Secrets of Beer Judging
An Insider’s Guide for Beer Enthusiasts and Connoisseurs
I’ve gotten some strange responses over the years when I tell people that I’m a beer judge. Some people don’t believe it’s a real skill―“Is that like a bikini inspector?” or that it doesn’t involve work― “How hard is it to drink beer… frat boys must be experts.” Others think I must be quite sly to scam free beer out of people, or they picture judges staggering around like W.C. Fields.
Of course, the reality is nothing like those fanciful stereotypes. Beer judging requires skill, knowledge, concentration and a fair amount of stamina. Those who have studied and practiced sufficiently can become certified beer judges by passing the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) exam. But you don’t have to become a BJCP judge to use some of our techniques.
Why would you want to learn such things? After all, you know you like craft beer and probably know more about beer than many of your friends. But do you know what it is that makes you like one beer more than another? Are you able to recommend beers to others based on their tastes? Do you know how to interact with bartenders, wait staff and beer store people to get what you want? Do you know when a beer is “off”? When you order an unknown beer, do you have an idea of what it should taste like? If you answered “no” to any of those questions, then developing beer judging skills can make you a more knowledgeable consumer. And, who knows? If you decide to become a BJCP judge some day, you’ll already have an advantage.
The Beer Judge’s Toolkit
No, I’m not talking about bottle openers and flashlights. Our “toolkit” is the basic skill set that every beer judge should master in order to be successful. Fortunately, these abilities are also quite useful to anyone who enjoys a proper pint. It comes down to four main ideas:
- Have a good working knowledge of world beer styles.
- Know how to properly and completely evaluate a beer.
- Understand and recognize basic beer faults.
- Develop a vocabulary sufficient to communicate perceptions and ideas.
Each of these takes some study and practice; but remember that we’re talking about beer judging, so there is a chance to try some very interesting beers along the way. Learning about beer and studying these skills is not something you have to do alone. In fact, it’s quite a bit more helpful to study and practice in a group since you can compare perceptions and descriptions, and you can try a wider range of samples. Since beer is an inherently social beverage, it’s usually not too hard to organize tastings with other inquisitive friends.
So let’s assume that you want to start learning how to judge. How do you start? I think you can go two ways: You can either pick out a selection of beers that are different in style or flavor profile, or you can choose various beers that have something in common. The first method will give you a good overview of different beer styles and the range of tastes you can find in beer. The second method will let you explore the range of a style, region or flavor, which can help you learn to pick out subtle differences. I think novices do better with the first approach, while more experienced tasters will get more out of the second.
Now it’s time to do a little research. Figure out which beer style each of your examples represents. A beer style is simply the type of beer it is; styles are a method of categorization and classification based on strength, flavor, color, region of origin or method of production. It’s shorthand between producers and consumers to easily let you know what you’re buying. If you see something labeled “stout” then you know it should be dark and roasty, while an IPA should be bitter and hoppy. Most beers list the style on the label; if not, you can often tell by going to the brewery’s website, or a consumer-focused beer site like BeerAdvocate.com or RateBeer.com.
Once you know the beer styles you will taste, you should learn something about them. Here is where the BJCP can help. The BJCP publishes free style guidelines that describe many world beer styles. If you have an iPhone or Android mobile phone, then you can even download a free app with the full text of the style guidelines (hint: search for “BJCP” in the list of apps). It’s quite a handy reference in pubs, beer stores or when settling arguments with friends.
Reading about beer styles helps you understand what to expect when tasting the beer. It also can help you decide in what order you should taste the beers (I recommend that you save beers with higher alcohol, more bitterness and stronger flavors for last). If you have a mental image of the beer before you try it, you can look for those elements when you smell and taste the beer.
When you finally sample the beer, think carefully and see if you can describe what you’re seeing, smelling and tasting. What flavors and aromas are more intense? Can you characterize them? Can you pick out the malt, hop and fermentation flavors? Write down all that you perceive, including the relative intensities and specific descriptions. Do you taste anything that is out of place? Is there anything wrong with the beer?
