Views on imported beers (The Session #122)

This month’s The Session on the topic of “Views on imported beers” is hosted at I think about beer by Christopher Barnes. It is apropos that this month’s instantiation of The Session falls on National Beer Day in the US, April 7th, when we, i.e., beer nerds, celebrate the Cullen-Harrison Act going into effect and effectively ending Prohibition. It is also, and more accurately, known as National Session Beer Day since it was 3.2% ABV beer that was approved for sale. Nor was it the entirety of the country as some states failed to pass there own legalization laws prior to the 7th.

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

Barnes has a fairly close connection to imported beers as his post explains:

“I love imported beer, specifically Belgian and German beer. They’re what I drink. My cellar is made up of Belgian beers, my fridge is full of them, and there a few stashed around in a closet or two as well. Imported beer is my life. I drink them. I write about them. I travel to experience them. In fact, my career involves working with Imported Beer. I manage several prominent import portfolios for a Oregon craft focused wholesaler. And while I have a vested interest in the success of Imported Beer, it doesn’t lessen my passion for the traditional beers of Europe. As craft beer sales have surged across America, sales of imported beers have suffered. I’m going to ask a couple of questions.

For American and Canadians: What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market?

For Non North Americans: How are American beers (imported into YOUR country) viewed? What is their place in your market?”

I am clearly a North American, and sadly have not been out of the country in a couple of years so could not tackle the second question anyway. I will begin by first answering the related question: “What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in my beer drinking?”

#1: What place do imported beers have in my drinking?

For point of reference, I spent three tours in the Army in Europe: twice in Germany and once in Belgium and I have been back once to Germany for my son’s wedding. Just not lately. To say the least, I drank a fair bit of European beers and drank them fresh and (mostly) local during those tours.

Over the last couple of years, I studied for and qualified as an MBAA Beer Steward, a Cicerone Beer Server, and a BJCP Certified judge. Preparing for all of these involved drinking imported beers from the major brewing centers of Europe and a few of the smaller ones to boot.

I also quite enjoy lots of Belgian beers, German Lagers, Czech Pilsners [have not had those local, sadly], some Samuel Smith’s beers, and many, many others. No doubt I would love many additional beers and styles if I were exposed to them.

But. Freshness is a major issue. [I have a gestating post on the freshness problem in craft beer, including local craft beer, so this problem is not an imports-only issue, although many of the issues are different.]

Living in a thriving local and state beer scene, no, even a hip and happening local and state beer scene, means the imports see a little less love than they might in an area without a glut of choice for fresh, tasty and local beer. Sure, you can choose imported—European or otherwise—beer but it will not be fresh. If that seems too strong a claim, then purchasing imported beer will always be a crap shoot seeing as you have no idea how it was handled and stored on its voyage from the brewery across the seas and to the store shelf or bar tap. It may be quite tasty but it will (most likely) not qualify as fresh.

Just recently I started studying to retake the BJCP tasting exam in July. I want that 80+%! This means, again, looking for representative beers from twenty (20) European style categories and sixty-seven (67!) European substyles I need to have a grasp of.

Imported beers—of whatever quality—will be critical to my preparation. If our exam administrator finds the time to do a prep class again, like last year, then they become critical in the context of a larger group of people. Perhaps the importance is the same but moving scale from one person to a class of several or more amplifies any learning by being able to discuss the beers with other like-minded folks towards the same purpose. That seems to me amplification enough of their value, in an educational context.

Imports also provide some variety, which is quite nice amongst all of the PNW (and other) beer at hand.

Back to the larger question: “What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market?”

#2: What place do imported beers have in a craft beer market?

One of the areas I think imports may serve in the craft beer market is as a potential gateway. There are many folks—of all ages but especially nearer mine—for who it is little to no stretch to consider an imported beer on occasion instead of only industrial lagers. They might not think much past that but they can at least get that far. It might even only be on a “fancy” occasion.

While I agree that many craft breweries can brew a craft light lager that blows any macro away as far as flavor goes, not all beer drinkers want their light lager to be so. If they consider an international lager, or a Festbier, or German Pils, or Hefeweizen or any other imported beer that has just that much more flavor, then perhaps craft Euro-style beers might also appeal or at least be given a chance. But if said drinker never deviates from industrial light lager then all flavor “lures” are off-the-table already. Then they might be tempted to try an American craft version of that style [which is another completely fraught issue of its own].

Aside on imported beer and craft/macro: Let me be perfectly clear, by-the-by, that craft beer and imported beer are neither mutually exclusive nor mostly overlapping categories, but overlap they do. Just as much imported beer overlaps with “American” macro beers.

Now this should not be the only role for imported beer in a craft scene. As I just said, many of these beers should and do qualify as “craft” [define how you like].

