Monday, November 24, 2014

What do beer writers think of beer certifications?

It seems like every industry has private (non-governmental) certifications that can be earned by professionals looking to expand their knowledge, skills, and advance their career. In the beer world there are two major certification programs: BJCP and Cicerone. In case you’re not familiar with them, here’s a quick synopsis:
BJCPlogoFrom BJCP.org:
The Beer Judge Certification Program was founded in 1985 and has administered the Beer Judge Examination to 8,277 individuals worldwide. 4,752 are currently active judges in the program, with 741 holding the rank of National or higher. The purpose of the Beer Judge Certification Program is to:
  • Encourage knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the world’s diverse beer, mead, and cider styles.
  • Promote, recognize, and advance beer, mead, and cider tasting, evaluation, and communication skills.
  • Develop standardized tools, methods, and processes for the structured evaluation, ranking and feedback of beer, mead, and cider.

CiceroneLogoFrom Cicerone.org:
The Cicerone Certification Program seeks to ensure that consumers receive the best quality beer at every service occasion. To facilitate this, those who sell and serve beer need to acquire knowledge in five areas:
  • Beer Storage, Sales and Service
  • Beer Styles and Culture
  • Beer Tasting and Flavors
  • Brewing Ingredients and Processes
  • Pairing Beer with Food
To encourage participation by those with various interests and ambitions, the program offers three levels of certification beginning with the simplest and building to the most complex and demanding:
  1.      Certified Beer Server
  2.      Certified Cicerone®
  3.      Master Cicerone®

Though I don’t work in the beer industry, I certainly spend a fair amount of time opining about beer, news stories, events, and trends happening within the industry. I can’t help but wonder if beer bloggers/journalists/authors expect their brethren to have a certification in order to have credibility. So I decided to poll several of my “colleagues” to get their take on the matter. The results were quite surprising, and the attitudes towards these certifications varied greatly – from apathy to absolute insistence.

I managed to survey a fairly diverse set of people: men and women of a wide age range; various nationalities; and from volunteer bloggers to professional authors. Click on the person’s name to read their answers to all questions (which are listed in the next section):

I asked them five questions:
1. Do you have a BJCP or Cicerone certification
1a. If you do, when did you receive it and why did you choose to pursue that certification?
1b. 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?

The vast majority of the respondents answered that they had neither certification. Only two people had a BJCP title, and there was only one Certified Cicerone and one Cicerone Beer Server.
As for why they don’t have a certification, most people seemed to feel they were unnecessary for their field, since they’re not professional brewers or wholesalers or restaurateurs; they’re writers and feel they should be judged on their ability to communicate.

“I have a degree in journalism and have been writing professionally for almost (gasp!) 20 years, both in print and online. If that doesn’t count for something, well, you probably are not my target audience.” – Astrid Cook

“I know how beer is made, I understand its history and I have my own personal preferences and experiences to cull from when it comes to picking the beer that I drink. I’m not sure I need more than that.” – Craig Gravina

“…my years of experience writing and reviewing have informed my opinion and provided a certain expertise, albeit an uncertified one.” – Josh Christie

“Does certification make you a better beer writer? Not really. You don’t need a fancy diploma to prove to people that you know your sh!t. If you know your sh!t, it will show in your writing.” – Ashley Routson

“I know a lot more about beer than most people as a result of tireless research and paying attention. But sometimes in order to convey that I’ve got those things, I need a piece of paper to point to. In every single 21st Century endeavor, humans will find a way to discriminate against those who don’t have a piece of paper.” – Jordan St. John (Certified Cicerone)

A few people responded that they’re somewhat interested in these programs, but haven’t seriously pursued them due to a lack of time, inability to get a seat at a test, and/or they find the tests to be overpriced. The few that did have a certification were all avid homebrewers and/or professional brewers before they started writing.

2. 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? 

Admittedly, this question is essentially a re-hash of the second part of question 1b. Most people did not respond with a clear “yes” or “no” answer, but the majority seemed to lean towards “not necessarily.”