If you did get some friends together, have a discussion with your group about the beer you tasted. Do you all taste similar things? Does it fit the style description? Are people using different terms? Could you describe this beer to someone who hasn’t tried it before? Go ahead and try; it’s a bit harder than it sounds. If you need to describe it in terms of another beer, that’s OK (for example, “it’s like a pale ale but not as bitter”).
That’s the essence of beer judging: Understand what you’re tasting, think about all the elements of the beer while you are tasting it, identify any flaws or problems and describe it to others. Each of these skills can be honed, and you can apply this beer judging toolkit in a wide variety of situations. Now let’s take a look these topics in more depth.
Talking the Talk
Learning about beer styles and developing a good vocabulary gives you the ability to understand and then describe what you have tasted. If you read formal beer style guidelines (from the BJCP or from other sources), beer style books (Michael Jackson’s books are excellent) or even online blogs or postings about beer styles, you’ll see a variety of opinions expressed. That’s fine; it’s just that natural result of different people trying to describe what brewers are producing in a way that makes sense. Most brewers are trying to produce great beer. Some brewers (many in Belgium, for instance) profess that they couldn’t care less about beer styles. But consumers recognize beers according to style, and it’s the first thing most beer geeks ask about when confronted with an unknown product. So pick a set of style guidelines as a reference, and move along.
The BJCP Style Guidelines are an encyclopedic reference about beer styles, but are written towards homebrew competition judges. They give thorough, complete descriptions of most common beer styles. However, the details can sometimes obscure the bigger picture―the overall balance and essence of a beer style. Don’t get lost in the weeds; it’s most important that you understand what makes a certain style unique, and how it differs from related styles. Once you understand the similarities and differences, you can then focus on the details to learn the particular nuances of a style.
Commercial examples help illustrate beer styles. It’s quite useful to sample cited beers when reading about styles. Most beer styles have a fairly wide range of acceptable characteristics; for example, not all dry stouts have to be as bitter as Guinness. As a beer judge, you should avoid the “halo effect” of reducing a beer style to a single commercial example. You can find great pale ales that don’t taste anything like Sierra Nevada, for instance.
Beer style guidelines typically list the various components of the beer. In aroma, they can discuss the malt and hop character, whether any alcohol or fruity esters are present, etc. Appearance addresses color, clarity and foam stand. Flavor is similar to aroma, but also includes bitterness, balance, sweetness and finish/aftertaste. Mouthfeel involves body, carbonation, alcohol heat and other palate sensations. Guidelines present a range of intensities and descriptors for each. Taken together, all these elements fully describe a given beer style.
BJCP Style Guidelines and Scoresheets give useful terms for describing beer characteristics. This is a good source for judging vocabulary. For instance, when describing hop aroma, can you describe them as citrusy, piney, earthy, floral, spicy or grassy? Is the malt grainy, bready, toasty, caramelly, roasty or just richly malty? If a beer is fruity, can you identify the fruit? For instance, a hefeweizen may have a banana character and an American pale ale might remind you of grapefruit. The BJCP makes a scoresheet that is quite handy for new judges and those who are developing their sensory and descriptive skills. It has checkboxes for a wide range of common beer attributes, and encourages a thorough evaluation. Use these sources to both understand the beer styles as well as the common terminology. If you really want to develop a rich vocabulary, I’d suggest reading some of Michael Jackson’s classic books on beer such as Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion, The New World Guide to Beer and Ultimate Beer. No one could describe beer so elegantly and eloquently as the late Bard of Beer.
If you find it hard to identify certain malt and hop aromas and flavors, buy some raw ingredients and sample them. Homebrew shops might even give you some samples if you explain what you’re trying to do. Otherwise, buy small quantities from reputable local or online retailers. You can rub the hops between your palms and then smell them, or you can make a tea from the hops (steep in hot water for two to five minutes). You can taste grain raw, or you can soak it in hot water, strain the grain and then taste the liquid. Paler grains will just taste starchy but darker grains should show some of their flavor. This is another exercise that could be fun to do with a group of friends.
