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I passed the Advanced Cicerone Exam: here's my study advice & an exam walk through

advanced cicerone Jun 07, 2016

UPDATE: I passed! I was notified by the Cicerone Certification Program on 1/12/2017 that I passed the AC thanks to my successful retake of the tasting portion of the exam. You can get all the deets below, but on my initial take I passed the written portion but bombed one of the four tasting panels, which ruined my tasting score. I chalked that up to a bad day and determined I'd give it another shot. My tasting retake was successful. Boom, as of this moment I am one of 27 Advanced Cicerones! You can find lots of advice and details about the AC exam below if you're interested. 

I took the Advanced Cicerone (AC) exam on March 1st, 2016 at 21st Amendment Brewing in Alameda, CA, across the Bay from my hometown of San Francisco. All these months later, I've finally recovered enough from the trauma to write about my experience, plus I just received my results! I passed the written/oral section, but flunked the tasting by badly blowing it on just one of the four panels. I would've passed the whole thing if I'd gotten one or two more beers correct on that last damn tasting panel. It's a bit of a bummer for sure, but we all have off days when it comes to tasting. To be fair, the Cicerone Certification Program (CCP) only lists 9 people as having passed out of the total of 80ish people who have taken the exam. That's an 11% AC pass rate, right on par with the Master level exam pass rate! I'm already signed up to retake the tasting portion of the exam later this year and I have a message for the AC tasting exam: I will crush you! 

I obviously learned a lot about the AC exam in the process of prepping for and taking it. First off, it is indeed brutal! It is probably more brutal than you are even imagining, but it is also definitely passable if you're willing to put the work in. Mine was only the second AC exam the CCP has given. A major disadvantage I had going in, which will be less of an issue for you because you're reading this, is that there wasn't already a community of people out there who had taken the exam and who could talk to me about what to expect. 

It's difficult to get a feeling for what depth of knowledge is required for the Advanced Cicerone exam from just looking at the syllabus. The syllabi for the Certified level, Advanced level, and even the Master level don't look much different from each other. They all list the main topics you need to know about, but they can't tell you to what exact depth you need to know them and there is no teacher to guide you toward the test as though you were in a college class. 

There are only 11 Master Cicerones (at the time I wrote this, there are several more now, congrats to them!), so that is clearly not the easiest test. Because I knew two of them and had tasted beer with them, I'd been able to get a feel for the depth of knowledge and beer assessment abilities required to pass. It is insanely high. I had never felt I'd reached the point where I was ready to give it a shot. I figured that after a few years of experience opening and running Old Devil Moon, my bar in San Francisco, I'd go for it. Luckily, I didn't have to wait because the CCP launched the AC level. I've already talked about why the AC level is good for us Cicerones and for the CCP (In Defense of the Advanced Cicerone Level of the CCP). I suggest you give that post a read to get a better idea of why you should bother with the Advanced Certification. Now, let's get into what the AC test is like. 

I'm not going to tell you exactly what's on the test of course, but I'll give you some guidance for your studying, insight into what depth of knowledge is required, and what the format of the exam is. I'm not going to give you specific questions I had to answer for the exam, none of this info is top-secret. 

The Format of the Advanced Cicerone Exam

The exam is a full 8 hours long. The written portion of the exam is now being offered online, as of 2021. I had to take it in person, so that was my experience. I’ll post YouTube vids with some folks who have taken it more recently in which we discuss the online experience, follow the Beer Scholar YouTube channel and you’ll get that info when it comes out. For those of you who elect to take the test in person, you'll show up at the location before 8:30 AM, so if you're traveling, stay in a hotel near the test site. The exam begins at 9 AM. You'll get a brief lunch break in the middle of the day. Breakfast and lunch are provided by the CCP. You probably won't leave until after 6, which altogether makes it about a 10 hour day without even counting any commute time! It flies by because you're focused and in the moment, but it's very exhausting.

