At first, most of us were happy enough to brew a beer that didn’t poison anyone.
However, as with all hobbyists, homebrewers get restless and start looking for ways to improve our game. Eventually, we may become relaxed enough about brewing to start cooking up our own recipes, or bold enough to enter a competition. Then there’s the step to all grain, for those who have the time and the inclination. Maybe jump up to bigger batches, as one guy in our club said, “…to keep the band together.”
One important milestone is when you knuckle down and learn the vocabulary of beer flavor and styles. This helps with everything: quality control, recipe formulation and your odds of taking home a big ugly trophy in a homebrew competition. As a brewer and beer fan, you have some of this knowledge already, but getting a full grip on styles and the myriad sensory pleasures of beer usually requires additional study.
Successful brewing is equal parts concept and execution. If you’re working within the framework of existing styles, the need for detailed knowledge is obvious. And, even with the most freewheeling approach, it is helpful to know the rules in order to break them. Plus, why reinvent the wheel completely? Those old guys knew what they were doing. Historical styles are a treasure trove of wisdom about ingredients, process and social context—conceptual gold for the straight and warped alike.
On the execution side, it’s useful to cultivate a deep sense of how ingredient choices affect flavor. The best brewers I know can reverse-engineer a beer just by tasting it. In quality control, what’s not in your beer is often as important as what is. Brewhouse practice, sanitation and yeast wrangling affect your beers in ways that are not always obvious to the novice, but stand out like a hammer-bashed thumb to a practiced judge.
Which is why you should become one. A syllabus for the judge exam preparation covers all of the above and more. The practice you get tasting, evaluating and discussing will improve your own beers, but will also improve your understanding and appreciation of all beer: so much so that I recommend that anyone really serious about beer go for the beer judge title.
The Bar Exam
The most direct path to enlightenment is through the Beer Judge Certification Program. This volunteer-run organization sanctions competitions (jointly with the American Homebrewers Association), and tests, ranks and awards points to judges for participation in competitions and other activities. In addition, BJCP provides the score sheets and maintains a very detailed set of style guidelines. All of this and more can be found at BJCP.org.
It works like this: You study brewing and beer styles, and do some practice judging, then take the test, a combination of written and judging sections. Pass, and you become a “Certified” judge. Higher ranks such as National and Master are achieved with higher test scores in combination with judging, organizing and education points.
Competitions are everywhere. It’s a rare club that doesn’t have one of some sort. Since the number of entries is proportionate to membership, even the smallest clubs can manage. And, as a way of testing the water, the AHA has a Club-Only Competition (www.beertown.org) several times a year. It does not require a lot of experience or infrastructure to get involved with this.
If you want to ease into it and see what the judging thing is all about, volunteer to help steward at the next nearby competition. Stewarding is the important job of presenting the judges with beers in the proper order and condition, collecting score sheets and generally running all aspects besides the actual judging. In many cases, stewards can find time to taste along with the judges, so can get some close-up sense of what the judges are seeing, smelling and tasting.
It is not always necessary to be certified in order to judge, especially in smaller competitions, but credentialed judges are always welcome.
The Judging Process
Judging is just a highly structured form of tasting. First, judges are expected to describe the beer accurately—what’s actually in the glass. BJCP score sheets provide a roadmap for the judging: aroma, appearance, taste, body and a catchall called “overall.” Each section is allocated a certain number of points, fifty in total. The score sheet really does force you to consider each aspect of the beer and its style. In competitions, the beers are judged against a detailed description of the category. Perfectly fine beers that don’t fit the category don’t score well.
Usually two or three judges form a panel, which is presented with eight to twelve beers identified only by numbers. About ten minutes is spent on each beer. Judging is done without discussion until the scores are written down, then a discussion, and if necessary, reconciliation is done. Judges should be within seven points of each other. I once judged with homebrew legend Fred Eckhardt and we were never closer than 14 points on any beer in the flight. We just laughed, discussed and changed our scores. If there are a large number of beers in a category, several tables might split the judging, and then the results of all the tables in the category must be re-tasted and ranked by the most senior judges to pick the winners.
Best of show is usually a panel of three or four of the most experienced judges. Winning beers from each category are poured and lined up all at once. Judges go through quickly and start knocking out flawed, out-of-style or otherwise non-champion beers. At a certain point, maybe half a dozen beers are left on the table. At this level, all are perfectly within the style guidelines. This is when the “wonderfulness” of a beer—the particular subtleties of a recipe and its execution—comes to the fore. Getting down to a consensus on the last three is hard. Sometimes very hard. Aspects like subtlety, uniqueness, difficulty of the style and, yes, even personal preference can all come into play, and if judges feel passionately, this can drag on for a while.
Because it’s a collaborative activity, judges really get the benefit of each other’s skill and experience. Being at a table with much more experienced judges is intimidating at first, but most people are very eager to help the less experienced along, and new judges are usually better than they think they are. It’s also a great way to get to know people in the homebrewing community.
And those, it you haven’t already figured it out, are the best people in the world.