Walking the Walk
The practical aspects of beer judging include performing a structured evaluation of the beer and identifying common faults. While it’s possible to develop a solid background through book study, these tasks must be practiced repeatedly in order to master them. So what is a structured evaluation? It’s a method of completely, thoroughly and accurately identifying, describing and quantifying the major perceptual characteristics (aroma, flavor, appearance and mouthfeel) of a beer. This is the process that is repeated every time a beer judge assesses a beer.
When I evaluate beer, I try to do three things: document my perceptions, assess how well the beer meets style expectations and identify any technical flaws. The BJCP Scoresheet helps new judges learn to document their perceptions. For each category listed on the scoresheet (aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel), ask yourself whether the beer contains the attribute or not, and if so, in what intensity. I like to think about the sensory characteristics in the order I perceive them rather than how they are listed on a scoresheet. If you are describing a beer to someone, you’d want to list the most intense characteristics first since those are the dominant flavors and aromas.
You often have to follow an iterative process to refine your perceptions. You might initially sense malt or hops, and then get a specific character (toasty or citrusy) later. You might also have to isolate one characteristic to determine its intensity. Some beer styles are more complex than others (think imperial stout versus a cream ale), so take the time to describe all that you perceive. I also like to note the absence of certain characteristics (for example, I looked for fruity esters in a lager and found none―which is usually good).
Let’s look at an example of judging an American Pale Ale (say, Sierra Nevada). You first note a moderately strong citrusy hop aroma, reminiscent of grapefruit. So under the Aroma section, you’d check medium-high for hops and then check the “citrusy” box. You might note “grapefruit aroma” in the comments section. Next, you get a moderate bready and caramel malt aroma. So you’d check the medium box for malt aroma, then the “bready” and “caramel” malt boxes. You might get a light fruity aroma, so you’d check low for esters and “fruity” for the character. You don’t note any other aromatics, so you’d move on.
In the Appearance section, you’d note that it’s clear with a golden color and a white head. So you’d check high for clarity, “gold” for color and “white” for head. Head size and retention are moderate, so you’d check the medium box for both. Flavor is assessed like aroma, noting the moderately high bitterness, the strong citrusy hop flavor, the moderate grainy-caramel malt character and the light esters. You don’t note any sweetness, acidity, phenols, alcohol or harshness, so you’d check “none” for those characteristics.
Mouthfeel covers body, carbonation and other related characteristics. You note that it is a medium-bodied beer with moderate carbonation. Check the medium boxes for body and carbonation. You don’t note any alcohol warmth, astringency or creaminess, so check the “none” boxes. The finish is fairly dry, so you’d check the “dry” box. Complete the sheet by noting any flaws in the section at the bottom. Most well-known commercial beers will have few flaws, but you might get oxidation in an older beer.
Once you have listed your perceptions, it’s a fairly easy matter to reconcile your perceptions with the style guidelines. Compare what you perceived with what the style guidelines describe. If anything is significantly outside typical ranges, your beer probably has some style-related issues (for example, an Oktoberfest that is too bitter). A beer that is out of style can be perfectly drinkable, but just not very representative of what other brewers are making.
Beer faults are perceived and described in much the same way as positive characteristics. You look for them in flavor, aroma, appearance and mouthfeel. These are generally errors made during brewing, fermentation, packaging or handling. The BJCP publishes a Fault List of common errors, although many of these are not found too often in commercial beer. The most common problems are oxidation, age/staleness and infection.
Oxidation and staleness are related, but oxidation is more extreme―paper or cardboard flavors, harsh bitterness, often excessively fruity esters. General staleness is more of a dullness in flavor and lack of a fresh, clean “pop.” Infections can be mild to extreme; they can have vegetal flavors, like cooked cabbage, be sour, or have plastic or clove flavors. Some other faults may be caused by a problem with yeast or fermentation, such as a buttery or butterscotch flavor, strong sulfury flavors, and hot or solventy alcohol flavors (those can give you headaches). These are all undesirable in almost all beer styles.
If you detect a fault, try to be as specific as possible in describing it. Quantify its intensity and indicate where in the beer (flavor, aroma, etc.) you detect it. Some beers have characteristics that would be considered flaws in other styles (like sourness in a lambic, a clove flavor in a hefeweizen or smoke in a rauchbier). Be sure you thoroughly understand the underlying style before criticizing perceived faults.
