“It is a great thing to know our vices.”
— Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE)
Nobody I’ve discussed the issue of the title “beer sommelier” with thinks that the term is an appropriate one, because wine is intrinsically embedded into the definition. Over a hearty brew or two, many of us who think about words far too much have been trying to come up with a new word that’s the equivalent of sommelier but for the world of beer. Don Russell in his Joe Sixpack column suggested “Cellarman” Others have tossed out “Beermaster,” “Zymurgier” and even “Ale Consumption Engineer” for discussion. For me, none quite hit the right note.
Ray Daniels has dug deep and found a word that’s fallen out of use: Cicerone, which is pronounced “sis-uh-rohn.” He’s setting up a program where people can be certified in one of three levels of expertise by studying and taking exams based on syllabuses being created as we speak. So far, a draft of the novice syllabus is ready, which is to attain the first level, called a “Certified Beer Server,” along with the master syllabus for both “Certified Cicerone” and “Master Cicerone.”
From the website:
The word Cicerone (pronounced sis-uh-rohn) has been chosen to designate those with proven expertise in selecting, acquiring and serving today’s wide range of beers. The titles “Certified Cicerone” and “Master Cicerone” are protected certification trademarks. Only those who have passed the requisite test of knowledge and tasting skill can call themselves a Cicerone.
I confess that my initial reaction to the word wasn’t entirely positive, probably just because it is an unfamiliar word with no intuitive meaning. But by letting it marinate for a few days, it is beginning to grow on me. I certainly love the idea of having our own word. By using a word currently unknown to all but the most accomplished crossword puzzler, we can take it and make it our own. There are already rumblings and grumblings by people who don’t like the word because it isn’t beer-y enough or wasn’t decided upon by a committee of industry leaders. I say let’s just move past that and work on the more important task of creating a world where every fine restaurant has its own sommelier and cicerone. We could spend months and years debating the right word to use, and I for one probably have, but I’d rather keep my eye on the prize. I say kudos to Ray for hanging it out there and just going for it. The real trick for him is gaining acceptance on the front lines, at bars, brewpubs and restaurants. It’s in the beer industry’s best interests for an idea like this to take root, so I believe we should all support this idea and stop quibbling over the name. I, for one, am relieved to set aside that question. The sooner we’re united as an industry in using “cicerone,” the sooner it will gain broader acceptance, not only at eating and drinking establishments, but also with the general public, the civilian population. And when that happens we’ll have accomplished a grand leap forward toward our collective goal of getting beer the respect we all believe it deserves.
For my fellow word nerds, here’s some more information about the word “cicerone.” The website explains the origin of the word thusly:
Cicerone is an English word referring to “one who conducts visitors and sightseers to museums and explains matters of archaeological, antiquarian, historic or artistic interest.” For beer, a Cicerone will possess the knowledge and skills to guide those interested in beer culture, including its historic and artistic aspects. “Cicerone” now designates a person with demonstrated expertise in beer who can guide consumers to enjoyable and high-quality experiences with great beer.
According to my O.E.D., the word is taken from the name of the Roman orator and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and is “supposed [to be] referring to his learning or eloquence,” similar to the word mentor, which seems to fit. The OED definition is:
A guide who shows and explains the antiquities and curiosities of a place to strangers.
It was first used in print in 1726 and by the end of that century began to be used more in the general sense of a guide, before falling out of general usage in the mid-1800s. The OED suggests Ciceronage, Ciceroneship and Ciceronism to denote “the function or action of a Cicerone.” Also, according to the OED, it’s actual historical origin remains unknown and curiously was used in English before it ever shows up in Italian dictionaries.
Personally, I can’t wait to have my first restaurant experience where after the waiter hands me my menu, a man or woman standing behind the server walks up to the table, saying. “Good evening, I’ll be your Cicerone tonight.” That will be a wonderful day.