Beer Beer Beer

The Blind Monk's Jason Hunt Talks Craft Beer and the Cicerone Certification Program

With the rapid rise of the craft beer industry, experts are needed to convey the vast knowledge of beer. Thus began the Certified Cicerone Program in January 2008.

Jason Hunt, assistant general manager of The Blind Monk in West Palm Beach and Oklahoma native, is the Florida representative for the program.

To sum it up a Cicerone (pronounced sis-uh-rohn) is the beer equivalent of a sommelier, or a

person with professional knowledge of wine. There are three levels:

level one (certified beer server), level two (Certified Cicerone) and level three (Master Cicerone). There are only six Master Cicerones in the world and none in Florida, according to Hunt.

Both levels two and three are referred to as "Cicerones", although that term is discouraged to describe a person in the program, Hunt said. Nonetheless, they must know everything about beer from history, to how it's brewed to how it's poured.

After earning a Bachelor of Arts from Florida Southern College in 1998, Hunt went to work at Bennigan's in Orlando before joining the staff at Yardhouse in 2006. He eventually earned his level two certification through the program. It is the brainchild of Ray Dainels whose company, the Craft Beer Institute in Chicago, administers the program.

Signing on with The Blind Monk in 2012, Hunt continued his work rewriting training manuals and adding in sections on beer salesmanship. He is also an avid


Becoming a Cicerone is not easy. It takes years. Hunt immersed himself in the trade and eventually became the proctor of level two exams in the entire state of Florida. And even though he occasionally tutors, he cannot proctor his students. Hunt is currently working toward his level three certification 

With new data from the Brewer's Association showing a 15 percent growth of craft beer in 2012, the demand is increasing on the front for a certified professional who can operate on several different levels ranging from the production, distribution and consumption of beer. There are now more than 18,000 members in the program, according to Hunt.  

He breaks the program down for the New Times.

New Times: How is the the Cicerone program different from any other beer program?
Jason Hunt: There is the sommelier program, so there is that standard which elevates wine service at bars or restaurants throughout the world. We found that there was definitely a need for that in the beer world as well. It was partly the experience of having bad beer at so many different beer bars that was the reason why Ray Daniels and some other folks began the program in 2007 as kind of a way to create a certification program to create a world-wide standard for beer service. That really is the main focus of the cicerone program and it's what differentiates it from a brewing program. Where one is for brewing knowledge, this one is about the service of beer and the knowledge of beer.  

How has the program changed beer service?
As the name becomes more recognized, more beer-friendly bars, breweries and distributors have the opportunity to provide better service. If they become a part of the program, they increase the baseline knowledge of those working in the industry across the board. Therefore, you have much better selections at a variety of beer bars and much better quality of service at those bars as well. But it is still in its infancy. In the same way that you wouldn't necessarily find a sommelier at a restaurant with an outstanding wine list, you wouldn't find a cicerone at a beer bar. But more and more you will. More often you will find at least the level one of the program, which is a certified beer server.

Will level one status become a standard for serious beer bars?
Within the more beer-centric areas you find bars advertising that their entire staff are level one or higher. Even if they are not hiring only certified beer servers, it's an expectation that once they are hired, they will achieve the level one status within six months. The people who serve and sell beer are the people with the greatest number of certified beer servers and it probably won't go beyond that requirement in food service because the levels two and three exams are so difficult. An increasing number of craft beer distributors are requiring their staff to be level one certified, or even sometimes levels two and three certified. 

How much studying do you suggest for the level one and two certifications?
Each person learns differently at different speeds, but there are time requirements working in the industry for each level. Probably a few months of study to pass level one, at least one year for level two exam and a couple of years for level three. The test mainly focuses on five different areas. It depends on what area of the industry you are coming from. For instance, a brewer may know a lot about brewing but nothing about setting up draught systems or beer and food pairings.

How challenging are the exams?
You basically need almost an equivalent level of knowledge of beer styles as the judges in the BJCP program. Then you would need to have mastered that to achieve level three. Then you need to know brewing technology, production and beer and food pairings, as well as daught system knowledge and proper beer service. The final portion is the blind tasting, which spans two days of morning and afternoon sessions for the third level exam. People often fail the tasting part if they get a cold or something, but retakes are possible. No section of the test is emphasized over the other.   

How does Florida fit into the program?
Florida is still an emerging beer market, so it's different than if you were a certified cicerone in Denver where you would get hired on the spot. It's because they know what the program is, same with Chicago and New York. Some people in Florida know what the program is, but more people are finding out.

In addition to Hunt, there are four other Cicerones in South Florida: Chris Montellius of Brown Distributing, Ian Salzberg of Drink Like a Local, Stephanie Trigg from Boynton who works for North American Breweries and Jim Brady from Key West.

The level one exam costs $69, the level two exam costs $345 with $75 to retake the tasting and $150 to retake the written. The level three exam costs $595, and 80 percent of that price for the retake.

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David Minsky is U.S. Navy veteran and Tulane graduate who has experience reporting on stories from California, South Florida, and the Deep South. He also won some journalism awards. Email or tweet David with story tips and ideas.
Contact: David Minsky