“…every writer has different styles s/he prefers, a BJCP certification will not make said writer any better or worse necessarily at making beer recommendations.” – Astrid Cook

“It’s the whole argument whether or not college degrees are important. Sure, getting a 4.0 in college is really impressive. But then, it doesn’t automatically qualify you for your dream job.” – Ashley Rouston

“As a writer, you should be judged by how gracefully you can turn a phrase and how accurately you report the facts. A big shot BJCP judge or highly rated Cicerone who spells everyone’s name wrong will have a very short career as a writer.” – Evan Rail

I don’t think it would hurt to have one. It takes a lot of knowledge to get one, but just because you have the knowledge, doesn’t mean you can get it down in an understandable and hopefully entertaining way as a writer or blogger.” – Norm Miller

There was only one person who answered with an affirmative “yes” to this question.

“Yes, it is very important to have credentials if you want to be taken seriously.  It is a widespread misconception that everybody is entitled to an opinion; an opinion that is not backed by knowledge is worthless. Proof of knowledge is important, most especially in today’s world where anybody with computer access can bloviate on any topic they wish. A simple analogy may help illustrate the prejudice people have with regards to titles: You’ve just returned from Liberia and have a fever. Whose medical opinion do you value most highly? A nurse, a PA an MD or the governor of NJ?”– George de Piro

I just about fell out of my chair when I read Mr. de Piro’s comment (the analogy part, that is). I think he’s confusing “opinion” with “argument.” When you argue (not “bicker”) you’re trying to prove a point. But simply spouting an opinion along the lines of “This beer is great; that movie is boring; this band rocks so hard; that restaurant sucks” is harmless since these are simply matters of taste. And yes, anyone can bloviate about any topic they wish, but if they are simply bloviating then it should be clear to the reader that’s what they’re doing so of course you wouldn’t take them too seriously. Isn’t this what we all do all day on Facebook and Twitter?

Additionally, I find the second half of the statement completely contradicts the first half. Is Mr. de Piro a politician or a doctor? No. So why -according to his own logic- should we take his opinion on that particular issue seriously? Though this further illustrates my original point: there’s a world of difference between personal preference and arguments/debates rooted in politics, science, medicine, or anything academic. Charlatans who attempt to make a name for themselves in these fields are quickly exposed as the frauds they are and tend to attract people who are as naive and gullible as they themselves are (e.g. Alex Jones, Food Babe, Jenny McCarthy, etc.)

Comparing beer certifications to a license to practice medicine is, quite frankly, ridiculous. In fact, a few years ago I made a cartoon spoofing exactly that kind of rationale (specifically, at 2:38):

3. 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 responses seemed to be divided right down the middle as to whether these certifications can be useful for the average drinker. They ranged from very cynical (i.e. BJCP is only worthwhile for knowing how to judge homebrew competitions; Cicerone is only for professionals looking to pad their resume) to optimistic (i.e. Knowledge is always helpful, so anyone can benefit by pursuing either certification).

Likely they are far more useful in the trade where being able to communicate a standard set of facts by rote is useful. This is not an unimportant thing in a commercial setting like beer and brewing, so I do not deny that value.” – Alan McLeod

I think if the regular beer drinker is really into craft beer then ultimately they will probably end up getting some kind of certification because it is so easy. But is it necessary? I would say not at all.” – Chris Steltz

I must admit that I don’t have much respect for the Cicerone certification program. It’s a made-up degree – a way to separate fools from their money. It’s something that anyone can do at home. Buy a range of, say, stouts; read something about the style; if you want, evaluate all of them, and you’ll get a good enough impression of what the style is about. Read the work of renowned authors, there are plenty, and trust your own senses. If a drinker would like to take things a step further, a sensory analysis course can do the job just fine.” – Max Bahnson

Both offer an opportunity to learn about beer, which may or may not enhance a drinker’s pleasure.” – Stan Hieronymus

I am a big believer in knowledge, so I think anyone can benefit from instruction so long as they do not simply accept all they receive blindly as gospel. Education is important, but so is the ability to question what is taught.” – Stephen Beaumont

Being a Certified Cicerone and BJCP judge would be important if you are in the industry. For regular drinkers, neither is really beneficial unless you are a homebrewer who wants to get into judging competitions and improving as a brewer.” – Ryan Reschan

If you’re in the business of selling beer, or pairing beer with foods, it’s definitely beneficial to have certification. We wouldn’t recommend a regular drinker take the Cicerone test, because why would they need to?” – Giancarlo and Sarah Annese

4. 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?

