Fun With Numbers: Sums and Sommeliers Edition 15

The Cicerone Certification Program announced today that it will be introducing a level of certification between Certified Cicerone and Master Cicerone. The press release was worded in a rather interesting way of whose nature I am dubious. It reads:

Previously, the only way for a Certified Cicerone to advance in the program was to take the Master Cicerone exam. Many who took the Master exam told us that there should be another way. They wanted something that required clear improvement in knowledge and skill without having to achieve the “ultimate” expertise required to pass the Master exam.

This is truly interesting. I hold the rank of Certified Cicerone (although I suspect that might be rescinded after writing this article) and I am curious about this logic. I do not believe that I’ve ever met another Certified Cicerone who has requested an intermediate level of testing between Certifed and Master. It seems to me like an imposition. You’re still going to have to study the same amount in order to eventually complete the Master Cicerone exam, but you’re going to have to take two tests to do it. It does not necessarily follow that this is desirable.

Let’s run the numbers.

As of this date, the Cicerone Certification Program has awarded 54,386 Certified Beer Server certificates, 1878 Certified Cicerone certificates and 10 Master Cicerone certificates. This is according to the Cicerone directory.

The program is designed to be fairly difficult. There is no point in a certification if just anyone can get one. Indeed part of the prestige of the Master Cicerone certificate, presumably, is that there are only 10 of them. According to the website the Master Cicerone exam is administered “one or two” times a year and it is capped at 24 registrations per exam. Given that the certification has been around for some time and there are only 10 of them, we may take it as read that it is very difficult indeed. That’s a good thing. It keeps the riff raff out.

However, if you’re a Certified Cicerone, you have 1877 equivalents world wide. There’s a lot of prestige in being one of ten people who have done a legitimately difficult thing. If 1878 people can do something, the shine sort of wears off. That’s a lot of Certified Cicerones and you’ve got to imagine that there are more coming because the Certified Beer Servers outnumber them by 52,958. They’re like some manner of Mongol Horde, the Certified Beer Servers, just sweeping down through the beer halls and devouring all the Lambic in sight.

If you’re a Certified Cicerone, you probably want to take the Master Cicerone level exam just to breathe that rarefied air and get away from the beer peasants. Problem is that because the failure rate is so abysmal and because there are so many applicants, you’re put in a lottery against people who have already failed and are allowed to retake the exam. You’re not guaranteed to be able to take the exam at all because of the lottery approach to candidacy and by the time they have the next one there’ll be an intermediate level that’s a prerequisite.

This means that even if all 24 of the next sitting of the Master Cicerone level exam are Certified Cicerones that have not yet taken the Master Cicerone level exam, there are 1854 Certified Cicerones that would be forced to take the Advanced Cicerone exam in order to take a subsequent Master Cicerone exam.

I have to ask you whether that sounds like something that you would request if you were a Certified Cicerone? I’d like to see a show of hands on that one.

Let’s get financial.

Further, the Master Cicerone exam costs $895 to write. You’ve got to go to Chicago to do it and it takes a couple of days. With “one or two” sittings a year that means that you can accommodate a total of 48 exam takers for a total of $42,960 in revenue for the Cicerone Program.

With 1878 Certified Cicerones on the books all clamouring for an additional level of testing before Master Cicerone, the proposed Advanced Cicerone level of certification will come to a town near you! That’ll save you some travel money (actually, it won’t because if you still want the Master Cicerone certification later, you’ll probably still have to go to Chicago).

Let us assume for the purposes of argument that the Advanced Cicerone level of certification will be a more difficult test than the Certified Cicerone test. It will take longer. That almost certainly means that it will be more expensive. The initial test for Certified Cicerone costs $395 to write. Let’s split the difference between that and the Master Cicerone cost and estimate that Advanced Cicerone will cost you $595 to write.

On an individual level, that means that to have a shot at attaining Master Cicerone status you’re going to pay not $895, but $1490.

What this means is that if every one of those 1878 Certified Cicerones want to climb on up the ladder, they’ll have to take that test and pass. That’s $1,117,410 dollars in examination fees that didn’t exist yesterday. That doesn’t include the fees for retaking either the written or tasted portions of the exam should you fail the first time around. That’ll bring in more annual revenue for the Cicerone Program because they’ll be able to invigilate many more exams in many more locations per year. 48 seatings for an exam per year no longer limits their revenue stream.

Remember: that’s just to reclaim the ability to take the Master Cicerone exam eventually. That’s a million dollar obstacle in front of an option you had yesterday for free. I feel like maybe people should demand exemptions.

Now, you may be worried about keeping up with the Joneses, but it seems to me that the prestige of Advanced Cicerone is not much of an improvement. Ask any Cicerone how many times they’ve had to explain what that term means. I’ll let you in on a secret: the ones who succeed are the ones who had enough hustle to do it without a credential they had to explain.

As for me, I think I’m going to hang my hat on Certified Cicerone. After all, they might add more levels, and I don’t really want to end up standing on street corners asking people to hold two Pilsner Schooners so that I can measure their beer related stress.

