marked increase in awareness of the Cicerone program, and as beer lovers become aware of the certification, they're signing up to increase their chances at industry jobs -- or add a competitive edge to an already impressive resume.

Robyn Klinge, an organizer of Madison Craft Beer Week and founder of the Females Enjoying Microbrews (FEMs) group, is currently working on becoming a "Certified Cicerone." Her reasons are threefold.

"I love beer and want to be an expert at it! I want to know it all!" says Klinge, offering her first and most obvious motivation.

Second, she cites the professional advantages: "Between Madison Craft Beer Week, preparing presentations for the FEMs, and the brewery I'm working on, I think it demonstrates credibility."

Finally, Klinge, like Zabel, believes the Cicerone program is good for craft beer. "I think it lends credence to the industry," she explains. "Beer in America has the image of being 'low-brow' while wine is viewed as 'high-brow.' I think this program is helping to change that image."

Cicerone Smackdown II competitor Meagan O'Brien, one of only four women with "Certified Cicerone" status in Wisconsin, says she decided to pursue her certification when she was a bar manager and avid homebrewer in the Twin Cities.

"I wanted a sales job in the industry," she recalls. "I figured if I got the knowledge it would prove I knew what I was talking about."

O'Brien got her certification after about eight months of study. She also cites the legitimacy factor as an important one in her decision to invest in the program: "Beer is a boys' club, and there are still guys who assume we don't know what we're talking about."

This certification helped O'Brien achieve her goal: "It got me my job in the industry," she says as a sales representative for Michigan's New Holland Brewing. "It's great networking, it's good for anyone who wants to educate themselves about beer, and if your employer will pay for it, even better."

O'Brien also plans on pursuing a BJCP certification eventually. She adds, however, "supposedly it's easier if you do the BJCP first, because there's more emphasis on individual styles."

Of course, there's something to be said for the school of hard knocks -- and the fact that Zabel and Ballweg won the Smackdown, making it two titles in a row. "Kari [Ballweg] bakes a lot, so she can pick out a lot of flavors," Zabel says.

In fact, Zabel hopes to eventually get certified himself. "I'd love to have my whole bar staff certified and me, too," he says. "That little extra knowledge is the key to good service."

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