Ask a Beer Expert: Here’s How You Can Be a Beer Snob

Talk about beer trends with Bill Carl, certified cicerone.
Bill Carl hoists a Breakside Pilsner at Real a Gastropub.
Photo: David Croxford 

When you go out for a beer, get ready to hear “cicerone” more often. The title is the beer world equivalent of the sommelier, and after a certification test held in Kona last year, the number of certified cicerones in Hawai‘i jumped from two to 14. HONOLULU checked in with Bill Carl, 38, the beer portfolio manager for Southern Wine and Spirits and certified cicerone, to talk about what the test entails and how he keeps up with his studies as he prepares for the advanced cicerone exam—a new level of certification.


The test has been around for 10 years or so. It would be doing the same thing that a sommelier would do. We get tested on server standards—finding the proper glassware for each kind of beer, [determining] if there are off flavors. … The biggest one we see here in Hawai‘i is “skunky” and the beer tastes like skunk spray. You’ll see that in clear bottles and green bottles and it happens when the beer has been exposed to light. We’re trained to say, “Wait a minute, this beer definitely tastes off.”


They test us pretty extensively on doing beer and food pairings as well. They would give us a few food items and we’d have to pair a proper food with them. Obviously it’s subjective, but there are a few rules. Take a steak—a big juicy steak with gorgonzola on top of it. If I pour out a light wheat beer, the food is totally going to overpower the beer. You want the beer to match the food.


Until about nine months ago, there were only three levels: beer server, certified cicerone and master cicerone, but the jump between the certified cicerone and the master cicerone was so severe. We have over 2,000 certified cicerones in the country. Now there’s the advanced cicerone, in between the certified and the master. 


I’ve been doing extensive reading on food and beer pairing and the history of all the different styles: the porter, the German Heifeweizen. You really have to know the intricacies of all these different styles. You can find me in the Kaimukī library quite often with my nose in a book.


I like to go to some of the local beer bars. I’ll have them blind test me. I’ll have them take out five different beers and not tell me what they are, and I’ll try and train my palate that way. There are a few guys who get together at Square Barrels on Monday nights. Maybe they are doing Belgian beers one week, and they’ll go through and try and decipher the specific flavors of Belgian beers. Most of my study is doing a lot of tasting and a lot of reading.


Step out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t have to be a $22 5-ounce pour of craft beer. It can be a new seasonal at your local bar. Try it out. Go into it with an open mind. I always say, “Don’t judge a beer by its color.” Even thought a stout looks black and thick and really heavy, sometimes it’s the exact opposite.