Without a doubt, Ray Daniels is one of the leading lights of the beer world. From his influential 1996 homebrewing tome Designing Great Beers to his work with the Brewers Association, Ray has tirelessly preached the gospel of a proper brewery-to-glass experience – and the latest step on the journey is with his Cicerone Certification Program.
Cicerone, launched in 2008 and named for an antiquated term that means “a guide who gives information about places of interest to sightseers”, has grown to become one of the world’s most prominent beer industry certifications, testing knowledge at four distinct levels: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, Advanced Cicerone and Master Cicerone.
Visiting Hong Kong in January 2017 to administer the city’s first-ever Certified Cicerone exam, Ray found the time to sit down with Coaster for a candid discussion of the importance of a solid beer education.
For a bit of background, how’d you get into beer?
Well, like most people, I started drinking beer in college. At some point, I fell into homebrewing around the time I got my first home and had enough space to do something like that. Once you homebrew, you fall down the rabbit hole – I probably brewed 100 beers in the first two years.
Had you thought about brewing commercially?
Oh yeah, definitely. In about ’95 I’d been toying with the idea of starting a brewery in Chicago with longtime colleague Randy Mosher. First thing I did was take the Siebel diploma course for professional brewing. I started working on the brewery, a little PR firm stuff on the side, and some beer writing and teaching. Randy and I spent two or three years before we ultimately gave up; we had some partners, but couldn’t find a location in Chicago. It turned out that was a really good time to not start a brewery – because that was the beginning of the downturn of craft, from about ’96 or ’97 to about 2002 or 2003.
After stitching together various things in the ’90s – Designing Great Beers, some serious beer writing, teaching at a brewing school and doing some classes on my own, running a Chicago beer festival – I wound up getting a job with the Brewers Association in the US as editor of their two magazines, Zymurgy and The New Brewer, then running the craft beer marketing programme as the revival began in the early 2000s.
So I was travelling all over the country for craft beer things and in so many bars and restaurants, I observed how often the service was being done badly. The servers didn’t know anything about the beers; they couldn’t answer questions; they didn’t understand anything about beer styles. Americans had this idea that beer was like a can of soup – you buy it, throw it on the shelf and two years later, you pull it out, heat it up and it’s fine. When you’re in the business of serving beer, that’s not a good way to think.
Eventually the idea of a beer sommelier programme came up. I started developing a plan, thinking it could be a viable business. I hunted for names and found the word “cicerone”. I put together a syllabus – basically what we call our Master Cicerone syllabus today – as a starting point to include everything the world’s greatest beer expert might ever need to know. Then, we thought, “Okay, we need to get to something practical.” So we cut it down and said, “If you’re a full-time beer professional running a beer programme or you’re a salesperson, here’s the stuff you need to know.” And that was Certified Cicerone.
And then it was like, “Okay, but that’s not where it ends. The people serving beer to the consumers day in, day out – they need to know some stuff, too.” So we cut it down to just the basics that we would expect a waiter, waitress or bartender to know, and that became Certified Beer Server. That was the original structure.
How does Cicerone distinguish itself from other like-minded programmes?
Cicerone is an open system, which is to say that a lot of beverage programmes out there will give you a certification, but in order to get it, you’ve got to take their class – basically like a school that gives you a test afterwards, with no external criteria. From the beginning, I wanted Cicerone to be a certification programme in the business of giving exams, where the credibility comes from the people who’ve spent their time and energy on passing it. If the people who pass it respect the programme, then everyone else will, too.
Would you compare it to a wine sommelier certification?
I have contrived to ignore wine sommelier programmes, because one thing I heard very clearly from the beer community when I started this was that people said, “Do not call it a beer sommelier! We don’t want to be derivative of wine or in its shadow.” We needed to go our own path. Cicerone really starts with the servers – the front line. It’s really basic stuff about beer styles, and how to have a conversation with a consumer that’s useful and meaningful.
How do you see Cicerone moving forward in this region?
We’re just starting to explore Asia. This is my second trip here with Cicerone [to Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan]; the first was in April 2016 in Korea. We want to continue to develop in the next couple of years, with the hopes of moving on to a complete translation with an anchor or base for the programme in Asia. We’ll probably have the Certified Beer Server exam and basic education stuff available in other languages – Korean, Traditional Chinese and so on – and we have a long-term goal of making the entire programme available in Simplified Chinese.
Why is education so important in the beer world?
There’s a really key point – a lot of people who aren’t in the beer world look in from the outside and think, “This is ridiculous. Why do you need to know all this stuff about beer? Oh, you’re trying to be like wine – you guys are just being silly.” Well, the fact is that from a consumer point of view, beer should be really simple, like eating – but beer isn’t simple for a professional. There’s a lot that goes into getting good beer from the brewery to the consumer.
For that person to have a fantastic experience, all the people who work in beer – from the brewery to the bartender or waitstaff – need to have knowledge, experience and capability in doing things right. Cicerone is really focused on that. When the consumer gets their glass, if everything’s been done well, they don’t have to think about any of the stuff in the programme – they just have a simple, pleasurable experience.
So much service has been the approach where, if you ask a question about a beer, the server says: “You’ll like it.” We’re trying to get to where the server has something to say about the beer and, if they meet a knowledgeable consumer who knows the difference between an English IPA and an American IPA, and they ask, “Is it more English or American?” then the server can answer that.
My goal with Cicerone is to improve beer service and the quality of beer that I as a consumer get when I walk into a bar. When those get better, that’s a win.