Mine was only the second AC exam given and it goes without saying that the test will evolve over time, however, based on the consistency of the Certified Cicerone exam, it seems unlikely the Advanced Cicerone exam will change significantly from the format I encountered. In total, you'll have 8 essay questions, 4 tasting panels, 2 interview sessions, and 100+ multiple choice questions. This is all broken up evenly between the morning and afternoon sessions of the exam. The CCP has this info on their website, but it's worth walking through the process. Test day goes like this: 

At the beginning of the morning session you'll be given a packet of papers containing 4 essay questions, several pages of multiple choice questions, and plenty of paper to write on. You'll be given a time at which you are to report to a room where you'll do one of your interviews. It's up to you to keep an eye on the clock and make sure you get to your interview at the right time. You get 3 hours to finish, during which your interview will take up 15 minutes. After that, you'll have 30 minutes during which you'll complete the first two tasting panels. Then you get lunch and a short break. You move directly into the afternoon testing session, which is a full rinse and repeat of the morning, also ending in two tasting sessions. I promise that by the end you'll be ready for more than just a taste of beer!

As with the CC exam, you need to understand what each area of knowledge is worth to help guide your studying:

  • Keeping and Serving Beer 20%

  • Beer Styles 22.5%

  • Beer Flavor and Evaluation 22.5%

  • Beer Ingredients and Brewing Processes 20%

  • Pairing Beer with Food 15%

It's a fairly even mix, so there's no particular subject to focus on or let slip through the cracks. I'm surprised to see beer and food pairing is only 15% considering how much of that was on the exam! This isn't like the CC exam where you’re asked very little about food. All these topics are critical. 

As with the Certified Cicerone exam, you need an 80% total score with at least a 75% on the tasting portion in order to pass the Advanced Cicerone exam. 

You can see the CCPs official Advanced Cicerone exam details here

The Essay Questions on the Advanced Cicerone Exam 

To reiterate, you'll get 8 essays total, 4 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. I half expected to read one of the essay questions and think, "holy crap, I have no idea what they're even asking or what the answer is to this." Alas, none of them were that difficult. One of the eight was a question about a long draw draft system device I've literally never touched in real life but I got an 80 on that essay, while another was a fermentation science question I know tons about but I got a 37 (?!) on that one, so go figure. And there's the rub, right? It's that depth issue, they're looking for different levels of knowledge for various topics and the key to passing is to figure that out. Speaking generally, you better be able to go very deep on any topic — whatever the level of knowledge you think a Master Cicerone should have, yeah, try to learn most topics to that level (and you likely still won’t, but the closer to MC you feel you are, the better). If you get a question like, "talk about what hops do for beer," you better have a great answer that goes well beyond, "they provide bitterness, flavor, and aroma." You'll need to talk chemistry, the various acids and oils commonly found in different hops and how they affect the final beer, and the effects of all the variety of hopping techniques. You may feel like, "hey, I know this," but do you know it well enough to convince the CCP grader that you're an Advanced Cicerone? Just as importantly, can you convey your high level of knowledge in a somewhat organized manner in an essay? 

You'll be asked about topics that hardly even make an appearance on the CC exam. Examples may include discussions of what happens during a Brettanomyces fermentation, providing detailed information and troubleshooting for specific equipment used in long draw draft systems, what happens during the various phases of fermentation with common strains of brewer's yeasts, and discussing parts of casks and proper cellarmanship techniques. Those topics are all listed on the CC syllabus, but don't show up on the exam in great detail...they are advanced topics!  

The Multiple Choice Questions on the Advanced Cicerone Exam

You're going to face 100+ multiple choice and short answer questions. There were some surprises here. Here are important things to know: 

  • There are many multiple choice questions about beer styles that refer very specifically to the quantitative material in the BJCP Guidelines. The questions looks like this: "An ale with an SRM between 3 and 6?" On each page, you'll have about 25 answers to chose from and about 6-10 questions to apply those answers to. You can do just a little process-of-elimination, but for the most part you better know your stuff. It will absolutely help you nail these questions if you've memorized the ABV, IBU, and SRM for every style. Although the AC syllabus says to know it, no questions asked for OG or FG on my exam. That doesn't mean there will not be such questions in the future!

