Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Thursday, January 19, 2012 / 1:52 PM

What is a Cicerone? (And It's Not Madonna's Last Name)

What is a Cicerone? (And It's Not Madonna's Last Name)

If you're asking what the heck is a cicerone, you are not alone. The term is certainly out there and very 2012.  

Just yesterday, there was an article in the RFT's Gut Check column addressing the Cicerone Certification Program and how three staffers of Major Brands just passed the second level of the certification testing, thus earning the title of "Certified Cicerone." Congrats to the three. At the very least, such titles add credibility to Major Brands' beer program.

The RFT article was a fine, short Q&A, but it left many questions unanswered. Like how you even pronounce the word cicerone. Is it:

A) sis-uh-ROH-nee

B) cheech-uh-ROH-nee

C) sis-uh-ROHN

D) SIS-uh-rohn

E) beer sommelier

When in doubt go with E, because otherwise there is little agreement. The Chicago-based Cicerone Certification Program spells it out as simply sis-uh-rohn, with no indication of where the accent should be. Since the term was apparently derived from the Roman orator Cicero—and because it's an easy mnemonic—I go with SIS-uh-rohn.

Evan Benn, beer columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, curator of Hip Hops, suds contributor to Esquire magazine, and author of Brew in the Lou: St. Louis' Beer Culture—Past, Present and Future, concurs:  "I looked high and wide for the correct pronunciation,"  he says, referencing an article from June 2010, "and landed on SIS-uh-rone—no 'eee' and certainly no 'cheech.'"  Some Italians may take issue with Mr. Benn.

According to the CCP, the cicerone certification process (a trademarked program) has three levels: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone.

The first level is an online certification, obtainable with a bit of study and the passing of a short test (less than 30 minutes, according to the CCP). Certification testing began in 2008, and there are already 8,800 certified beer servers nationwide. According to Benn, The Publican in Chicago requires all their servers to pass at least the first level of certification. Per the roster at CCP, there are 57 first level cicerones in St. Louis.

Testing for the Certified level is much more rigorous: a four-hour test of all things beer. The syllabus for both the Certified and the Masters exams is a 19-pager, listed here. Besides the three recent certifieds from Major Brands, the only other local is Cory King of Perennial Artisan Ales, who earned his certification in 2010.

The Master's test is extremely comprehensive: Eight hours written, two hours oral, then two hours of tasting and evaluation. Only four (out of 24) have earned the Master Cicerone Certification, the most recent being Nicole Erny, who passed the test last November. She is the only woman and the youngest in the Master ranks.

The CCP is a young organization, founded in 2007 by Ray Daniels, and is "the only certification game in town," according to Benn. As such, some have been skeptical of the program. But no one can argue that it does raise beer awareness and doesn't look half bad on a resume.

The whole thing seems worthy to us. The CCP website even includes a quick 10-question sample test where the curious can check their beer aptitude. And we're curious.

(Oh, and for the record, Madonna's surname is Ciccone. And I have no idea how to pronounce it.) 

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