How to Become a Certified Cicerone: Part 2
This article is Part Two in a series. In Part One, Cody took the test to become a Certified Beer Server, completing the first level of the program. He will be continuing his training in September and taking the test to become a Certified Cicerone in October, so check back in soon.
Toward the end of the Off Flavors class, I’d already had six of the worst beers I’d ever tasted in my life. “They’re safe,” Chris Pisney, the grading manager at the Cicerone Certification Program, promised the class. But those six beers didn’t taste all that safe. Maybe somebody should have assured us earlier.
During the class, Pisney taught us to recognize the myriad things that can go wrong with a beer. With his experience and palate, “something’s almost always wrong with beer.” The Master Cicerone looked a little wistful when he told us this.
Even to my less refined senses, there was definitely something wrong with the beers we tasted. They might have been safe to consume, but the samples of Sam Adams Light were infused with compounds that mimic the taste and smell of bacterial infection, extended exposure to light, or rushed production processes. Because the students in the class were still working toward Cicerone Certification, the samples were potent, with off notes several times as powerful as those a more skilled taster might be able to detect.
For example: I’ve heard of light-struck beer, which has been exposed to excessive sunlight, being described as skunky. I always just thought it was sort of generically bad, but now I can really smell the funk of that unpopular mammal in there. In countries without skunks, the description of this flavor, Pisney noted, is often “freshly brewed coffee.” I still don’t detect that. Somebody must be getting really bad coffee.
Some of the off flavors in the class were unfortunately familiar to me from failed homebrews. The diacetyl sample had a not entirely unpleasant butteriness, but now I know what’s strange about the batch of green-tea ale sitting in my fridge. Others contained notes I’d often heard described but never really understood until I was bashed over the head with them. I may not have spent enough time tasting or smelling “wet cardboard,” for example, but I can detect it now. And recognize trans-2-nonenal, a product of oxidation.
Very few breweries are producing such disastrous beers, but being able to detect even hints of these problems is crucial in the industry. Reps from breweries will sometimes visit bars to make sure their beer isn’t being served from taps that are damaging the aroma or flavor with even a hint of infection. [Read about a Groupon writer’s brush with a Guinness quality-control agent in Ireland.] Being able to identify the off flavor can help you troubleshoot a homebrewing operation, too, and I’m even one step closer to Cicerone Certification.
I don’t know if I’ll start finding something wrong with every beer, as Pisney said he does. I’ve definitely developed a taste for delicious wet cardboard, though.
Photo: © Cody Braun, Groupon
Cody is a banjo-carrying gypsy now accustomed to having a permanent home in which to brew beer, store journalism degrees, read Wodehouse, and bake bread.