    • The question of whether to memorize BJCP quant data is an issue for everyone who studies for the Cicerone exams. I've had so many people email me to ask about this that I wrote up a whole blog post about it (Do you really need to memorize all the BJCP data for beer styles tested on the Certified Cicerone exam?). My opinion on whether it is necessary to memorize all that material is similar for the AC as for the CC: you don't need to memorize it all. It's a ridiculously inefficient use of study time, however, by the time you're gunning for the AC you should be so generally familiar with those numbers that you can make a very damn accurate guess on the IBU, SRM, and ABV range for any beer in the BJCP. For the AC level I recommend memorizing these numbers for a selection of at least 20 very different styles to help you dial in your understanding of it. I'm a National BJCP judge and I don't have it all memorized. Why would anyone bother when it's all right there on an app in your phone? That said, I can hold up a beer and more or less name its SRM within a point or two (depending on where in the scale we're talking). That's just something you can do when you've become super familiar with the scale. Also, some of the beer styles have very easy to memorize ABV and IBU ranges and if you memorize them for some styles it will provide you with the means to make intelligent guesses for others. But do you need to memorize all the data for 90+ styles? IMHO, hell no for the AC…for the MC level, yes. 

  • You'll probably be asked to label the parts or functions of a piece of draft equipment, potentially something from a long draw system that many people will be unfamiliar with unless they've worked at a bar with a long draw system. Draft system stuff is an Achilles heel for many people taking the CC exam and it can be even worse on the AC if you don't work on the retail side of the industry and don't know your way around draft systems. There were two very involved draft system questions on my AC exam that I had difficulty with (one was an essay and the other a section of multiple choice in which I had to label parts of a device). Losing points on a multiple choice/labeling question is painful to me. Apparently, I guessed well because I scored fine on this, but hopefully you'll be better prepared. I would definitely focus more on draft systems if I had to retake the written section of the AC. A real difficulty here is that I don't know where to go for this info, it's not in the BA's Draft Quality Manual. It almost seems like hands-on experience or being shown everything by a professional draft system technician is the only way to fully learn it (which is presumably why most MC candidates take a draft systems course given by Micromatic for their exam prep).

  • You'll face quite a few multiple choice/short answer questions about food! Yeah, no joke. There is a section of questions about food that are presented in a similar manner to those I described above - you'll have about 25 answers at the top of the page and 10 questions that look like, "fried chickpeas?," and you'll need to know that is falafel. I already hear people complaining about how that has nothing to do with beer. To me, the ultimate beer skill is food & beer pairing and putting together beer dinners, so I personally think it's great that the CCP is testing a little bit on food knowledge. Beer is food, after all, and is best enjoyed with food! 

  • There is a separate section of questions about beer and food pairing where you'll be given a pairing and will be asked to label it as "harmonize," "cut," "clash," "complement," "match," etc.  If anyone knows of a specific book or guide that all these terms come from, I'd love to know what it is. While many of the terms are simple common ones any Cicerone will be familiar with (cut, harmonize, contrast), I found a few options difficult to parse, mainly because they seemed to describe similar interactions (something along the lines of "harmonize" vs "match"). In any case, brush up on your beer and food knowledge! The best way to do this is to cook with beer, do pairings at home regularly, and eat adventurously when you're out and about. Getting good at pairing is the ultimate high level of beer knowledge, you can't do it well unless you really understand what's going on with beer styles and their flavors.

  • Other questions you'll face will concern issues including the cleaning of draft systems, care and parts of casks, naming commercial examples of styles, and very in-depth questions about beer ingredients and brewing techniques.

The Oral Sections on the Advanced Cicerone Exam

The orals are pretty scary! You're going to sit down with a Master Cicerone for at least one of them (MC Pat Fahey in my case) and potentially with Ray Daniels, the founder of the CCP, for the other. It's likely that Daniels will not come with the CCP traveling exam circus once they've dialed the AC testing program in, but I'd guess you can expect to see him at the exams on occasion. Yes, it is pretty nerve wracking to be grilled by these people! 

