I Tried It: Beer Judging

It occurred to me the other day that I talk a lot about judging beer in BJCP competitions as well as pro-brewer competitions, but that I've never provided an in-depth discussion about what beer judging is all about. 

I have also encountered some confusion among people between the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and the Cicerone Certification Program. Although both programs are obviously beneficial for people wanting to learn more about beer, they are very different (and separate) programs, with different objectives. You can learn more about the objectives of each program by visiting their respective websites, but briefly, the objective of the BJCP program is to provide education and standardized processes for understanding and evaluating beer, mead, and cider, whereas the objective of the Cicerone program is to provide education and certification for beer professionals to enhance the consumer experience. 

Each year, homebrew clubs and organizations around the world host competitions, many of which are BJCP sanctioned. A "BJCP sanctioned" competition means that the competition organizers follow BJCP instructions on how to operate its competition, from ensuring entrants receive valuable feedback ("Meh" is not acceptable feedback for competitions. Or anywhere, really - stop leaving "Meh" as beer feedback, everyone) to providing training for aspiring judges. 

The providing training part is one of the most important aspects to highlight about BJCP competitions. In my experience, a lot of people think you need to have a certain level of training before you can even qualify to be an "aspiring" beer judge. You don't. Obvs, the more experience you have drinking beer, the better off you'll be, but you don't need to have any amount of street cred in beer before showing up for your first beer judging. 

One of the great things about beer judging is that organizers pair up inexperienced judges with experienced beer judges. At my first beer judging, I was paired up with a judge who had been judging beer (and tea, as it turns out) for several years. She immediately asked what my experience was and, when I said it was my first official judging, was incredibly patient and walked me through the process. After getting over my initial anxiety, I had a lot of fun.

One thing you learn very quickly when judging beer - homebrew and commercial beer alike - is that the beers in your flight pretty much follow a bell curve - most of the beers will be rather unremarkable, have minor faults, and/or not be *quite* to style. About 10% of your beers are going to contain significant flaws - they will smell or taste weird or possibly have other flaws that are too big to ignore. About 10% of the beers will be really well done and to style. 

But what does a session of beer judging look like?

First, you have to register as a judge or a steward (I'm not going to go into stewarding here, but it is a great way to gain some experience if you don't want to dive right into beer judging) for a given competition. When you register, you are given the option to choose beer styles you would absolutely like to judge or choose beer styles you absolutely don't want to judge. If you are also entering beers into the competition, the organizers will make sure that you don't end up judging your beer style, so you don't need to worry about asking not to judge your beer's style category. Being fairly new to the judging game, I don't usually specify styles that I do/don't want to judge because I prefer to judge different styles and I also think it makes it easier on the organizers, who more likely than not are volunteers. I know of extremely experienced beer judges who only judge certain styles each time, so they're subject matter experts by this point in their preferred styles. I think either philosophy works well and is a matter of personal choice, so go bananas.

On the day of the competition, you will arrive for check-in by a specified time, which is usually when you find out what beer styles you will be judging and with whom you'll be judging. Having been paired with both extremely experienced judges and brand new first-timers, I really can't stress how important it is to

  1. Not assume that you need to defer to the more senior judge on everything - you have an opinion as well and you are free to disagree over certain aspects of beer
  2. If you are the senior person at the table, not assume that fellow judges need to defer to you on everything

In general, it's been rare for me to completely disagree over a beer. Actually, I don't know that it's ever happened. There have definitely been beers that I've preferred more than another judge and vice versa, but our scores are usually within a few points of each other, even when we disagree.

Once you have your table, your co-judge, and your style, you are ready to get started. Most competitions will give you a copy of the BJCP Guidelines or at least the pages that cover the style you'll be judging. However, I also recommend having the Guidelines app on your phone just in case. I, for one, always spill beer on at least one thing during a judging, which is usually either a scoresheet or the Guidelines. You'll have a few minutes to review your beer styles before the judging begins. On your table, you'll also have your scoresheets, mechanical pencils, cups, water, crackers or other palate cleansers, and a dump bucket. You may also have small flashlights (for judging appearance and opacity) as well as calculators. You will hopefully have a steward assigned to your table, who will take care of keeping the beer organized, tallying your scoresheets, and generally helping with whatever else you may need.

As a judge, you will have a list of entries for your flight. I've had flights that had as few as six beers and as many as eleven beers - it all depends on how many judges they have and how many entries they have. The list will tell you the beer style as well as any special ingredients. Typically the judges will look over the list to decide if they want to re-order the beers in their flights. For example, if you have a beer with peppers in it or there is a range of flavor intensity, you may want to leave the more intense beers for the end of the flight. Once you've decided on the order for your beers, you are ready to begin judging!

Different judges have different preferences for how they like to judge, so I like to ask the other judge(s) for any preferences. I prefer to evaluate the sample (you're only given about 4 ounces of each beer) and write my evaluation down before discussing the beer with the other judge. Some judges like to discuss and evaluate as they go. Most judges don't have a particularly strong preference and are happy to accommodate the preferences of others.

The beers you will see are going to be in standard brown glass beer bottles with no labels. The only identification they should have is a label or sticker denoting the beer style category and the entry number. You are not given any identifying information about the brewer. Once the steward pours your beers, both judges begin working through their scoresheets as they evaluate the beer. I prefer to start at the top with appearance, but if we're pouring the beers at the table, then I'll usually start with aroma as I want to capture as much aroma as I can before it dissipates. You can find really great (and really bad) examples on how to fill out your scoresheet here, so I'm not going to go into how to fill out a scoresheet except to say that the more you practice, the better you get at it. I like to use the descriptions in the Guidelines as a starting point when writing down my thoughts.

One of the goals of BJCP sanctioned competitions is to give valuable and constructive feedback on the beers you are tasting. There are plenty of homebrewers out there who enter their beer into competitions solely to gain that feedback. Maybe there is a weird taste in their beer they can't pinpoint or they're not sure at what point in the process they are messing up and need an impartial person to tell them how to improve their beer. I suggest being familiar with some common faults in beer and what cause them so you can provide that kind of feedback. I have the Beer Fault List printed out and typically bring it with me to competitions to use as a reference point.

After you've tasted and discussed all the beers in your flight, you are ready to award first, second, and third place, and you have the option of awarding an honorable mention if you'd like. As I mentioned above, you will usually have at least one clear winner in the bunch. The biggest challenge I've found when ranking beers is deciding whether to award a third place when there are only two excellent beers or deciding whether to award an honorable mention when the fourth place beer has a score that is very close to the third place beer.

I've found beer judging to be the most beneficial way of improving my palate as well as my ability to complete a thorough sensory evaluation of a beer. If you are studying for any level of the Cicerone Certification Program, judging in a competition is one of the most valuable (and free) ways to improve your ability in evaluating beer, from style identification to off-flavor identification to brewing fault causes. Don't be intimidated - judging beer is a fun and pretty relaxed way to learn more about beer.

Shameless plug: if you're in the Charlotte area and want to give beer judging a try, consider signing up to judge in the US Open, which is the homebrew competition hosted every year by the Carolina BrewMasters. This year, you can participate in early judging on Wednesday, May 10th, and/or Thursday, May 11th, as well as judge the day of the competition, which is Saturday, May 13th.