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So you want to be a beer judge?

02/05/2014 12:30 PM | Anonymous
So, you want to be a beer judge?
by Ted Assur

Ahhh, the beer judge. Sounds like the best job in the world: getting invited to drive around the land, tasting all the beer you can handle, and maybe getting a free meal (wait, free beer AND free food?).

It’s not really that easy, but it can be very enjoyable. If you really want to up your game on beer appreciation and production, this is the way to do it.

Getting started:
I started judging after getting feedback from several beers I had entered at competitions. I had no idea what was involved, except my beers go into a room with a bunch of people, and out comes some papers with comments and numbers. I wanted to find out what it was all about.

I first volunteered to judge at the 2011 OBC Fall Classic, with a fellow Novice judge (a term used by the Beer Judge Certification Program, aka BJCP, to indicate a non-certified, not necessarily inexperienced judge). Over the course of the event, I was paired with two different BJCP Certified judges from the OBC. I was quickly schooled on the basics of how to judge a beer:
  1. Know the style: beer can be made and entered to specific style expectations. There are style guidelines that judges compare the entry to. Read and understand the style guideline for the beer you’re judging. When you’re getting started, it may help to focus on beer styles you think you like (more on this later), than just judging any style: if you’re an IPA fiend, and hate or have never had sours, don’t judge sours. Do the IPAs.
  2. Evaluate the beer: compare what your senses are telling you to what the style guidelines say about the beer. If the guideline says it should be a “malt-forward style,” and you’re getting big, citrusy hop aromas and flavors, something is not in alignment here. For me, this is really the second-hardest part of the job: identifying specific sensory feedback, especially in complex beers, takes patience and practice. But, when you’re starting out, stick with the basics: listen to your senses, compare that to the style description.
  3. Describe the beer: We’re not just in it to taste it: the hardest part is converting these sensory stimuli into a vocabulary. When you first start out, you’re going to say you taste “sweet”, “bitter”, “flowery”. You’re going to say you smell “hoppy”, “malty”, “alcohol.” Through practice in working with other, experienced judges, you’ll get more and more specific in describing the character of these senses, and knowing what words to use in providing a description.
  4. Find and describe faults: This may seem harsh, but you’re not just judging the beer as a recipe, but how well it was done. Anyone can burn a Betty Crocker's Double Fudge Chocolate Cake. That doesn’t make it a bad cake mix. You’ll learn how to separate recipe flaws from production flaws. I think the easiest way, at the beginning, is to identify flavors or aromas that aren’t what most people consider beer taste and smells: buttered popcorn, canned corn, sweet sauerkraut, bologna, band-aids. Not what most people want in their beer. Oddly enough, though some of these might be acceptable in some styles!
These four things are what all judges do. The degree and skill with which they do them varies, but the basics are the same.

Take a class:
After novice judging one time, I had the great opportunity to attend a BJCP class offered by local BJCP (now Master) Judge, Bill Schneller. This incredible survey of beer styles opened my mind to a world of beer like I’d never known. I thought I knew beer. I was wrong. I tasted and blind-judged styles I had categorically avoided, only to discover they were really interesting and often…delicious. I learned to appreciate a good example of a style, even if I didn’t care for it. If you want to judge beer and have never taken a style class, do it. Even if you don’t plan on pursuing certification, understanding the history, geography, recipe and production differences in beer styles will expand your beer appreciation immensely.

Stewarding:
If you’ve never judged a competition, and feel you’re really not qualified yet, but want to learn more, the best fit for you would be a competition steward. I won’t kid you: hands-down, these are the hardest working folks at a beer competition. They are the judges’ right hands in getting things done. They make sure judges have the right beer, and everything they need to properly judge. As a steward, you get to see everything about judging a beer, without putting a pencil to a scoresheet. Ideally, your table will share examples of great, and not-so-great entries. Often a buttery ‘dactyl bomb’ can be just as educational as a gloriously citrus and tropical hop-bomb.

Filling a need - Getting Certified:
The challenge for every competition organizer isn’t just getting enough judges. It’s getting enough certified judges. Every table needs at least one, and the ratio of judges to number-of-entries can be the difference between a smoothly run competition, and vicious slog.

If you’re ready to try this route, the first step is take the entrance exam. It costs $10, and can be taken once a day until you pass it. Once you pass this, you are a “Provisional Judge” and can take the BJCP Beer Judging Exam. This is 6-beer, 90-minute practical tasting exam, and costs $40. In essence, it’s a closed-book judging. Pass this exam with 60% or better, and you’re a Recognized Beer Judge. Don’t, and you’re still an “Apprentice,” with a year to retake it.

These are bare-bones essentials of becoming a BJCP judge, meant for a beginning audience: there are more details you can learn once you get into it (the points and ranking system, etc).

If you’re looking for information I recommend Gordon Strong’s article, “So you want to be a beer judge?” It’s a great next step if you’re considering it, in spite of having been written ten years ago.

Finally, the next opportunity to judge or steward locally is at Strange Brew’s 17th Annual Slurp & Burp, held next month. Register online to enter your beers, and also to judge or steward.

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