A Cicerone’s Life for Me

When it comes to beer, a thirst for knowledge makes a world of difference
Photograph by Jennifer Choi


Cicerone (sisə rõnë) Noun
1. A person who conducts and informs sightseers; a tour guide
2. Mentor, tutor

What’s in a name? When it comes to being a cicerone, it’s about having a thirst for knowledge about beer. Similar to becoming a wine sommelier, a cicerone must undertake a series of rigorous tests. Certified Cicerone Robert Vedder certainly moved to the head of the class as far as Hour Detroit readers are concerned. They christened him the inaugural Best Cicerone in our 2015 “Best of Detroit” voting.

Vedder exemplifies the definition of beer lover and tour guide. He’s a history student who loves to share the world of beer without judgment, using the global language of beer.

“The day-to-day life of a cicerone is about education,” Vedder sayss. “It’s about historical implication, recognizing where we are and how we got here. We try to remove the ego … and recognize the bigger picture of how it helped form communities. We rate and recommend beers on their merits and how close to the original style they are.”

The move to a professional cicerone career was natural for Vedder. He spent a great deal of time researching everything he could about beer, such as historical information and recipe books.

Then came the test. Vedder says the rigorous process was a quiz on historical beer styles, and he drew upon his life experiences to complete it after having spent considerable time in England, Belgium, and the United States. The test includes sections on beer styles, beer flavors, off-flavors, glassware, storage, transportation, system maintenance, and service. The average success rate of Certified Cicerone test-takers is less than 50 percent.

Until recently, there were three levels in the Cicerone Certification Program: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone. Addition of the new midlevel, Advanced Cicerone, provides a new challenge for Vedder on his path to the highly sought-after title of Master. There are only 11 Master Cicerones in the world.

The Day (and Night) Job

Vedder’s days are spent expounding beer knowledge as a retail development manager for Powers Distributing in Orion Township, also working with restaurant customers. “I help with beer menus, programs, seasonals, and training,” he says. “Together with the establishments, we are creating ambassadors for beer.”

Tasks including working with bar managers on tap events, chefs on menu pairings, and store managers on presentation, rotation, and stock areas.

“Sometimes, bar managers are not really keeping up with style rotation, which definitely fuels beer sales,” Vedder explains. “Midwinter is not the seasonal time to stock (Bell’s) Oberon, and summer is not the best time to try to push imperial stouts. I’ve been to places that had 50 percent of their draft lines tied up with IPAs. The manager was surprised and implemented changes for the next order.”

Vedder also spends three evenings a week as the assistant brewer at the Institute of Brewing Arts and Science in Orion Township. IBAS, a beer laboratory offshoot of Powers Distributing, provides hands-on experience with classes for retailers, wholesalers, and consumers. Classes include beer history, the perfect pour, beer styles, proper glassware, service techniques, the brewing process, beer and food pairing, and beer sensory.

“It’s fun watching people learning about the different types of malts and hops going in to the final product,” Vedder says. “I’m really excited about creating recipes. I try to perfect the recipes I create over several batches. Making the base beer the best it can be prior to adding new flavors is key.

“People spend the evening learning about beer while we actually brew beer,” Vedder adds. “People get knowledge about the entire experience of beer each step of the way to the end product. It really raises their appreciation of beer and gives a firsthand look at ingredients and how those ingredients impact the final product.”

In addition, they also get to take some beer home. Well, technically, they take home wort (unfermented beer) for final fermentation and bottling or kegging.

The Future (and Past)

As Vedder pursues his Master Cicerone goal, he continues to spread nuggets of beer history knowledge. Like the fact that the hops in an IPA were “used as a preservative, during the long journey from England to the colonies in India,” Vedder says. “The natural astringent qualities of hops kept the beer fresh while traveling around the African continent.” Today, American brewers have pushed the boundaries of IPA to extreme limits, resulting in a new category for judging beer.

Vedder also stays up to date on the latest trends. “I’m really liking the aspect of melon beers. It opens the door for new drinkers in the craft world,” he says. “I’m looking forward to what will become the next big thing in beer.

“It’s an exciting landscape right now,” Vedder says. “The number of breweries is up and will keep growing for a while. We have so many options.

“Beer has been a part of our society from the beginning,” he adds. “Globally, it harkens back to days when there was a brewery in almost every town. That is part of what helped form communities and our civilization.”