Structured evaluation is a relatively straightforward process, but it takes training and practice to master. It’s helpful to practice with others, particularly those with more experience than you. If you detect something but are unsure of it, it’s often quite useful to have someone tell you what it is. Humans have strong memories of tastes and aromas, so once you’ve sensed it, you’re likely to remember it. Getting confirmation of your perception ensures that you’re learning it correctly.
When you’re learning beer styles and developing your palate, you might find it helpful to try to differentiate between similar beers or characteristics. For example, try two pale ales and pick out which one is more bitter. Have someone set up a triangle test for you. Mark three cups A, B and C and have them pour the same beer into two of the cups and a different one in the third. Can you pick out the different one? If so, can you identify what’s different? It’s an interesting test and can help you develop your skills. You can train on the difference in intensities of the same characteristic, or in similar but different characteristics (for example, toasty versus caramelly malt).
Finally, remember that when you’re trying to describe what you’ve sensed, you should use the full set of terminology that you’ve learned. If you find yourself searching for words to adequately describe your perceptions, then you probably need more work on your vocabulary skills.
Raising Your Game
Once you have learned the fundamentals, it’s just a matter of practice and study to improve your skills. Studying usually involves learning more details about beer styles, or perhaps picking up some homebrewing knowledge. Read books and magazines about beer, and continue to expand your vocabulary. Seek out unusual styles you’ve read about. Go to beer festivals and other events where you can sample a wider range of products.
Practicing is the fun part of judging. If you have the time at home, pull out the scoresheet and practice assessing a few beers. After awhile, this process becomes second nature and you can run through the checklist in your head. Remember that you can be training every time you taste a beer; it only takes a few sips and you don’t have to write anything down. Just run through your mental checklist about the beer, then relax and enjoy drinking the rest of your pint.
As you develop more knowledge and ability, your confidence will grow and you’ll find yourself talking about it more with friends. Believe me, most people like to know someone who can help recommend a beer or find something interesting to order at a new pub. Why shouldn’t that someone be you? As they say, with great knowledge comes great responsibility. As you learn more, you have a duty to share that knowledge with others and help build a better-informed beer consuming community.
If you show particular competence and genuine interest in beer and can communicate well, you can often parlay this skill into good insider deals. Most beer geeks keep a special stash of good stuff they only will share with others who will appreciate it. If you’re a good beer judge, you’re more likely to pass this test. You know you’re in when someone nods and says, “Hold on, let me get something from the back.” I love to hear that phrase, whether it’s at a friend’s house, at a bar or in a beer store. You know you’re going to get something special, and that the other person wants to talk about it. Good thing you’ve practiced.
With these skills mastered, you’re well on the way to being a great beer judge. If you want to try your hand at judging, check out the competition schedule on the BJCP website to find a location near you. Contact the organizer and volunteer to steward or judge. Stewarding is a great way to observe the judging and to sample beers along with judges without having to write down your comments. If you’ve practiced using the BJCP Scoresheet, feel free to judge. You’ll likely be paired with a more experienced judge who can give you on-the-job training. There really is no better way to learn.
If you want the ultimate experience, you can take the BJCP exam and become a certified beer judge. This test is not for the unprepared; it’s a three-hour exam with essay questions and a practical component where you have to judge four beers as if in a competition. Fortunately, the BJCP publishes an extensive study guide to help you prepare. It’s best to study with a group, and it helps if you have some homebrewing experience. But don’t be intimidated; remember that most beer judges started out as beer enthusiasts, beer lovers or beer geeks. But whether you become a judge or not, if you have taken the time and effort to learn these judging skills, you will truly have unlocked the secrets of beer judging.
For more on becoming a beer judge: http://allaboutbeer.com/live-beer/appreciation/2009/07/a-certified-success/
Gordon Strong is an award-winning homebrewer and Grand Master beer judge. He is the president of the Beer Judge Certification Program, and principal author of the BJCP Style Guidelines. He has a book due out next year.