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North Texas’ Newest Advanced Cicerone Talks About the Ultimate Test of Beer Expertise

If you've ever wanted to taste a bunch of flawed beers and identify what went wrong with them, there is a long multi-part exam for you to take.
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Funky Picnic, in Fort Worth, can now boast one of the beer-knowledgeable leaders in Texas—and the whole country. courtesy Funky Picnic Brewery

One of Texas’ most exclusive professional clubs just gained a new member. Collin Zreet, cofounder of Fort Worth’s Funky Picnic Brewery, recently became an Advanced Cicerone, a certification recognizing professional expertise in beer. The program, similar to sommeliers in wine, helps establish standards of knowledge and training for beer industry professionals.

Advanced is the third level of cicerone, and Zreet is just the eighth in Texas. Shortly after he got the congratulatory email, and before the certificate arrived in the mail, I called Zreet to ask him about the certification process, what it means, and how much he had to study. The big takeaway: becoming an Advanced Cicerone sounds like passing the bar exam, only with beer. It’s intense. Here’s our chat, lightly edited for clarity.

For people who don’t know, what does it mean to be an Advanced Cicerone? Walk us through the kind of preparation and study and expectations that went into this.

Let me start with a general overview of the cicerone program, because it’s new compared to the sommelier program in wine. It’s a way to educate and certify people in the service industry on beer knowledge. It’s based out of Chicago, and similar to the sommelier program, they have four levels. There’s an introductory Certified Beer Server. You can’t call yourself a cicerone if you pass that. That’s an online exam. Certified Cicerone, Advanced, and then Master beyond that, those are combined online and in-person exams. Advanced is the third of four. There are eight of us Advanced in Texas, and no Masters. Averie Swanson was a Master, she was the head brewer at Jester King outside Austin, but she started her own project and moved out of state.

There is a written component as well as a tasting component. During COVID, they moved the written part of it online. The written exam is two three-hour sections. It’s mostly multiple-choice, short answer, it covers all the basic kinds of topics. Brewing process and ingredients. Flavor perception, how to analyze a beer and that also includes detecting off flavors. Keeping and serving beer—how to pour, what glass to use, different temperatures. Beer styles, [in] 27 different general categories, and each of them has three to five different substyles under that, so it’s well over a hundred where you need to know flavor, mouthfeel, specific glassware. Food and beer pairing, which is one of my stronger suits since we are a brewpub.

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Collin Zreet sampling the goods at Funky Picnic. credit Funky Picnic Brewery

And then there’s also essays associated with each of those. Eight essays. They give you a prompt on any of those. “Tell me what you know about this specific beer style.” For beer and food pairing, they’d say, “hey, here’s a dish, how can you incorporate beer in the cooking process? Why does the pairing work? Using various cooking techniques, how can you improve the pairing?” They don’t want you to just say, this one dish goes with this one beer.

I took the tasting portion back in September. That one’s broken up into four different sections. Each one has their own panel. The first one is off flavors. They give you six samples and they use the same beer, usually a lighter mass-market lager, and they’ll spike it with different off flavor compounds. There’s a list of 12 that you need to know. Some of the basic ones are repeated from the previous exam, beers that are light-struck, or have infection. The ones they add on are a little bit more nuanced and the tasting threshold is lower in how much they spike it.

The second panel, they give you a few beers blind, they don’t tell you what they are, and they want you to give detailed flavor descriptions. Not just “hoppy, malty, yeasty.” Is it espresso? The hop compounds, is it more grapefruit peel versus grapefruit flesh? That panel is looking specifically more at the consumer level, not necessarily the technical chemistry-focused flavor compound names. The fourth panel is more technical—two beers, write a long form description, use technical terms as if you’re talking to another brewer in the industry and you want to use the chemistry terms.

The third one is, they give you a flight of beers, each one they give you a set of options that are somewhat similar, and you identify the beers. In between the second and third panels, there’s an oral component. The two proctors for my exam each had a topic and just asked me questions and I had to answer right off the bat, couldn’t have time to think about it.

What are some useful things you learned from this process? Things that you could use as a business owner, or something you’ll remember sitting in a bar having a drink.

Being a business owner, being able to sit down and go through each of our beers every time I’m there and keeping an eye out for some of those off flavors, now I’ve been trained in that to make sure our quality is up to that every day. Being an owner is not just sitting around drinking beers every day. It’s kind of the last thing I do.

But also training our staff in that. Our brewing team is already trained in that, they’re around it more, where our staff isn’t necessarily coming from the beer industry. Being more of a restaurant, a lot of our staff comes from other restaurants or bars. So now I’ll be able to better train them.

One thing that’s amazing about the different beer styles that you have to know, more than a hundred, is that people are still inventing new styles. You guys have a New Zealand pilsner and a peanut butter stout right now.

It almost seems like everyone’s trying to come up with that new latest trendy style. A lot of that, too, is borrowing from other beer cultures and putting our own spin on it. IPAs came from England, and the American hop-growing regions influenced how we brew that style. Some of the Belgian styles, when you look at Jester King, their mixed-culture beers came out of the Belgian tradition but they want to make it their own, not use the old style and naming conventions. They’ve kind of pioneered an American version of those sour beer styles from Belgium. There’s a lot of borrowing and then making it our own.

Now that you have attained beer enlightenment, I’m going to ask you the hardest question I can think of. The ultimate test of a brewer’s knowledge. The biggest skills challenge. Miller, Coors, or Bud?

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courtesy Funky Picnic Brewery

If I had to choose, I’d say Miller. Can’t say I drink much of either three, but there is a big Miller plant here in Fort Worth, so it’s supporting local. Kinda. Hah!

So you’re not the head brewer at Funky Picnic, right? Does this mean you’re going to be way more annoying to him?

No! I’ll still keep it to a minimum.

What does it mean for the brewery? What does it mean for you?

Personally, it’s nice to have recognition from an outside party. It’s one thing to say, I’ve been reading these books, or I know about this style, or hey, I own a brewery. It’s another to have an outside party say there’s only this many people in the world who have passed this level of examination.

I think it also validates Funky Picnic as well. I learned a lot being around our brewer Michael Harper as well. [Co-founder] Samantha Glenn and I came in as homebrewers. It’s one thing to read it in a book but if I can go to my brewer and say, hey, can you explain this process or show me how we do it here—it’s a testament to our business. Even on the food pairing side, I can talk to our chefs, and with our beer dinners we can try different combinations.

Has this studying process and this additional training changed the way you drink beer? Or the way you think about drinking?

Personally I think it’s given me a little bit more appreciation for the classic styles. The classic brewers. A lot of the beers that are out there right now are triple hazy this, kettle sour that. [For the exam,] I’m going through reading about a lot of [more classic] styles, and the style guidelines have four or five examples. A lot of them are the beers I drank when I was just getting into craft beer years ago. I went back through those beers, where I had that beer for the first time six or seven years ago and haven’t had it since, and saw how good they still are, how they hold up. I’ve kind of revisited beers that were more of my introduction to beer, before we had so many local breweries.

Are you going to go for the fourth and highest level, Master Cicerone?

I don’t plan to, but I also wouldn’t say never. There are only 22 Master Cicerones worldwide and it’s a two-day in-person exam, so pretty daunting as it is!

Anything else you want to share?

Make sure you’re always supporting the breweries that you like and the restaurants that you like! Things are still pretty tough. COVID might technically be over but with all the economic impacts of COVID, it’s still hard out there. We’re not through it yet.

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.
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