There are two oral exams and they go like this: 

  • You walk into the room, sit down, and are presented with a food item and a beer. I was presented with several items on a cracker. You won't be given a single simple item like a piece of cheese, it's several items stacked up, which makes the exercise a little more complex but also presents you with more options for discussion. You're told what everything is and you're asked to sample it together and provide comments to the chef/event planner about the pairing. What works about it, what doesn't, is it a balanced pairing, etc. Then, of course, you should provide some alternative beers you think would go well with the dish and/or ways to adjust the dish so that it would pair better with the offered beer. Throughout this process, you'll likely be peppered with questions and comments that will lead you toward discussion points you should address. You'll want to be specific and name particular beers after naming any style as being a potentially good alternative match. In other words, "I think a hoppy pilsner like Firestone Walker's Pivo Pils would go perfectly with this dish because...blah blah blah). I started mentioning other dishes that would fit in as additional courses before and after the one I was presented with that could create a cohesive theme for the meal. That seemed like a slick move. Be sure to take queues from the tester - if they're stopping what you're saying and asking you something else, they're obviously trying to change the direction you're going in because you're either off the reservation or you're starting to repeat yourself. They will gently prod you toward talking about the issues they want to hear about. 

  • You walk into the room, sit down, and are presented with 4-6 oz of beer in a glass. You're told what style of beer it is and are asked to basically tell the tester everything you know about that style. During this process you'll be asked to name several commercial examples of the style, including some from outside of its area of origin (i.e. if it were a Belgian Golden Strong you'd need to name at least one American version as well as several Belgian examples, you should also know if the ones you name are classic examples or if, say, the American one you name is a bit hoppier than the classics). You'll be asked to give it a sniff and sip and to describe what you're smelling and tasting. Then, you'll be asked if it is a classic example of the style. They could do anything here, they could hand you any beer and say it's whatever style they want. So yes, it's clearly the case that the beer could totally be something other than what they tell you it is, but it seems more likely that they will either use a true classic example or an example of the style that isn't a classic one but hits most of the main factors for the style. In other words, it seems reasonable that they'd test your familiarity with the style by doing something like this: saying the beer is a Schwartzbier and giving you an American version that's roastier than a classic German version. My gut tells me they won't do anything much crazier than that for the oral exam, but who knows. I also don't get the impression that they're spiking these with off flavors or doing anything odd like that (but you never know, be prepared for anything!). I don't think they're trying to trick you. I believe the point of this oral exam is purely to test the depth of your BJCP knowledge, ability to describe a beer live, and your ability to determine if a beer is a classic version of any given style. This tests your flavor memories and familiarity with styles that likely aren't ones you drink everyday. And that's a good point to make - they're unlikely to hand you an American IPA. Throughout the AC exam I was continually surprised at the choices of beer styles I was tested on, they were not at all limited to styles I consider the "major styles." Indeed, they were some very minor styles requiring beer knowledge that is...advanced!

My overall advice for the orals is - don't be nervous! Although they are definitely not giving you any freebies, I felt that the questioners more or less want you to pass. Your approach should be like it was for the demonstration portion of the CC where you basically spill out everything you know as succinctly as possible (while not straying into la la land). You only have ~10 minutes (the other 5 are walking to and from your oral) and that may seem like a long time, but it's over before you know it. Hammer away at the details, prove your depth of knowledge on the topic is deep! If you know the BJCP quantitative data, say them. If you know 10 commercial examples, bust them out. If you know a killer pairing that fits the theme of a meal you're envisioning, say so! Be confident in your answers, you wouldn't be there if you didn't know your sh1t. They'll rein you back in if you start going off topic. Heck, maybe they'll even be impressed that you know so much you can take the questions to non-obvious places, but make sure you nail the basics of their specific questions before you do that. 

The Tasting Sections on the Advanced Cicerone Exam

The tasting section on the AC is not easy. I went into the AC exam with very low expectations since I didn't know what the exam would be like, but by the end of the day I was feeling really good about how it was going. I felt that all I had to do was power through those final two tasting sections and I was going to pass the AC! And boy did I totally not nail them! It was a major let down. Like with the CC exam, they go through the answers for the tasting with you before you leave, so you have a feel for whether you passed when you leave.

