By all accounts, the Master Cicerone exam is one of the most grueling ordeals anyone in any field can undertake. Of the thousands who have attempted the challenge over the years, only 19 have ever succeeded. Joe Vogelbacher, co-founder of Sugar Creek Brewing Co., who became the most recent person to earn the distinction after failing the year before, likened preparing for the test to training for a triathlon. This year in October, Em Sauter, already a certified Advanced Cicerone, hopes to join those fabled ranks as she takes the exam for the third and final time.
“It’s just incredibly difficult. It’s not sustainable. If I get it, cool. If not, then I tried my best and I learned a lot through the process,” Sauter says. “It’s like trying for the Olympics of beer education. It’s a decathlon.”
In order to prepare for the exam, aspiring masters typically spend months cramming, along with hundreds or potentially thousands of dollars on materials. After going through the process twice, Sauter vowed that she would do things differently this time. This year, she’s taking a somewhat unorthodox approach: rather than just writing up her notes, she’s drawing them in comic form and sharing them with the world online.
“At the end of last year, I was trying to figure out how I belonged in the beer industry. I learn visually, so I thought if I could just break beer down to its essential components that might help,” Sauter says. “I’m really excited to tackle the Master Cicerone syllabus this way.”
Those essential components might include a breakdown of the hops, malt, and yeast that characterize a Czech lager or even a list of the off flavors—rubber and soy sauce—that crop up in improperly refrigerated beer. It’s all part of Pints and Panels, her ongoing side project in which she attempts to educate the public about beer, one cartoon at a time. Sauter came up with the idea in 2010 while pursuing an MFA at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont and she fell in love with craft beer.
“I remember the first beer that just blew my mind was a Sam Adams White Ale. I’d just never had anything like a witbier before and I immediately wanted more,” she says. “It was fun to be in Vermont right when the craft beer boom was blowing up.”
At first, she mostly reviewed beers she liked in illustrated form. As time went on, however, the project evolved into something else entirely. Sauter realized that the craft beer world can often be intimidating to newcomers. By illustrating flavor profiles, brewing techniques, and regional beer styles, she could convey complex concepts in an approachable way.
“Pints and Panels ultimately became more about visual beer education,” Sauter says. “This one time I was just drawing about German pilsner and on a whim I did a diagram of malt and hops and I posted it on Twitter just as a sketch. People were so excited and I realized this is what I’m supposed to do in the beer industry.”
Although Sauter sells prints of her work and invites fans to support her on Patreon, Pints and Panels remains an open resource to anyone curious to learn more about beer. This desire to teach people is what drew her to the Cicerone program in the first place. Her book Beer Is for Everyone! similarly attempts to break through the dense terminology and dispel with any industry insider pretentiousness.
“I’m just putting my comics on my website for free, because I want people to learn. I’m a ravenous learner and I have a huge archive on my website so it’s accessible,” Sauter says. “Cicerone isn’t paying me to do this, but I did ask their permission first. It was really important to me to make sure that every post is accurate, because there’s a lot of misinformation online.”
It’s also why she’s so excited to help break down her studying process for anyone hoping to take the test in the future. While the Master Cicerone test may be brutal, Sauter insists that it’s more about camaraderie than competition. When she needs help or moral support, she turns to a group Slack channel shared with other hopefuls prepping for the test. To help others study effectively, she’s already created a random question generator.
“Beer is not a competition and people who make it a competition are gross,” Sauter says. “When Joe Vogelbacher passed last year, I was at work and I just cheered really loudly because I was so proud of him. You want to see people pass and succeed. We’re all in it together. All these people are working so hard.”
Beer is not a competition and people who make it a competition are gross. We're all in this together.”
When asked what the most challenging part is, Sauter says the essay writing section is what often breaks contestants. Writing as many as 80 pages out by hand at breakneck speed while trying to recall an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge stretches everyone to their physical and mental limit.
“You have three hours to write eight essays and it’s just not enough time. People ask me for advice on taking the Master and I say, ‘Don’t go to the bathroom.’ You have no time to go to the bathroom,” Sauter says. “You have to train your hand so it’s strong enough and doesn’t cramp up.”
Although the infamous tasting portion makes up a relatively small part of the final score, Cicerones go to great lengths in order to adequately train their palates for it. AROXA, the company which artificially produces the phenolic and diacetyl off-flavor compounds that contestants must identify during the exam, sells testing kits for £699 to £949 ($904 to $1,227). Sauter also regularly blind tests herself through an informal system that she’s worked out.
“I’ll text the manager of a liquor store and he’ll put six random beers in brown paper bags and staple them shut,” Sauter says. “It’s not a foolproof system, because some cans or bottles have a different shape, but it’s a great way to blind train.”
Yet even with a finely tuned palate and years of training, anything can go wrong on the day of the exam.
“With the tasting, you never know if you’re going to have a good day or a bad day. You can never let your guard down and think, ‘I’ve got this,’” Sauter says. “I’m not sensitive to certain off-flavors. It’s not for lack of trying, but all of those appeared on one panel, so I got a 50. In the Advanced, I got a 90 and the first time I took the Master, I got an 87. This last year, I got a 74.”
For all of the stress and financial hardship associated with the Master Cicerone exam, Sauter does not regret her journey at all. No matter what happens when the big day rolls around this October, she’s proud of the community of beer-lovers she’s come to know and how much she’s learned along the way. She knows the next 200 days will be tough, but she’ll continue to demystify this most daunting of hurdles for others.
“The first time I took the test, I was surprised how fun it was,” Sauter says. “It sounds bizarre, but I really enjoyed having the opportunity to get the chance to do this. It’s a noble and worthy cause. The Cicerone certification program is a wonderful resource for learning and everyone there just wants what's best for beer.”