Saturday, June 24, 2023

Funky co-founder achieves Advanced Cicerone status

Collin Zreet is one of only eight Advanced Cicerones® in Texas (Funky Picnic Brewery & Café).

Funky Picnic Brewery & Café of Fort Worth is now home to one of the highest ranked Texas-based professionals in the brewing industry's Cicerone® Certification Program.

Collin Zreet, co-founder of Funky Picnic, recently completed the requirements necessary to achieve the rank of Advanced Cicerone®. Slotting in as the program's second highest tier, the Advanced Cicerone® position requires "distinctive expertise in beer, strong sensory skills, and mastery of flavor vocabulary for both technical and consumer audiences."

Only eight individuals have attained Advanced Cicerone® status in the entire Lone Star State, with no Texans identified as Master Cicerone® - the program's top level. Averie Swanson, former head brewer at Jester King Brewery of Austin, was the state's only Master Cicerone® before leaving Texas to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

As for the significance and impact of the certification, I reached out to Zreet to get his reaction to the news and to get some thoughts on what it means to him from both a personal and professional point of view.

Q: To begin, give readers a sense of what the Cicerone® program is all about.

CZ: Generally speaking, the Cicerone® certification program is a means for training service industry staff in all aspects of beer. Some other beer-related programs focus on individual parts: the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) mostly focuses on styles and flavor perception for beer judging; formal brewing schools are just that, education on more technical brewing processes and ingredients.

The Cicerone® program focuses on five key categories: Keeping & Serving, Beer Styles, Flavor Perception (including off-flavors), Brewing Processes & Ingredients, and Beer & Food Pairing. So instead of focusing on just one corner of the industry, the Cicerone® program is a more wholistic approach.

Q: What sort of commitment is involved in undertaking the path to become a Cicerone®?

CZ: The exam itself is not a means of education.  A syllabus of required knowledge is provided, but it is up to the examinee to find the necessary sources for studying for the exam.  The Cicerone® program does provide some resources with off-flavor kits, reading lists, social media channels, and a few online courses.

Starting with the Certified level exam, the written exam itself requires several multiple-choice and short answer questions and detailed essays covering the five key categories.  From there, a tasting exam is also administered that focuses on off-flavors and blind style identification.  The Advanced exam additionally incorporates blind flavor evaluations to the tasting exam, as well as an in-person oral questioning.

Even passing the second level Certified Cicerone® exam is an accomplishment, much less the higher ranks.  Not only does it take a lot of beer knowledge and practice to pass these exams, but it is also recognition from a highly accredited organization stating that an individual knows a certain level about beer.

Q: So, looking at it from the business side, what are the benefits to having a Cicerone® on staff?

CZ: Any business can state that they have the best tap list or brew the best beer, but having a truly knowledgeable individual on-site that can not only talk beer, but make food pairing recommendations and troubleshoot draft systems, makes a real difference.

With the craft beer industry now more mature, and even more competition with new beer-adjacent products, having superior quality and being able to point out off-flavors is more important now than ever. With lingering economic effects from inflation and so many options in D-FW now, supporting those breweries with superior quality is paramount in sustaining the local beer scene.  The up-ending effects of COVID have forced food to become a more integral part of most breweries, whether it's an in-house kitchen or rotating food trucks.  Having beers that are approachable and pair well with a variety of food will be vital for breweries going forward.

Q: With this background in mind, let's explore the ever-popular beer versus wine topic. Some people say Cicerones® are the Sommeliers of the beer business, a sort of parallel order of merit compared to the wine industry. What's your take?

CZ: The Sommelier certification (put on by the Court of Master Sommeliers) is probably the closest program content-wise compared to the Cicerone® program.  They are both similar in their levels of certification, with an introductory first level, followed by Certified, Advanced, and Master levels.  The Sommelier certification also focuses on wine service and tastings, in addition to the production process and history, not too far from the knowledge that the Cicerone® program requires for beer.

Higher-end restaurants and bars tend to have an in-house Certified Sommelier to select, serve, and recommend wine to patrons. The Certified Cicerone® (also Level II) is educated to the same level as the Certified Sommelier, but most seem to be enthusiasts or homebrewers.  If they are in the industry, they are more likely to be bartenders or other front of house staff, with little to no authority in buying decisions.

Cicerones® do not receive the same respect as Sommeliers, until they achieve the higher levels of the Cicerone® program. This could be because of the relative newness of the Cicerone® program, or more likely, the higher gravitas that comes with wine compared to beer.  Beer is just as complex, if not more so, as wine and should be treated with the same respect.

Q: Obviously, you've put in the work regarding the education and training aspects of being an Advanced Cicerone®.  From a personal point of view, why did you feel it was important to pursue the certification?

CZ: Personally, I wanted to pursue the Advanced certification to push myself and my understanding of beer. Not only has it increased my own personal knowledge, but it has helped me in my role at Funky Picnic.

Q: That naturally leads to the question of how will you put the training into practice on an everyday basis at the brewpub?

CZ: Sometimes, it’s just small things like troubleshooting a foamy beer line or deciding with our brew team whether we can substitute the latest hop products in a recipe to be more efficient.  Other more substantial practices include creating the beer and food pairings for our regular and beer dinner menus, or working with our staff on sensory quality control to ensure our beers are tasting and pouring properly.  Even deciding which beers to enter into competitions and what styles to enter has an impact.

Q: Finally, with regards to the future, there's still another level of certification to conquer in the Master Cicerone® level. Any plans to pursue Master status?

CZ: Haha, not any time soon! From what I've heard, the two-day Master level exam is exponentially harder than even the Advanced exam. At the moment, only 22 in the world have passed the Master exam. Maybe I’ll take it eventually.

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