Beers like Saison Dupont are exquisite and amazingly affordable. Then there are the even more renowned beers such as Westvleteren XII that is neither affordable and was only once legitimately available here in the states. I still have 2 bottles that came with my 6 bottles and 2 glasses package. Being able to taste this “best beer in the world” and to share it with friends and fellow craft beer geeks was very special. Is it delicious? Quite. But I like beers of that profile, call it a style or not. Is it “the best beer in the world”? Seriously? Those titles are always ridiculous. It is not even my favorite beer. By a long shot. But I am stoked that I still have 2 little bottles to drink and enjoy some day in the future.

I guess I don’t really know “What place imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market.” Many traditional European beers are craft beers.

Primarily, they should be available in their own right for being the (often) tasty beers that they are.

For many folks studying for Cicerone, MBAA, BJCP or other certifications, having a diverse array of imported beer available is critical to their study, preparation and continued learning.

Lastly, they might serve as gateway or transition beers for folks who either “do not like beer at all” or to lead those who might on occasion drink an imported beer to other craft examples, whether imported or American.

Cicerone Certification Program [series] : General/CBS [1]

A couple weeks back, in a post where I noted that I passed my Cicerone Program Certified Beer Server test (16 July 2014; my profile page), I committed to writing a series of posts on the Cicerone Certification Program.

This is what I wrote:

I hope to write a couple posts in a small series on the Cicerone Certification Program and changes they just made and are facing, what they recommend for studying for the CBS and what I did for studying, some thoughts on their recommendations for studying for the Certified Cicerone test, some extractions from yesterday’s #RoadtoCicerone #beerchat on Twitter and, finally, what I have been planning for studying beer styles with friends.”

I did write the #RoadtoCicerone Twitter chat post

Series Introduction

This series should be 3-4 posts long: this one for intro and 1st level, another for Certified Cicerone, and one or two more for the 3rd level and alternatives/other certification programs. I may have more posts at some point about studying for the exams.

This post will cover the following, along with covering the Cicerone Program Certified Beer Server (Level I).

  • Intro
    • What it is
    • Levels

For each level the following will be covered:

  • Level – URL
    • what will be learned
      • syllabus (pdf) – URL
    • intended audience
    • costs
    • time frames
    • what is needed : books, computer, a/synchronous
      • Beer
      • Free study links
      • Books
      • Other stuff
    • Extra stuff / Miscellaneous

Introduction to the Cicerone Certification Program

What it is

What the program does: certification, education, assessment.

“The Cicerone Certification Program certifies and educates beer professionals in order to elevate the beer experience for consumers.” (Cicerone site)

“… the Cicerone Certification Program has become the industry standard for identifying those with significant knowledge and professional skills in beer sales and service. The Cicerone Certification Program offers independent assessment and certification so that industry professionals—as well as consumers—can be sure of the knowledge and skills possessed by current and prospective beer servers.” (Why Cicerone?)

The primary content of the program and its levels:

“The Cicerone Certification Program seeks to ensure that consumers receive the best quality beer at every service occasion. To facilitate this, those who sell and serve beer need to acquire knowledge in five areas:

  • Beer Storage, Sales and Service
  • Beer Styles and Culture
  • Beer Tasting and Flavors
  • Brewing Ingredients and Processes
  • Pairing Beer with Food

To encourage participation by those with various interests and ambitions, the program offers three levels of certification beginning with the simplest and building to the most complex and demanding:

  •      Certified Beer Server
  •      Certified Cicerone®
  •      Master Cicerone®” (Why Cicerone?)

Levels

So these are your 3 levels in the Cicerone Certification Program:

  •      Certified Beer Server
  •      Certified Cicerone®
  •      Master Cicerone®

If you wanted one

There are currently 7 Master Cicerones, 1544 Certified Cicerones and about 40,095 Certified Beer Servers listed in the roster.

Comments

Beer

Every level requires access to beer in many different styles, with the number of styles to be known increasing with each level. It is possible that you may already have a lot of this knowledge but unlikely you have it all at immediate recall. Technically, you don’t need to drink any beer for the Certified Beer Server level—as there is no tasting component on the exam (all online)—but it helps. There will be plenty of questions that, while requiring factual (and a little theoretical) knowledge, are answered best from experiential knowledge. Well, truly best would be experiential (tasting) knowledge strengthened by simultaneously studying and evaluating using the Cicerone Certification Program framework for beer styles. This is quite possibly the lengthiest part of studying, at least for the Certified Beer Server exam.

Cicerone Certification Program beer styles schema

The Cicerone Certification Program uses the same schema/format/classification for all levels of certification. They use the (BJCP style guidelines) for ABV and SRM number ranges for each style, and they use their own word-based scales for Color, Perceived Bitterness and ABV. You best learn both ways of referring to bitterness and color.

