Food & Drink

Local brewers and bartenders pursue certifications in beer

To prepare for the Certified Cicerone exam, staff at Sugar Creek Brewing Co. held “Beer Thirty” tastings in their offices. Later these became public events where beers were tasted blind.
To prepare for the Certified Cicerone exam, staff at Sugar Creek Brewing Co. held “Beer Thirty” tastings in their offices. Later these became public events where beers were tasted blind. Courtesy Sugar Creek Brewing Co.

Do you know the difference between drinking beer and tasting beer?

Todd Franklin, brewmaster at Sugar Creek Brewing Co., is quick to note they aren’t the same. Drinking beer might mean having a pint at the brewery after he finishes his shift. Tasting beer, on the other hand, could involve analyzing a variety of samples to see how they compare to beer style guidelines.

Franklin did plenty of that while studying to become a Certified Cicerone, the beer world’s equivalent of a sommelier. Individuals who have achieved this certification usually boast a pretty impressive knowledge of beer: how to store and serve it, how to pair it with food, how beer styles differ from one another, and much more.

And in Franklin’s case, he knows how to brew it, too. He and Joe Vogelbacher, one of the brewery’s founders, were already immersed in the world of beer. So they figured why not pursue the certification?

“Joe and I both recognized that we’d already done a lot of the studying that’s required in order to pass the Certified Cicerone,” Franklin said. “And we realized that the more we can enhance our knowledge, the better it’s going to be for our business.”

There are four levels in the Cicerone Certification Program, each more difficult to pass than the one before it: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, Advanced Cicerone (which is new) and Master Cicerone (a level achieved by only 11 people).

To prepare for the Advanced Cicerone exam, Franklin and Vogelbacher would hold “Beer Thirty” tastings on Fridays after work. While initially held in the brewery’s offices, they eventually invited the public to bring in beers and participate in blind tastings.

“People loved to hear us dissect it and go through what the process is,” Franklin said. “It was a lot of fun for everybody.”

They also held off-flavor classes with the Sugar Creek staff, spiking beers with flavors commonly associated with flawed beer (think skunky or infected notes, among others). All Sugar Creek employees must eventually become Certified Beer Servers. Vogelbacher did not pass the Advanced Cicerone exam, but will retake it in August.

Kit Burkholder, a Certified Cicerone who manages the beer department at the Harris-Teeter in Ballantyne, didn’t pass the Advanced Cicerone exam this year either. And he knew it almost as soon as he sat down to take the test, which is a mix of multiple-choice questions, essays, tasting sessions and interviews.

Like Vogelbacher, Burkholder plans to retake the exam. He notes that achieving the Certified Cicerone level has benefited him professionally and in turn helped him better serve his patrons.

“It definitely served me, and it serves my customers and the local breweries,” Burkholder said. “At my level currently, the goal is to be the link between the breweries and the people. I need to be in a position where I can educate folks and talk to them on a personal level about beer and about their tastes.”

There are only around 13 Certified Cicerones in the Charlotte area, according to Burkholder. There are more Certified Beer Servers, since that exam is not as difficult and can be taken online. Every member of Carolina Beer Temple in Matthews is a Certified Beer Server, said owner Rob Jacik, and new employees must achieve that certification within three months of employment.

Want to know more?

Sugar Creek Brewing Co. will welcome representatives from the Cicerone Certification Program for two upcoming events at the brewery (215 Southside Drive). This Sunday, the brewery will host a “Face to Face” networking event from 4-6 p.m. This event is free and open to anyone who wants to learn more about the program (and if you have any level of certification already, the first beer is on them).

Should you want to prepare for the Certified Beer Server exam, you can attend a BeerSavvy Bootcamp at the brewery from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on July 11. During this class, you will learn about beer ingredients and walk through a tasting of six “foundational beer styles.” The cost is $99 per person and includes resources to help prepare for the Certified Beer Server exam.