NAB Looks to Master the Cicerone Program

North American Breweries (NAB) is investing heavily into further educating its staff and wholesale partners on all things beer, from taste to malting science and everything else that might fall under the umbrella of suds, as it is now preparing several individuals to take the rigorous Master Cicerone test.

NAB, in an effort to establish itself as one of the most well-trained and educated beer companies in the U.S., is investing upwards of $500,000 behind its NABrewniversity program, which assists employees and wholesale partners in obtaining their Certified Cicerone credentials.

Launched in 2012, NABrewiniversity has already helped 56 staffers and distributors reach the certified Cicerone status, with another 30 currently going through the program.

But only nine were lucky enough to be granted full scholarships and accepted into the company’s demanding Master Cicerone preparation program, which includes world travel and plenty of beer tasting.

“We believe the more people understand about beer, the more they love it,” said James Pendegraft, vice president of sales and marketing for NAB. “We have made a substantial commitment to fostering education among our staff and partners through NABrewniversity.”

Six months ago, the ‘Mission to Become a Master Cicerone Scholarship’ was added to the program and awarded to beer industry professionals from NAB, L. Knife and Sons, Wisconsin Distributors, Ben E. Keith, Mandalay Resort & Casino, and Crescent Crown Distributing.

At an estimated value of $51,275 each – between travel to England, Ireland, Germany, college courses in brewing, distilling, malting science, and sensory food pairing, and, of course, the test itself – NAB is investing roughly $460,000 into getting the participants certified.Though Pendegraft’s take on education is altruistic, the investment into the Cicerone Program makes business sense as well.

“We can kind of go to our wholesalers and be providing the most relevant and important information about the products we’re providing,” said Katie Diederich, learning and development manager at NAB. “Now they’ll be able to provide that relevant knowledge [to retailers] and create a better experience for consumers in the long run.”

Diederich also emphasized the sentiment of “the more you know, the more you love,” however.

The idea for the program, Diederich said, was hatched as the craft beer category has exploded in terms of both growth and popularity and being educated is becoming more and more a necessity as the industry continues to evolve.

“There are so many more styles that are available. In order to have a conversation about the difference or effectively explain or describe the beer to somebody,” she said, pausing. “We kind of stepped back and looked at the direction it was growing in and realized we wanted to be educated in that.”

Similar to a wine sommelier, a certified Cicerone is someone who has a “proven expertise in selecting, acquiring and serving today’s wide range of beers,” according to the company’s website.

But only seven people in the world have passed the third and most difficult level of the Cicerone Certification Program. Regarded as Master Cicerones, these individuals have solidified their spot in the upper echelon of a growing number of people looking to become the world’s foremost experts on beer.

Should all nine of NAB’s participants pass, the number of Masters will more than double, meaning more than half of the industry’s beer experts, at least by Cicerone’s curriculum, will have gone through NAB’s education program.

To put that figure into perspective, more than 33,000 have passed the first level of Ray Daniels’ program, which he launched in 2008, to become Certified Beer Servers. At last count in February, more than 1,100 had completed the second level, achieving the title of Certified Cicerone.

NAB’s portfolio includes Labatt, Genessee, Magic Hat and others.

Its biggest brand, Labatt, produced 1,279,130 barrels in 2013. Its smallest brands, however, rolled out far less. Dundee produced 16,578 while 10,444 barrels of Dog Bite, a Genessee brand, were produced.

It recently named former Brown-Forman chief marketing officer Kris Sirchio its new CEO after Rich Lozyniak stepped down in January. NAB was sold to a subsidiary of Florida Ice & Farm Co. in 2012 for $388 Million.