This Certified Beer Connoisseur Told Us How He Brewed a Career in Beer

portrait of Neil Callaghan
Neil Callaghan, an advanced level cicerone, works at Cigar City Brewing. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

Neil Callaghan went to college to study music, but after obtaining his bachelor’s, he found himself living in the college town of Athens, Georgia, working as a bartender.

His employer noticed that he had knack for the job and suggested he look into the Beer Judge Certification Program. He even offered to help him study. Callaghan didn’t have any intention of venturing into a career in beer, but he decided to go for it anyway.

While he was studying for the BJCP, which focuses on the brewing side of the beer industry, he stumbled upon the Cicerone Certification Program.

“I figured ‘Oh well, I’m studying for that, might as well study for the Cicerone Program as well,’” he says.

That was in 2010.

Fast forward eight years: Callaghan now oversees the coordination between production and sales as El Lector (The Reader) for Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida, and is one of only 80 advanced cicerones in the world.

What Is a Cicerone?

When you need an expert on wine for serving, food pairing, or recommendations, you turn to a sommelier.

Need that same level of expertise but for beer? That’s where a cicerone comes in.

(Oh and by the way, it’s pronounced sis-uh-rohn.)

Anyone can call themselves a “beer expert,” but a certified cicerone is the only person who can truly say they have proven skills in the beer world. These beer aficionados know everything from optimal beer and food pairings to the best practices for fixing a draft system.

While the BJCP is focused more on beer production, the Cicerone Certification Program is about well-rounded beer knowledge with a strong emphasis on service.

For Callaghan, the skills and knowledge he learned while studying to become a cicerone have benefited his career in the beer industry.

His day-to-day work at Cigar City Brewing involves taking all of the technical information that comes with the production of a beer and digesting it down to terms the sales and marketing department can use.

Becoming a cicerone prepared him for the job because it allowed him to build expertise on production practices, as well as how to deliver a good beer to the consumer.

“It forces you to really engage with parts of the beer industry and parts of beer as a whole that you might not necessarily look at,” Callaghan says.

Cicerones and the Beer Industry

4 small beers
Neil Callaghan lines up a flight of beer of Cigar City Brewing. Carmen Mandato/ The Penny Hoarder

As the program has grown, it has become a standard in the industry for identifying well-rounded professionals who really know their stuff. If you do a quick search on Indeed, you can find over 200 jobs that either require or prefer some level of cicerone certification.

At Cigar City Brewing, Callaghan says the company requires all employees to obtain level one certification, Certified Beer Server, within 30 days of hire. And that’s not just for bartenders and brewmasters — it includes everyone, even human resources employees.

“When they go out in the market or in the world and say ‘Hey, I work for Cigar City,’ we want to make sure they know what they’re talking about,” Callaghan says.

On top of requiring the entry-level certification for employees, Cigar City Brewing also favors wholesalers that have certified beer servers and cicerones on staff.

“That reflects to us as a brewery that these guys really focus on beer quality and knowledge,” Callaghan says.

Ray Daniels, the founder of the Cicerone Certification Program, says many people have approached him with success stories about how the program gave them a leg up. Some say it led them to a specific job, while others say it increased their salary.

Does that mean the cicerone certification is a golden ticket for landing a dream job in the beer industry? Not exactly — but it definitely doesn’t hurt.

Although Callaghan believes the program helped prepare him for his current job, he isn’t sure that the certification was essential to landing it. But he does think it gave him an edge over the competition.

So, is this certification program right for you?

If you want to expand your knowledge or branch out in the beer industry, it could be beneficial. But just remember, it’s going to take a lot of time, and you’ll have to pay for exam fees and studying resources. You can read more about those here.

For those interested in breaking into the beer world, the Cicerone Certification Program can be a good jumping off point and a way to get your foot in the door, but don’t count on it being your ultimate key to entry. At the end of the day, your devotion to the craft will determine your success.

“If you take things seriously, if you really dive into this, you can absolutely make a career out of beer,” Callaghan says. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but it’s a really rewarding and fulfilling career.”

Kaitlyn Blount is a junior staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She taste-tested a few beers for this post — for research purposes of course.