Most people said they do find either of these titles impressive because of the time and dedication it takes to achieving those ranks. A few were apathetic.

“I do think it’s impressive. It takes a lot of work and dedication. Just because I don’t have any real interest in getting them, I respect the time people put into it and the studying they have to do to get it. I’ve heard getting the higher level Cicerone certifications, in particular, is almost like taking a college course. That’s a lot of work and effort someone is putting in.” – Norm Miller

“I’ve never been one for needing affirmation or impressed by accreditations—really who, in the long run, cares? To be honest, BCJP or Cicerone certification always came off as something people did because they wanted to prove they were an expert.” – Craig Gravina

“I am impressed by the time and effort to get to those positions, and I have an added respect for their dedication and seriousness in beer. More than anything it indicates to me that they are “all in” and that they are not just dabbling in beer, it’s their life and livelihood. These are also the people that I sometimes seek for assistance and wisdom, so they also provide a great resource to the rest of us.” – Carla Jean Lauter

“It does, but only because I know how hard it is to get to that level. I also know that many people are physically incapable through no fault but their genetic make-up to pass those tests. Not everyone has the physical prowess to be a professional athlete no matter how many hours are spent at the gym. The same goes to those whose tongues can taste flavors that are very specific.” – Astrid Cook

Not particularly.” – Stephen Beaumont

It depends on the context. It’s probably good if people judging big competitions have those qualifications (we were very impressed by some of the judges we met at a competition in London last year) but we’re not sure they improve people’s writing.” – Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey

5. 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 suppose these questions are mutually exclusive – one doesn’t have anything to do with the other. Just about everyone seemed to interpret this question that way and answered accordingly.

“Education makes everything better. If more brewers had more brewing education, beer quality would be uniformly stellar. There is a big difference between a snob and an educated person. I think that the uneducated reviewer is actually the snob; it is presumptuous and arrogant to publicly criticize another’s work with no qualifications.  A true authority has the knowledge and credentials to back up their assertions.” – George de Piro

“….do I think certification begets beer snobbery? No, I think d-bags will be d-bags regardless of the certificate.” – Craig Gravina

“We think in order for an industry to be taken seriously it’s good to have some sort of certification system. Some people just put more faith and trust in degrees or titles. So in that sense it makes the beer industry a better place.” Giancarlo and Sarah Annese

“You don’t need a license to be a snob!  The world of beer improves when regular customers know beer well. We talk about the “lowest common denominator” as the driver of markets, and I think it’s accurate…  As the industry professionalizes and servers have accurate information to provide to customers, the education will happen more quickly and with fewer BJCP-like detours into misinformation.  That’s definitely a good thing.” – Jeff Alworth

The certifications themselves are great. Let me suggest to you that having a standardized body of knowledge that people are tested upon is a really useful thing… It immediately separates the wheat from the chaff and the noobs from the leet. That said, anyone who talks to you and tries to impress you with the fact that they’re a Cicerone should be roundly laughed at for being a pretentious knob. Respect should not flow from titles. It should flow from displaying some value…“ –Jordan St. John

“Yes I think it is good for the growing craft beer world to have knowledgeable and enthusiastic people working in bars and pubs. I think it’s a shame when I know more about the range they are serving than the people working there do.” – Rob Derbyshire

I think certification is great for the service industry, as it helps servers communicate useful information to the customers. Anyone who uses their credentials as an excuse to be a myopic snob was probably destined to act that way whether or not Cicerone existed.” – Stephen Beaumont

Conclusion

I’m not sure if this is a large enough sample size from which to draw any kind of precise “conclusion”. About 20 people responded to this survey and each question resulted in, more or less, 20 different answers. True, there does seem to be a general consensus to some questions and even the topic of certification altogether. However, this is obviously not a scientific poll and was not intended to be. It definitely was fascinating to read each response to each question (I highly recommend reading them all and not just the samples used in this post).

I would like to perform a similar survey of people working within the industry to see what they think of BJCP and Cicerone. And of course I’d be interested to hear from readers – to what standard do they hold beer bloggers and authors they read? Feel free to answer that yourself in the comments section.

By the way, if you’d like to read my responses to these questions, click here.