The AC syllabus provides a list of new flavors and off flavors you need to know. Obviously, you need to do lots of tastings to get familiar with them, just like you did with the Certified exam. The complicating factor is that there are now many more options for them to test you on! Also, unlike on the CC exam, the AC's off flavor tasting sections are not divided into one section of flavors that result from brewing issues versus a section of flavors that result from handling issues. The CCP has provided an "Advanced Cicerone Sample Tasting Exam," which is exactly the tasting exam they gave at the AC. That, of course, belies how difficult the tasting sections really are, but at least you know what to expect! Here are the 4 tasting sections: 

  • Here are 6 beers, name the off flavor in each. Pretty straightforward. There was no un-spiked beer in my sets. Also, they don't just use a flavorless pilsner like they do for the CC exam, instead, they blend two low flavor beers together for a blonde/pale ale type of base beer that is not identifiable. 

  • Here are 5 beers and four possible answers for each, which style is each beer? You had very similar questions on the CC exam, except that you only got two potential answers for each. They aren't messing around on this one, I literally had a beer with answer options that were something like: Munich Helles, German Pils, American Lager, and American Blond. Yeah, pretty damn difficult! Like with the CC, there was one or two that were easier and one or two that were quite a bit more difficult because there are many similar styles. Also, once again it wasn't all styles you'd be very familiar with. Is it an Oatmeal Stout, Tropical Stout, Schwartzbier, or American Porter? Yeah, sure, schwartzbier is obviously different from the others, but when was the last time you had a classic example of an oatmeal or tropical stout? The examples given on the AC Sample Tasting Exam are spot on. You can see that they're not going to make it easy for you! This is the section I bombed that failed me on the entire tasting section on my first AC exam take. I did well on the other three panels and did fine on this one on my retake. 

  • Here are 3 beers - give five consumer-friendly, unique, key flavor descriptors for the beer, being as specific as possible. In other words, don't use chemical compound names, say in plain language what the main flavors/aromas of the beer are. They ask you be as specific as possible, which means you'll want to say things like "ruby red grapefruit" or "key lime" and never something general like "citrusy." They aren't interested in color and mouthfeel descriptors here, just flavors and aromas. This should be the easiest section of the tasting exam for most. 

  • Here are 2 beers, you have a ridiculously small amount of time to write up a full technical description geared for industry experts for each beer. Basically, for this one you're going to want to do something similar to how you'd judge a beer on a BJCP scoresheet (except you have to do in just a few minutes). You'll want to address every aspect of the beer - aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, appearance, and overall impression. You'll want to be as technical as possible, including using chemical compound names. Here's something to keep in mind - any of your samples for this section may or may not be spiked with off flavors. This is something I wasn't expecting or looking for. Even on my retake exam I missed a high dose of acetaldehyde in one of these. 

So, what should I study?!

The list of books the CCP recommends you study gives you a solid idea of what level of knowledge you'll need and what areas will be covered (as opposed to how some areas of knowledge are glossed over at the CC level). Here are the CCP's Key Resources for the Advanced Cicerone™ Exam and here are their Summary of Program Resources by Level, so you can compare their AC study recommendations with the CC. I found their recommendations to be spot on. Of course, some resources are far more important than others. Here are some books that are critical for you to study if you don't want to get killed on the essays and multiple choice/short answer questions: 

  • Cellarmanship by Patrick O’Neill - I was blown away at the number of questions that focused on cellarmanship and cask equipment. It is certainly advanced knowledge that few people have. Know this material! 

  • Malt by John Mallett - You're going to need to know a lot more about growing barley and making malt than you did on the CC exam. 

  • For the Love of Hops by Stan Hieronymus - You'll need to dig much deeper into the chemistry of hops than you did for the CC. You'll want to know about how hops bitter beer and also about their aromatic oils. 

  • Water by John Palmer & Colin Kaminski - Water isn't the most exciting or easiest topic to digest, but you should understand hardness, basic brewing water chemistry, and what the different water profiles in classic brewing areas are. 