If you’re one of the Certified Cicerones who demanded an additional level of certification, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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15 thoughts on “Fun With Numbers: Sums and Sommeliers Edition

  • John

    Not a Cicerone. Not even a Certified Beer Server, although Both are in my immediate future. I can see their point. It does some like their is some kind of educational gap between Cicerone and Master Cicerone. Ultimately thought I agree with you. This seems like a big cash grab and perhaps a way to help alleviate the log jam of sorts. It might also be coupled with a restructure of the whole program itself. I think more important than having encyclopedic knowledge of everything beer is knowing where to look for information. How often does very specific information like that come into regular use except in educational or very high end restaurants?

    • admin Post author

      There is a significant gap by design, one supposes.

      I think I would not have written the piece at all had not the avenue of attack chosen by the program been to suggest that this was what we desired. That was not how the release was worded. It was presented as a benefit to us, the people with no choice but to foot the bill should we wish to advance.

      Had they said, “The failure rate for Master Cicerone is abysmal and this needs a rethink. Here’s an optional intermediate level you can attempt instead.” this article would not exist.

  • Alan

    “Given that the certification has been around for some time and there are only 10 of them, we may take it as read that it is very difficult indeed.”

    Any idea of the participation and failure rates? One could also take it to read that the rewards are not worth the effort or cost of taking on the test.

    • admin Post author

      I believe 3/46 is the figure for the last two exams. It is meant to be difficult. If everyone passed, people would accuse the program of being too easy.

  • Alan

    Interesting. So there isn’t a backlog of folk who are not getting the chance to take the test. There were two spare seats. Easy is only relative to the candidates. What’s the passing grade?

  • Alan

    Not at all. That makes sense. You know what they should sell is updates. Continuing education for those with the certification. We are hit with that sort of programming non-stop.

    • admin Post author

      That would be a very good option indeed. However, you’d need to develop those modules and it would be impossible to make them mandatory.

  • Alan

    But without updates the training – especially around, say, styles – might be considered to have a stale date. They would just have to manage the idea that maintaining good standing is good for the certificate holder as opposed to a weakness in the original training.

  • Jared

    Doesn’t this change simply mimic the structure of the wine sommeliers? Seems fitting for a program designed to create “beer sommeliers” would follow the lead of the more established and well known program.

  • Scott

    I write my Cicerone in 20 days, and this piece of news has been an interesting backdrop to my feverish reading and tasting.

    I like the program, and I appreciate being able to study for a hard test– one that actually carries weight. Thing is, even though a certification will definitely help you get a good job in the industry, the rewards for certification at the Master (and now Advanced) level are almost nonexistent. Really, this is a product of how we consume craft beer. Sommelier is a real position in a restaurant, but the attitude I notice is that a Cicerone cert often overqualifies you as a bartender or server. Not that a bar wouldn’t necessarily love to have a Cicerone on staff, but for many I know, the test that proved they were good at serving beer ended up being a way out from behind the stick. Even at a cursory glance in the directory, it seems most Cicerones work sales jobs. So if a Cicerone cert gets you a job in sales, what is left? There’s a reason that most of the Master Cicerones make their own work; they have to, because the established industry doesn’t reward their superior knowledge.

    Maybe the Advanced cert is trying to mitigate the fact that the number of Cicerone is growing rapidly. Maybe these jobs will eventually expect certification as a basic requirement, so maybe having another level to fill out will create a little more stratification. I don’t know if this will happen, but it’s interesting to think about.

    It definitely seems like a cash grab, but that’s the trend we’ve been seeing from the office in Chicago, right? Somehow, introducing another level of testing still didn’t bother me as much as offering classes to pass their own test (but this is Toronto, and I should watch my volume on that subject).

  • slipperypete

    As someone whom is writing the Master Cicerone exam this November, I feel like I need to weigh in on this.

    Do you think you’ll pass? – No way, Jose. Statistically, I’m already doomed. Coupled with the fact I need to learn basically EVERYTHING about beer and the brewing process, it’s gonna be tough. Most people need to take the exam once just to wrap their heads around what’s involved.

    Why take it? – Strictly personal motives. It may help my Career, but from what I’ve noticed, all the Master Cicerone’s were already completely involved in the brewing industry. I’m pretty sure getting the certification didn’t change what they were doing. For me, it’s just something I would like to achieve.

    How much do you study? – It works out to about 20 – 25 hours a week. That doesn’t include the podcasts that I listen to on my iPod.

    So much money really? – I haven’t been looking forward to this:

    Master exam fee – $695

    Flight and hotel to Chicago (3 nights) – $1150

    Off-flavour spike kits (purchased from Cicerone) – $575 (Geosmin anyone?)

    Books purchased for study – $450

    Draught equipment for practice – $215

    Beer for study – $1000+

    The beer price includes the border and duty fees incurred travelling to Buffalo and Michigan to acquire hard to find styles. All prices are in US currency.

    Yep, over 4G’s I’ve spent so far on the Master Cicerone exam. Damn.

    What’s this Advanced Cicerone? – Beats me. Nobody at Cicerone asked me about this, and I certainly didn’t request another level of education.

    Suffice to say, I’m still going to Chicago to write this big bastard. Will I be able to challenge the Master exam again if I fail, or have to do the new Advanced? I honestly don’t know.

    What I do know is that I’m not giving Cicerone anymore money.

    If you’ll excuse me, I need to memorize the vital statistics on every Hop in existence.