I Tried It: BJCP Beer Judging Exam

As part of my quest to lead the all-beer-all-the-time life, I've found myself immersed in the world of the Beer Judge Certification Program, better known as the BJCP.

I held out on becoming a BJCP judge for a surprisingly long time for someone who is obsessed with getting points and advancing ranks. There are plenty of times, even for me, when I want to just. drink. a. beer. Not evaluate it. Not assess whether it's as malt-forward as it should be. Not hypothesize whether the brewer was wearing a red shirt or a blue shirt while brewing it. Just drink a beer for the enjoyment of drinking a beer.

I was worried that becoming hyper-focused on doing sensory evaluations of beer would lead to a decreased enjoyment of the experience. Luckily, beer is delicious (mostly) and there are plenty of internal and external forces who remind me not to take it too seriously.

For those unfamiliar with the BJCP, I've written about it before, but I'll cover it briefly here to save you a click or two (but go read my other stuff if you haven't yet - you can read more here and here.) The BJCP has several (somewhat confusing) levels and requirements for each. To advance within the ranks of the BJCP, you need to pass a series of tests and accumulate experience points, which you gain from judging beer competitions and volunteering your time with the BJCP. 

The first BJCP exam is the BJCP Beer Judge Entrance Examination online exam, which is very similar to the Certified Beer Server online exam for the Cicerone Certification Program. There are 180 multiple choice questions and a 60 minute time limit. You are allowed to use outside materials, such as the BJCP Guidelines; however, before you think you'll rely on the Guidelines and Google to breeze through the exam, think back on all the open note, open book exams you've taken. If you aren't already familiar with the subject matter, you'll run out your 60 minute time limit if you're trying to look up every answer.

After passing the Beer Judge Entrance Exam, the next step is the Beer Judging Exam. According to the BJCP website, the Beer Judging Exam is the primary tool for evaluating the practical skills of new beer judges. Examinees are given modified BJCP scoresheets and have to complete sensory evaluations of six beer samples within 90 minutes.

I've taken the Beer Judging Exam twice. The first time I took the exam, I scored a 75, which was enough to earn the Certified Beer Judge title once I had the necessary experience points. However, to advance to the National Beer Judge level, I must have a score of at least 80 so that I can qualify for the Beer Written Exam, which is another requirement to advance to the National BJCP level. I took the Beer Judging Exam most recently in June and am anxiously awaiting my results, particularly because I've already scheduled the Beer Written Exam in November. 

So what should you expect when you're taking the Beer Judging Exam? For one thing, expect to learn how quickly 15 minutes can fly by. As mentioned above, you receive 6 ~2 ounce samples in 15 minute intervals. The samples may be commercial beers or homebrew beers and they may be spiked with off-flavors or they may not be. Your job is to evaluate the beer and fill out a scoresheet for each beer within 15 minutes.

The exams are limited to a handful of people, but there is also a nine-person minimum for each exam. Both exams I have taken have been at a brewpub/brewery, so there is plenty of room to spread out. You are not allowed to bring any outside materials in with you. You are given the usual bottles of water, crackers, pencils, flashlight, and calculator. You're also assigned an exam number when you arrive for check-in and that is how you identify your exam scoresheets. Your name or other identifying information shouldn't appear anywhere on your scoresheets.

When the exam begins, the administrators deliver the samples to the examinees at precise 15 minute intervals. One aspect of the exam about which you don't have to worry - the administrators tell you the category and style of each beer. The caveat to knowing what each beer is supposed to be is that it may not be in the proper category and it's your job to determine whether the sample that says it's a Blonde Ale shouldn't maybe be entered as a Saison instead. 

I can't really emphasize enough how quickly each 15 minutes goes by. I haven't had a problem completing each of my scoresheets within that timeframe, but there have been plenty of times when I'm finishing up just as another sample is put in front of me. Both times I've taken the exam, the administrators only announce when each 15 minutes is up - there is no 5 minute warning or anything like that given. When they call time on the exam, it's pencils down and anything you didn't finish is left unfinished, including tallying up your scores.

Because evaluating beer is a subjective task, each Beer Judging Exam is also completed by three pre-approved proctors, most of whom have at least a National rank. The proctors sit separately from the examinees and have slightly different scoresheets. At the end of the exam, the proctors tally their scores for each beer and arrive at consensus scores. Those scores and scoresheets are then used as a guide for grading the exam scoresheets.

One last thing to keep in mind when taking the Beer Judging Exam is that the results do not arrive quickly. The average time to expect for the Beer Judging Exam is four months. Grading subjective test material takes time and the exams go through several people to ensure the score you receive accurately reflects your skills.

The scoring for the Beer Judging Exam is notoriously tough, which can be frustrating. However, the best way to study for and gain experience in sensory evaluations is to volunteer to judge for BJCP-sanctioned competitions and to practice on your own at home.

Interested in pursuing a BJCP certification? You can find the exam schedule here and the Exam Program Overview here. Good luck!