  • Yeast by Chris White & Jamil Zainasheff - You'll need to understand what's happening at the various stages of fermentation much more deeply than you did for the CC. As a very experienced homebrewer who has studied brewing for years I thought I had this stuff down, but my lowest essay grade was on a question about fermentation. Luckily, it didn't sink me. 

  • The Beer Bible by Jeff Alworth - The Beer Bible contains info I hadn't encountered before, which was great. Even more importantly, it was helpful as a refresher on the many beer styles out there. It covers producers of many classic styles, too, which is helpful when you're asked to name examples of styles on the AC exam...and they may not be the mainstream styles you'd expect to be tested on. Can you name three classic examples of Flanders Brown, including one from the US? Oh yeah? Think you're so smart? Well, how about three Weizenbocks? Yeah, didn't think so.

  • The Brewmaster's Table by Garrett Oliver (and other beer & food pairing & cooking books and articles!) - You probably read this for the CC but you weren't asked much about food and beer pairing on that exam. That is absolutely not the case on the AC exam, so if you haven't already read this, get on it. You will be asked about pairing food and beer repeatedly on the AC exam. Even though it’s a bit older now, this book will more than get you started on understanding how to do it, but there's no substitute for learning by doing. That means cooking with beer at home and doing pairings as often as possible. 

  • BJCP Style Guidelines - On the CC syllabus the CCP tells you to know the quantitative info for a zillion beer styles, but then on the Certified Cicerone exam they only ask you a few questions about it. For the CC you can get away without having memorized that info, that's not exactly the case with the AC exam. You should know the IBU, ABV, and SRM ranges for as many styles on the syllabus as possible, without wasting too much of your precious study time. Skip memorizing OG and FG, they didn't ask about that on my exam. Also, internalize the common and specific descriptors for all beer styles, you'll use this constantly on the AC exam. This is stuff you've been learning for a long time, but on the AC exam it'll come up repeatedly and you'll be asked for even more specific descriptors than those the BJCP offers. Let's be honest, the BJCP isn't perfect and it provides very general descriptions. Descriptors like "grainy," "malty," "hoppy," and even slightly more specific stuff like "coffee" or "caramel" aren't amazing descriptors when you could say something like, "coffee with cream and a touch of caramelized sugar, like a Café Cubano." That's one of the differences between "Certified" and "Advanced" levels of knowledge and tasting ability.

  • The Draught Beer Quality Manual - You used this a bunch for the CC exam and you're going to need it even more for the AC. Not only that, but you really should find even more intensive information. I haven't found a source for that, but if you know of one, please comment or email me about it. For instance, the Draught Beer Quality Manual talks a bit about FOBs and Powerpacks and such, but what about if I want to see one blown up with all its parts named and their functions described? What if I want to know about the various things that can go wrong with those pieces of equipment and how to fix them? That's the sort of stuff you'll want to know for the AC exam. If you work with a long draw system this may not be a problem for you, but for the rest of us it's a challenge to learn this material! Maybe we need to take Micromatic classes or something? I'm really not sure how to approach this. I knew enough to pass, but I was uncomfortable with my level of knowledge about draft tech given how intense the questions were. Something else you'll want to understand is how to balance a draft system, down to the exact math of making it work. 

And finally...

So yeah, there you have it. It's a very very difficult exam. There's not much I can do to help you prep beyond giving you a feel for the questions you'll face. I hope you got an idea of what depth of knowledge you'll be required to demonstrate. That's a difficult task without telling you the exact questions and the sort of answers I think would work for each. That said, I gave you plenty of examples of material and questions you'll want to be ready for. Here's another run down of the Advanced Cicerone exam by beer badass, Kendall Joseph, of Beer Makes Three. Check that one out, too, he does a great job of talking about that depth of knowledge stuff I've tried to get at. 

Please comment below with any other good Advanced Cicerone related links you've run across! Also, feel free to ask me questions about the AC exam...I may or may not be able to answer them! I'm going to retake the tasting portion of the AC exam sooner or later and I plan on crushing it, so hopefully I'll have some good news to update this post with sometime within the next year (done!). Cheers and good luck with your studying! 

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