Although hundreds of people have attempted to earn the coveted title, there are only 18 in world who can call themselves Master Cicerones. The beer-centric counterpart to a Master Sommelier, a Master Cicerone knows virtually everything there is to know about tasting, preparing, serving, and pairing more than 100 styles of beer from all over the globe.
The only way to earn the title is a brutal two-day exam that takes place once a year. To survive the 20-hour endurance match takes nerves of steel and a more finely honed palate than chefs in most Michelin-starred kitchens could claim.
Beers of Joy, a documentary now available on multiple streaming platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Comcast, Spectrum, and Cox, follows the trials and tribulations of two Advanced Cicerones as they prepare to take the Master Cicerone exam. The film also delves into the extraordinary history and culture of beer through the eyes of a celebrated brewer and a chef.
One of two Advanced Cicerones who tests his mettle is Joe Vogelbacher, the CEO and co-founder of Sugar Creek Brewing Co. in Charlotte, North Carolina. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, a nuclear mechanical engineer, and a commander in the US Navy reserves, Vogelbacher has never been one to shy away from a challenge, no matter how rigorous. We sat down with him for a conversation about what it means to take the toughest beer test in the world.
The Master Cicerone test has an almost mythical status in the brewing world. Why do you think that is?
Lots of people claim they can do it and then they find out it's harder than they think. I’ve sat through exams for nuclear propulsion. I’m a licensed marine engineer. I’ve taken the United States Coast Guard exam for steam, diesel, and gas turbine ships. That’s five days of exams, eight hours a day. I took that test when I was 21 and I think the Master Cicerone test is on par with that. The Cicerone test ranks among the toughest of the toughest.
So why do it?
I must be a bit of a masochist, to tell the truth. The thing is, I was working as a nuclear engineer before all this and I never got a formal education in brewing. When we opened Sugar Creek Brewing Co., we had a tremendous amount of money invested, including my personal savings. How can you risk your family’s money if you’re not certain that you’re going to make a great product right out of the gate? If you’re going to put millions of dollars on the line, you have to be sure.
What was one of the toughest parts a layperson might not see coming?
You have to train for the handwriting part, otherwise, your hand will cramp up so much it will distract. Personally, I’m rooting for them to change it to digital. I think I had 84 pages of handwritten notes last time I took the exam.
In all fairness, you’d been an avid homebrewer before you decided to dive in. You weren’t a total rookie.
Creating the recipes and turning the valves is one thing, but really becoming an artist in your trade is another. Although I’d had a really good mentor guiding me through it and we were making great beer, I felt there was more required. If I was to become a master of my craft, I knew I needed some kind of continued education.
OK, but why the Cicerone program specifically?
There’s no framework as good as the Cicerone program in terms of training and credentialing your palate. When I decided to go through this training, I went through the first level very fast, then I became only one of 20 to 30 people in the country to become an advanced Cicerone.
Could you talk a little bit about why it’s so crucial to train your palate?
It sounds funny, but one of my biggest inspirations was actually Jiro Dreams of Sushi. At one point, Jiro says, “How much better would my sushi be if I honed my palate?” My thought was, how can I claim to make world-class beer if I didn’t know what that tasted like?
But don’t most people know what good beer tastes like?
Lots of people think they can taste great beer, but if you put them in a blind environment, some people can’t pick their own beer out. It was a humongous eye-opener for me going through the training for the Master Cicerone.
Getting to the level of Master Cicerone is absolutely akin to training for a triathlon or learning another language.”
Whoa, that’s crazy. Walk me through what the tasting portion of the exam is like.
They’ll bring you out a tray of samples and you may have to identify the flavor compounds, the style, or produce a description for a panel. They do about three of those on each, so it’s about 60 samples.
That seems like a lot of beer. Do you spit it out, as sommeliers sometimes do in wine tastings, or are you actually drinking 60 samples?
They usually serve around an ounce to two ounces of beer. It will catch up with you over the day if you don’t watch your water intake. In my experience, you don’t get the full flavor impact if you don’t swallow. It’s called retronasal tasting—it has to go over the roof of your palate and out through your nose. That’s where you get the majority of the flavor impact.
What helped you through the tasting portion and how has that impacted your work as a brewer?
Working in a brewery, I had a lot of experience in working with beer and I really focused on developing my palate. In that sense, I feel like I’m achieving my goals in terms of becoming a better brewer. Training the palate is only 20 percent of the exam, though. Let’s say you’re in average shape and you decide you want to be an Ironman triathlete. It takes a solid 18 months to train to be able to pull that incredible feat off. Getting to the level of Master Cicerone is absolutely akin to training for a triathlon or learning another language.
The film crew for Beers of Joy followed you on and off for more than a year through some especially trying times. How would you describe the process of making the documentary?
The guys who filmed the movie have become good friends of mine. They’re just gentlemen in general. At the end of the day, they’re there to tell the story and you have to give them the creative freedom to do their job. I was nervous about it, but they did a great job and were very respectful. Editing is a real art form. I know the other characters and they really portrayed everyone in a beautiful light. I wondered how they were going to bring together four different people into a cohesive storyline, but they pulled it off.
What would you say to someone thinking of watching the film?
If you like documentaries and you’re interested in learning more about the third most popular beverage on the face of the planet, which has a history of more than 10,000 years, this is great to watch. It gives you a sense of the stories behind the beer. It was an honor to be part of it. I think we did our part defending and showing people what craft beer is all about.