I have to confess to not being much of a Boy Scout. Actually, I went directly from being a dutiful Cub to the shabbiest excuse for an Explorer that you ever saw, blithely skipping the whole merit badge thing in between. So when I graduated up to homebrewing, I was highly skeptical of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) a system that collected points and ranked people by experience and achievement.
Eventually, my interest in judging and the brewing process allowed me to set aside my grade school insecurities and dive in to the program. As I got more involved, its worth became apparent, and the process of judging homebrew formed the foundation of my sensory knowledge, and the source of many solid friends in the brewing world.
The BJCP is a volunteer-run testing and certification organization that also sanctions homebrewing competitions in partnership with the American Homebrewers Association. Membership works like this: You study, which involves oppressive homework like tasting lots of beers, and then you take a test that includes both written and tasting portions. You pay a one-time fee for this, and that fee covers the costs of keeping track of the points you get awarded for judging and other activities. With judging points and specific scores on the test, one moves up from Recognized to Certified, then National, Master and beyond. Higher ranks require organizing points as well as simply judging.
I think homebrew judging is so important that whenever I am standing up in front of people talking about beer, whether grizzled homebrewers or crusty Budweiser salespeople, I always recommend they get involved. Why? It’s the single most effective way to sharpen your senses, boost your vocabulary and understand the nuances of styles, ingredients and various parts of the brewing process. Sitting at a table with some way more experienced judges is a powerful way to get yourself focused, as nobody wants to look like a fool. And fortunately, it’s a game that beginners can play pretty well at times, as we all seem to have to have the ability to reach way down and pull up a vocabulary word from deep inside, and the reward is when the rest of the table nods and reaches to append their descriptions “Yeah… sweat sox… that’s it.”
There are score sheets that guide the process. It’s collaborative, so there are always at least a couple judges on the same beer. Initial opinions are formed silently, then discussed afterwards, a system designed to keep bolder or more experienced judges from dominating the conversation. There’s typically an informal apprentice system, where newer judges are paired with more experienced ones.
No matter who I am paired with, I always learn something, and some judging sessions turn out to be real gems. I once spent a hilarious couple of hours with Fred Eckhardt (elsewhere in these pages) where our judging scores for the same beer were never less than fourteen points apart (the standard is something like 5). Beer after beer, we just looked at each other and laughed.
The beers on the table constitute a journey, and you have to just hang on and go where they take you. It’s rarely contentious—after all, it’s just a homebrew judging. But sometimes the discussions get philosophical as judges debate the merits of being in the strike zone of the style as opposed to the less tangible pleasure-giving qualities of a beer I like to define as “wonderfulness.” When it does come to blows, I swear I have never seen any blood spilled over it.
It’s all very different from drinking beer, however critically you think you’re doing it. A judging form forces you to consider every aspect of appearance, aroma, flavor and more. And it does so, much like a dog show, in the context of judging not beer against beer, but by the ideals enshrined in the style descriptions. This requires you to aggregate all your beer style experiences in the database of your brain, and every new judging gives you a few more dots to connect. The result, if you judge enough categories, is a very wide and perceptive picture of the world of beer. As you have heard from me before, styles are not everything, but they are useful in a number of ways. The BJCP makes their style descriptions available for free to anyone who goes to their Web site: BJCP.org, and they’re well worth the bandwidth.
There is communion with others, as I have noted, but there is also an amazing dialog with one’s self. Training yourself to be a better taster is not like reading a book. It takes thought, practice and the use of some very funky and ancient parts of your brain, where aromas are processed and emotional memories live.
And if homebrew judging is not enough for you, there is a second organization that also certifies beer tasters. It’s a relatively new program called Cicerone, put together by friend and industry insider, Ray Daniels. The purpose is to train, test and certify people in the beer trade, equivalent to the wine world’s sommelier programs, but for beer. Rather than competitions, this one puts the emphasis on presentation of beer, and covers things like draft system setup and the matching of beer with food. The Cicerone program offers three ranks, achieved by ever more difficult and comprehensive exams.
While intended for bar managers, serving staff and others in the hospitality business, the Cicerone program does round out one’s beer knowledge nicely. As a result, many beer enthusiasts and homebrewers are adding this badge to their sash. And if you’re already BJCP certified, you’re more than half of the way there. Ray is starting to get a nice complement of training materials together and even offering some in-depth training sessions. You can find more information at Cicerone.org.
Whatever direction you choose, certification programs force you to get out of your cave and engage the beer community directly, sharing information and camaraderie, waxing philosophical over a sip of our favorite beverage. It’s a most pleasant way to spend time. And isn’t that why we’re all here?
A brewer since 1984, Randy Mosher is a nationally recognized writer and authority on brewing and beer styles. He is the author of The Brewer’s Companion (Alephenalia Publications, 1984), Radical Brewing (Brewers Publications, 2004) and Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Best Drink (Storey, March 2009).