What it Takes to Become a "Beer Sommelier"

Rachel Tepper Paley
March 6, 2014

Photo credit: Tumblr/thegoatlord

If you say the words “beer sommelier" aloud to a room of beer experts, you might hear the low, rumbling sound of a dozen sets of teeth grinding simultaneously. Although the term is the quickest way to describe a master beer server—a person who knows nearly everything about various beer styles, proper serving procedures, beer pairings, and more—it may not be the best. (And incidentally, it annoys a lot of people.)

But let’s back up for a second. We first learned about this controversy from Pat Fahey, the expert who told us about smoked beer last week, and were so intrigued that we went back to him for more details.

What should you call a master beer server, and how the heck do you earn the rarefied honor? 

Fahey is one of the world’s seven Master Cicerones, a distinction he earned via the Cicerone Certification Program. Fahey also happens to work for the program and helps write the exams for two of its lower levels—Certified Beer Server and Certified Cicerone—so it makes sense that he believes the program separates those who know what they’re talking about from those who only think they do. 

"It doesn’t matter if you’re a casual beer enthusiast or if you’ve been working in the industry for 30 years. You can say, ‘Hey, I’m a beer sommelier,’" Fahey explained to us. "The designation doesn’t carry as much meaning." 

Beer industry professionals agree, and many of the people holding some sort of certification from the Cicerone Certification Program are today employed at breweries, restaurants, and other beer-related companies, where they design beer programs, recommend beer pairings to customers, and generally impress with their extensive knowledge. (Fahey does allow that industry veterans probably don’t need a diploma to prove their knowledge.)

The Master Cicerone examination is particularly rigorous. Hopefuls must first travel to wherever the test is being administered. Two exams are offered yearly, and have previously taken place in near Chicago, Los Angeles, and Allentown. 

Then comes the actual exam, which is two days long. Candidates are expected to know everything from the proper way to pour a beer (it’s more complicated than you think) to the anatomy of a hop plant. 

Each day breaks down like this: three hours of essay writing, 30 minutes of oral exam, and two 15-minute blind taste tests. After a short lunch, test takers repeat the entire process, soup to nuts (with new questions, of course).

"Maybe nine months ahead of the exam, I really buckled down [with my studying]," Fahey recalled. "Six months out, I was doing blind tastings three times a week.” Sounds to us like this could exhaust even the most profound beer-o-phile. “I’m really glad that I never have to take the test again,” he said.

Fahey thinks the Master Cicerone exam is worthy of comparison to the one Master Sommeliers must undergo in the wine world. “It’s a similarly destructively, awful examination that crushes people,” he said. “You can spend your whole life [studying] and not pass.”

If you’re unwilling to sacrifice your sanity—or ante up the test’s $695 price tag—there are always the Cicerone Certification Program’s two lower-tier certifications, which are less difficult to achieve and cost less. About 33,000 people worldwide are currently Certified Beer Servers, and roughly 1,100 are Certified Cicerones, according to Fahey.

Of course, there are other routes to becoming an expert beer server. The Beer Judge Certification Program has been around since 1985, although its central focus is home brewing. The Master Brewers Association of the Americas also offers an online Beer Steward Certification Program, and Central Washington University in Washington State teaches a Craft Beer Trade Certificate Program.

Fahey stressed that beer servers looking to take things to the next level should choose their own paths. ”We’re all about people getting beer educated,” he said, though they should be prepared to study hard.

On the plus side, it’s not every day that you’re encouraged to drink in class.

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