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Charlotte Brewmaster Becomes One of World’s Only Master Cicerones

You may not believe that a test on your beer knowledge could be as difficult as a five-day exam on steam, diesel and gas turbine ships for the U.S. Coast Guard, but according to Joe Vogelbacher, the two are right on par with each other. He’s the one to ask, as Sugar Creek Brewing announced this week that cofounder and brewmaster Vogelbacher has been awarded the title of Master Cicerone, making him only the 19th person in the world and the first from North Carolina to earn the designation.

A Master Cicerone is the fourth and highest achievable level of the Cicerone program, showing an “encyclopedic knowledge of commercial beers,” as described on the program website. The Cicerone certification program was launched in 2008 by author, brewer and beer educator Ray Daniels, who called and personally shared the news with Vogelbacher on December 19.

Joe Vogelbacher knows all the things. (Photo courtesy of Sugar Creek Brewing Co.)

A Master Cicerone is the beer equivalent of the wine-centric Master Sommelier program. While more than 95,000 people have passed level one certification in the Cicerone program, only 19 have ever passed the two-day 20-hour long exam for the title of Master Cicerone, held only once a year in Chicago. Vogelbacher is cofounder and brewmaster at Sugar Creek Brewing and was the only person to earn the title in 2019, bringing more worldwide recognition to the city’s rapidly growing craft beer scene.

Vogelbacher publicly dedicated the honor to his sister, Michelle Pratt, who passed away during his first attempt at earning the prestigious title. According to a statement released by Sugar Creek Brewing, Vogelbacher began his journey in 2014 after opening the brewery, believing that brewing world-class beer should require a world-class education.

Vogelbacher and his founding partner Eric Flanigan were featured in a full-length internationally distributed documentary about the journey titled Beers of Joy. The documentary delves into the overwhelming history and culture of beer through the eyes of a celebrated brewer and a chef and is available on multiple streaming platforms.

In a July interview with the beer magazine October, Vogelbacher compared the Master Cicerone exam experience to that of sitting through a nuclear propulsion exam that he once had to pass before becoming a nuclear mechanical engineer. 

The test has a failure rate of 90% and tests the taker’s knowledge on five pillars of beer service including keeping and serving beer; beer styles; beer flavor and evaluation; beer ingredients and brewing processes; and pairing beer with food. These five topics are included throughout four different levels of exams: Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, Advanced Cicerone and Master Cicerone.

“Sugar Creek Brewing Company is dedicated to the craftsmanship of fresh, high-quality beer in a style and commitment representative of Belgian Trappist monks,” the brewery’s statement read. “The Sugar Creek Brewing Company philosophy combines the watchful eye of a Trappist Monk with the technical precision of a nuclear engineer to craft fresh, full-flavored beers that are immensely satisfying and intensely drinkable. Using unique combinations of aromatic yeast strains, domestic and imported hops and award-winning malt varieties, Sugar Creek Brewing Company infuses traditional recipes with modern tastes and techniques to create beer that nourishes both mind and body.” 

The list of current Master Cicerone certification holders includes:

-Mirella Amato of Toronto, Ontario, with Beerology

-Max Bakker of Hermosa Beach, California, with Brewers Collective and Anheuser-Busch

-Ryan Daley of Hamburg, New York, with Brewers Collective and Anheuser-Busch

-Nicole Erny of San Leandro, California, with Alvarado Street Brewery

-Pat Fahey of Chicago, Illinois, with Cicerone Certification Program

-Gavin Harper of Fullerton, California, with The Beer Maestro

-Rich Higgins of Bozeman, Montana, with Rich Higgins Consultant a la Biere

-Daniel Imdieke of Denver, Colorado, with Blue Moon Brewing Company

-David Kahle of Chicago, Illinois

-Rob MacKay of Glasgow, United Kingdom, with Drygate Brewing Company

-Chris Pisney of Chicago, Illinois, with Cicerone Certification Program

-Jason Pratt of Chicago, Illinois, with MillerCoors

-Brian Reed of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, with Founders Brewing Company

-Patrick Rue of Placentia, California, with The Bruery

-Averie Swanson of Chicago, Illinois, with Keeping Together

-Andrew Van Til of San Francisco, California, with SF On Tap Tours

-James Watt of Ellon, United Kingdom, with BrewDog

-Neil Witte of Kansas City, Missouri, with Craft Quality Solutions

-Joe Vogelbacher of Charlotte, North Carolina, (that’s us) with Sugar Creek Brewing Company

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  1. Joe may regret if he chooses to celebrate this certainly magnificent feat by coming home and insisting on being called “Master Joe.” I find “Very Accomplished Joe” or “Clearly Proficient Joe” to be more palatable options to maintain his approachable and affable standing in the community.

  2. My wife and I watched the show in Pasadena, CA and agonized with and for Meister Joseph. We are so delighted to find this article – a dedicated, good man, a veteran, a Bierbrauer of the highest order. Please take a moment to give him a call and tell him a couple folks in Pasadena are delighted for him.

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