Monday, November 24, 2014

My take on beer certifications

Here's my responses to the recent survey of beer writers' opinion on beer certifications:

Do you have a BJCP or Cicerone certification?
If you do, when did you receive it and why did you choose to pursue that certification?

I have the Cicerone Beer Server cert – does that count? I got it mostly as way to test my knowledge, and also out of curiosity. At the time, a lot of my fellow beer bloggers were picking this up so I thought I should too, and it was fairly cheap ($69), so it didn’t seem like too much of a gamble if I didn’t pass the test. I’m happy to say I only missed two or three questions and scored something like 94%. Though there are literally tens of thousands of people* with that particular certification so it definitely seems like less of an accomplishment.
*45,000 according to Cicerone’s Twitter.

If you don't, is there any particular reason why not? How would you respond to someone who asks why they should trust your opinion since you don't have ___ certification?

If that CBS cert doesn’t count, then consider me certless. I am an avid homebrewer and I have judged quite a few homebrew competitions, both BJCP-sanctioned, and non-BJCP sanctioned. I would like to get a BJCP cert for exactly the reasons Craig Gravina stated: to see if I can get it. I suppose it’s the same reason why people enter marathons or mud runs: to prove to themselves that they can do it. I would like to know how much I’ve learned on my own is enough to garner me some professional recognition. And the BJCP test isn’t too expensive, it’s just a major PITA trying to find a seat at a testing site that’s within a reasonable driving distance.

As for the full Cicerone certification, it’s something I would pursue if it were cheaper. It’s a whopping $395 just to take the exam! I do not understand how they justify that high of a pricetag. If I worked in the beer industry for a living and my reputation was hinged on having that title then I could see the benefit, but as a blogger I just don’t see the need. If they lowered the price to something much more reasonable I’d be more inclined to take it.

People have been questioning my reviews since Day 1. And when I first started out, I absolutely was naïve and starry-eyed. I’m not saying I’m an expert now, but I definitely know much more today than I did even a year ago. I’m able to articulate my thoughts and arguments clearly, and I can describe and critique beer using technical/brewing terms in the proper context now. So I notice that first-time visitors to my site as well as regular readers/viewers don’t scoff at my reviews now like they did back in 2008. If someone wants to argue taste, I just roll my eyes because you cannot debate taste as if it were empirical or academic. Though there are still a few psychotic trolls who would never in a million years take me seriously if I had the highest BJCP and Cicerone ranking in the world as well as the blessing of the ghost of Michael Jackson. I know I’m never going to earn their respect or even silence them no matter piece of paper I have, so I’m not going to let it bother me.

Do you think having either of these certifications is necessary in order for a professional [or even an amateur] beer writer/blogger to be taken seriously? 

I don’t think you have to have one of those certifications to be taken seriously as a writer, though it might help attract readers. If I come across someone who has something other than the Beer Server cert, well, that at least piques my interest because I’m inclined to believe they know what they’re talking about and that they’re not just some random shmuck or a troll. 

Of course, having a cert and being a proficient, entertaining, and professional writer, blogger or vlogger are two completely different things. Just because you’re an expert in something doesn’t mean you’re the best person to discuss it publicly. 

And, as I said above, you can have all the qualifications in the world, but there will always be that small – but extremely vocal- minority of dissenters that will give you grief for no apparent reason.

Are either of those certification programs, in your opinion, just for people who work in the industry, or can they be beneficial to regular drinkers as well? If so, how?

The Cicerone program is definitely for people who work in the industry in some capacity. In fact, they pretty much say exactly that on their website. So if you’re not a bartender, waiter or a waitress, wholesaler, or brewery rep, then there really isn’t much reason for you to go the Cicerone route unless you have money to spend and an ego to feed. 

As for BJCP, I suppose the most cynical way of looking at it is that you’re learning something in a confined context; namely – judging homebrew competitions. You’re learning how to judge beer relative to a fairly arbitrary set of conditions. It’s constrictive and it’s supposed to be. Those that apply BJCP standards to the real world I think are a bit delusional. Some of the most exciting and delicious beer is that which doesn’t fit into any one style category. You don’t have to be a Grand Master BJCP to realize that.

Overall, I don’t think there’s much benefit to even the average craft beer enthusiast to pursue either certification unless they really want to learn about traditional styles and traditional brewing techniques. Of course, you can learn all that on your own, too. I have through buying and trying thousands of beers over the years.

When someone has one of the higher echelon versions of those certifications (for example; a Grand Master BJCP or a Master Cicerone), does that impress you?

Yes, because I know those titles aren’t quick and easy to achieve. It shows they really have dedication, drive, and endurance. Being former Navy myself, it’s kind of like seeing a Master Chief (E9) with ribbons going up to his shoulder. Good for you. Just realize that it probably isn’t impressing laymen and outsiders.

Do those certifications do anything to make the craft beer industry a better place? Or do they just give people a de facto "license" to be a snob?

I’m not sure that certifications alone make the craft beer industry a better place by themselves. I mean, really, how and why would they? Craft beer still has a 10% share of the entire beer market. The macro breweries spill more beer than most craft breweries produce. We’re getting respected as the artisans we are, but we’ve got a loooooong way to go before we break the hegemony and overthrow the oligarchy. To think that simply having a couple professional certification programs will somehow radically alter the Zeitgeist is bit absurd. 

Perhaps a more optimistic way of looking at is that having these certifications is, as Gandhi said, becoming the change your want to see in the world. 

And I agree with the people who said snobs tend to be the uneducated and the pig-headed. You don’t get these certifications by only drinking the hot brewery of the moment or the flavor of the month, and crapping on those that aren’t trendy. If you were truly as seasoned a beer drinker as you need to be to get these certs, you’ll naturally come to appreciate a variety of styles and the consistency and professionalism of even the macro breweries.

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