Assorted

Every level has its own syllabus, which is freely available, which you will also need. More resources are needed as you go up in levels. Of course, this also depends on how much prior knowledge/experience you have with the covered topics. There are also optional study materials/opportunities available from the Cicerone Certification Program that you can shell out for. It makes sense in some cases. I discuss it a bit below.

Professional qualifications

These are considered to be professional certifications and are priced accordingly. Cicerone.org is on record as stating that generally an employer is contributing something towards certification for their employee. Perhaps. Except when not. I discussed this a bit more with Cicerone.org via Twitter which you can see and read more of my comments at my Twitter Road to Cicerone #beerchat post.

Next I will cover the first level, which is the one I am certified at.

Cicerone Program Certified Beer Server (Level I)

What will be learned

“The Certified Beer Server requires competent knowledge of beer storage and service issues as well as modest knowledge of beer styles and culture and basic familiarity with beer tasting and flavors and basic knowledge about brewing process and ingredients. Knowledge of the Cicerone Certification Program’s levels and titles is also required.” (CBS page)

Syllabus (pdf) can be found here. This is only the outline. The full syllabus continues for nine more pages.

  • I. Keeping and Serving Beer
    • A. Purchasing and accepting beer
    • B. Serving alcohol
    • C. Beer storage
    • D. Draft systems
    • E. Beer glassware
    • F. Serving bottled beer
    • G. Serving draft beer
  • II. Beer Styles
    • A. Understaning beer styles
    • B. Style parameters
    • C. History, characteristics, and flavor attributes of styles by region
  • III. Beer Flavor and Evaluation
    • A. Taste and flavor
    • B. Identify normal flavors of beer and their source
    • C. Off-flavor knowledge
  • IV. Beer Ingredients and Brewing Processes
    • A. Ingredients
  • V. Pairing Beer with Food

Intended audience

“First-level certification exam for those who work with beer.” (CBS page) Since the Certified Cicerone is for “mature beer professionals” according to the founder, Ray Daniels, then I assume the Certified Beer Server is for not-yet mature beer professionals. Daniels asks “Can you think of anyone who should have a better knowledge of beer and its service than a beer writer?” and reminds us he started as a beer writer [See #RtC chat post]. 

So definitely beer servers, beer writers, folks in the industry aspiring to be “mature beer professionals.” Of course, these folks perhaps should be on their way to the Certified Cicerone. Bar/brewpub/microbrewery/etc. owners and managers. Wait staff. I imagine the case could be made for others. What do you folks think? [See more thoughts below at 3.7.2]

Costs

Exam alone: $69 USA, $79 International.

Exam format

“60-question multiple choice exam, administered online. A grade of 75% is required to pass. Candidates must also pass a short quiz about the Cicerone program. Each payment allows you 2 attempts to achieve a passing score.”

Time frame

Based on how much you already know about beer, styles and brewing, etc. it should only take a couple months of studying to be ready for the Certified Beer Server exam. Notice that the optional BeerSavvy online training gives you access for 90-days so they seem to think that’s about the right amount.

What is needed

  • No prerequisites.
  • Beer – this is needed at every level, unless you are already an expert on styles and your knowledge can be expressed in the schema they use to describe them (a combination of their own and BJCP).
  • Free study links – The Cicerone Certification Program provides some useful study links (yes, some of these are dubious/broken and I hope they update this document soon. I may well comment on these and suggest some alternatives in the future.)
  • Randy Mosher (2009). Tasting beer. Storey Pub.  [ My review ] – This book is pretty much mandatory. If not the primary reference source (the syllabus, probably) then it is the next most valuable. Read this book. A couple of times. I have. And will again.
  • Internet connected computer and an hour to take the test

Additional non-mandatory resources:

  • Cicerone Certification Program Beer Styles Profiles Card Sets. I have a set of these and they are great. They do contain every style on the Certified Beer Server exam.  although there may be some slight confusion: Imperial stout is listed in the American styles – Modern section of the CBS syllabus, while the card is Russian Imperial Stout and is in the British styles section. For the Certified Cicerone exam Imperial Stout is listed under both British – English – Dark Ales and American – Modern, but I am not sure whether they are considered equivalent for the exam. I’ll have more to say about these in the next post regarding the Certified Cicerone exam.
  • BeerSavvy from the Cicerone Certification Program

    “An online eLearning program covering beer flavor, service and styles in sufficient depth to prepare candidates for the Certified Beer Server exam. Study aids such as a downloadable flashcard file are included.”

