Cicerone, a beginner's guide to beer

By BottleShop Website Manager Charlotte Kimber

Since starting my journey at The BottleShop, I have evolved from someone who would seek out good beer to enjoy and drink socially, to someone who analyses it with a degree of scrutiny. Granted, I'm not at the analytical level of my colleagues who have worked in the industry for decades. But over my relatively short time as a beer lover (5 years) I have built a roster of favoured beers and breweries, and whilst the likes of Five Points Railway Porter and Founders Rubaeus were enough for me once, they’re not anymore.

The BottleShop is a welcoming family, who have helped form my education. Our Founder Andrew is forever introducing me to our ColdChain programme of IPAs, Bermondsey Manager Michael is always prepared to explain a nuanced Farm House style, and Retail Manager Steve revels in sharing an underappreciated (seriously, they are one of the world's best breweries) Burning Sky beer or two.

I have recently taken a big step, having completed my Cicerone (pronounced sis-uh-rohn) Beer Server Exam, the first stage of four: Server, Certified, Advanced and finally Master. There are only a handful of Master Cicerone in the world. You may or may not have heard of Cicerone, but it has come to much wider attention recently with Brewdog announcing the opportunity for their investors to study the Cicerone exam.

The syllabus covers a plethora of areas from beer styles, brewing process, correct glassware, changing kegs and off-flavours and their causes. I thought I knew a bit about beer before taking my exam, but 200 flash cards, a score of 88%, a novelty pin and a certificate later, I feel I know enough to hold my own with brewers and our beer loving customers even more. And that’s the key … trying to absorb a syllabus and binge read Garrett Oliver's The Oxford Companion To Beer simply doesn’t compare to the knowledge gained from talking with beer lovers and hearing their passion for the subject. I know that the foundations of my beer knowledge have come from people, and so I would encourage you to attend as many tastings and Q&As as humanly possible. Hearing the inimitable Mark Tranter (Burning Sky) talk in his reserved style with an unnerving admiration for yeast strains, fielding guests’ probing questions with ease, is quite something.

Sharing this knowledge is one of the best things our industry can do; welcoming and encouraging people to drink deftly crafted, well-kept beer across a magnitude of styles, without preaching, is what I feel the craft revolution is and should be about.

What’s the best thing I gained from my Cicerone exam? My beer tastes better! Now when I am about to drink a beer, I take a moment, hold the glass up to the light, check the colour of my beer, ask myself how the head looks. I analyse the way the bubbles form, is my glass clean? I bring it close to me and I inhale, what do I smell? Do I get those coffee & chocolate notes in my stout, or that coriander spice in my saison, or something I’m not expecting perhaps an off-flavour. Aroma forms 90-95% of the flavours that you taste; this is why head is so important! You want your beer to have head, and you should see how it is retained as you drink, ideally creating that ringed effect going down with each sip. These are all things I was a bit shy about before and felt judged about by others, fearing they would out me as a fraud but I would encourage you to give it a go … 99% of beer drinkers aren't militant, they drink beer because they love it and want more people to love it too!

I try to resist reading the brewer’s bottle description until I have had at least a few sips so I can formulate my own opinion of what I am tasting. Then I can think about whether I can really feel the heat of a chilli, that bourbon kick at the back, or the flavour of blueberry muffin. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t, other times I find new flavours not mentioned such as nutmeg, peppercorn or walnuts.

I am a long way off being able to pass my Certified Cicerone exam, they encourage 1-2 years of working in the industry to acquire the necessary level of knowledge. But that’s my plan, through seeking out as many varying beer styles as possible, trying the ventures of new young breweries, and learning, learning, learning, I hope to work my way right up the Cicerone ladder.

Of course, you can still just enjoy beer for what it is, a drink to relish with friends, you don’t always have to spend minutes analysing it when it’s baking hot and you just want to sling those juicy hops down your neck! Whether you're taking the Cicerone exam, plan on taking it or just want to know more about beer, my best advice is go to your local craft beer bar and make new friends. I am still debating how best to record my beer journey, whether through untappd, my amazing memory recall, a snazzy Instagram, or even through good ol' pen & paper, but you can expect to read more here as I progress. But for now, I leave you with the single message to enjoy better beer, like I did when I passed my exam and ran to BottleShop Margate for a glass of Omnipollo Noa, Dugges Queen's Sour and Burnt Mill's Pintle Pale.

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