    • $199 but includes CBS exam; “gives one person access to the streaming educational content for 90 days from the date of purchase.” (BeerSavvy)
    • Requires an Internet-connected computer
  • Some additional educational resources recommended by the Cicerone Certification Program. There are plenty of other potential resources also. Some a little less pricey.

Comments

BeerSavvy

I have no comment on the BeerSavvy online learning as I did not use it. If you are pressed for time and have limited capacity (for whatever reason) to compile your own study resources and guide your own studying then it may make good sense. There are possibly a few other cases where it makes sense. You are effectively spending $130 for training. I have no idea how long it takes to go through it once but it is probably faster than doing a lot of studying on your own.

Who do I think it is for?

This seems to me a very relevant question. I may (or may not) fit the standard idea of who should take the Certified Beer Server exam. I think I fit just fine, though. The larger question will be am I “in the mold” for the Certified Cicerone exam? Perhaps not. Yet. Maybe never.

Pretty much everybody in the beer industry, from all aspects of a brewery’s operations, to distributors, on to the retail service end, ought have the knowledge required of a Cicerone Program Certified Beer Server. Many of those do not actually need to be certified though.

I see certification—at some level and from some organization—becoming more important. It will mean more in much larger cities, particularly with trendy bars and dining experiences more readily available. It will also become increasingly important in real craft beer towns like ours, Bend, OR, and others. People who know (and appreciate) beer will want those serving them, slinging it around (distribution of whatever kind), and those producing the beer to also be reasonably educated regarding beer. It is hard to say how much certification will matter in the future as there are too many unknowns and too many different beer scenes. I do think demand will greatly increase though.

Another source of folks to pursue these qualifications, even if they are “professional” certifications, are assorted hobbyists like me. Whether homebrewer, blogger, beer geek who wants to know more, or some other person, there are plenty of folks who are willing to learn and to pay for these professional certifications. This diverse group is clearly not any of these organizations primary market but they underestimate them to their own detriment.

If industry is going to begin requiring that servers and others become professionally certified then there must be a pay off for the industry. The easiest way that I see to drive that is to get consumers to care whether or not those responsible for providing and/or serving them beer are certified are or not. If it makes no matter, who will pay for training/certification, and why?

I think encouraging folks, like me (and not like me)—hobbyists, if you must—would help spread the word about the value of this sort of certification for the general consumer. I am most definitely a very-well educated, and certified, consumer of beer. There. I said it.

But there is always more to learn.

Previous posts

Wrap-up

This post provided a general intro to the Cicerone Certification Program and covered the 1st level, the Certified Beer Server. This is the level at which I am certified and the only one I am qualified to answer questions about the experience of studying and testing. But I can still provide answers to many questions on the next two levels and indicate where to get more. Next up will be a post on the Certified Cicerone.

I am now a Cicerone Program Certified Beer Server

[Updated title and first line on 17 July 2014 based on Titles, Trademarks & Proper Use page at Cicreone.org]

Today 16 July 2014 I passed my Cicerone Program Certified Beer Server (CBS) exam.

My Cicerone Certified Beer Server certificate

My Cicerone Certified Beer Server certificate

My profile at the Cicerone Certification Program site.

I have been studying on and off for this for a while and I simply got tired of it and took the test today. I may go on to take the Certified Cicerone exam at some point but am no longer committed to it. I am continuing my beer education, of course, and the CC syllabus is as good a starting point as any other.

I hope to write a couple posts in a small series on the Cicerone Certification Program and changes they just made and are facing, what they recommend for studying for the CBS and what I did for studying, some thoughts on their recommendations for studying for the Certified Cicerone test, some extractions from yesterday’s #RoadtoCicerone #beerchat on Twitter and, finally, what I have been planning for studying beer styles with friends.

Brewers Association Beer 101 Course

On Monday I sat down and took the Brewers Association Beer 101 Course after paying my $15 to do so.

It is fully online and takes less than an hour. The topics it covers are: history of beer, brewing ingredients and processes, vital statistics (ABV, SRM, IBU, gravity), styles, tasting, glassware, and pairing of beer and food.

At the end there is a 14 question test which you must get 70% on to pass. You can take the test a couple of times if need be. I got a 100% but I’m pretty sure I would have passed even without sitting through the course content.

Once you pass the test you receive a printable certificate from the Brewers Association.

Brewers Association Beer 101 Certificate

My Brewers Association Beer 101 Certificate

According to the Craft Beer site, “This is an accolade worthy of inclusion in any resume as it demonstrates knowledge of beer fundamentals and shows your commitment to all things craft beer.”

Perhaps. I have no idea of its true worth but it is one of the cheapest and fastest of the craft beer certifications available and they do point you toward some others at the end, such as the Cicerone Certification Program, which I hope to start on soon.

If you have $15 and an hour online you can kill then it might be worth it to you.