Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sensory School: The Path to Becoming a Beer Judge

Once you have a full understanding of how to taste beer, you might want to take your knowledge a bit further ... far enough to become a beer judge! To guide you through that process one of our brewers, who just so happens to also be one of our resident BJCP judges, has some tips on how to reach that goal.

So you would like to be a beer judge? Free beer and all that is asked for in return is some feedback on the beverage! We must first acquire the necessary knowledge and practice our sensory evaluation skills and corresponding vocabulary. How do we get started on this sensory evaluation filled adventure? What separates a beer judge from the random craft beer geek at the tasting room?

Luckily getting started on the path to becoming a beer judge is relatively easy, but earning the accreditation to judge prominent professional beer competitions takes dedication and of course, a few exams.

The road to judging stardom starts with the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). The BJCP organization offers an entry level exam on their website, where all the necessary resources to study can also be found. This online exam is only a prerequisite in order for you to take an in-person tasting exam. The tasting exam consists of judging six different beers in an hour and a half. But how do we interpret a subjective quality such as taste and aroma into a numerical score?

The process begins with the BJCP style guidelines. These guidelines* are essential for establishing a standardized framework to fairly judge beers of the same style against each other. The style guidelines breakdown each attribute of the beer style (aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, overall impression) and defines an acceptable numerical range for bitterness, ABV, color, original gravity, and finishing gravity. The BJCP style guidelines also provide some insight into the history of the style, ingredients commonly used, and commercial examples which are considered to be brewed within the style. The wealth of information in the style guidelines will also serve as the study guide for your tasting exam.

An effective study technique is to read the style guidelines with the corresponding commercial example of the beer in hand. In order to really connect with the different styles it is very helpful to develop your descriptive sensory vocabulary. I found it easy and enjoyable to just drink the same beer around people with a better vocabulary than me. This was helpful for me to build up my mental library of descriptive terms. Finally, it is important to practice judging using a BJCP score sheet and comparing your results and scores with someone who is an active beer judge.

So let's say you have already passed the online entry exam, and studied many months to prepare for the tasting exam. Your tasting exam consists of judging and scoring six different beers in only an hour and a half. After carefully filling out a BJCP score sheet for each beer, your scores are compared against a panel of experienced certified beer judges. After the exam the tests must be reviewed and graded, which means you will find out your results four to nine months later.

The 24 hours before the tasting exam/judging a competition you will want to take certain measures to ensure your palate is ready and in working order. Be sure to avoid spicy and very pungent foods which could alter your sense of taste. Also, be very cautious when drinking hot beverages as not to burn your tongue. Lastly, on the day of the exam you will not want to wear any cologne or perfume. Any errant aromas can be very distracting for you and the other judges.

Depending on your score from the tasting exam, you will receive a rank from the BJCP and a nifty certificate! At this point you can move up in rank by retaking the exam and/or earning points. Points can be earned by either participating in or administering a beer competition or a professional development event.

*Note: The style guidelines are very helpful, but they are not intended to be boundaries for the possible types of beer. The drawback to style guidelines is that sometimes really tasty beers can fall in between the different flavor profiles of the recognized styles. To remedy this matter, the BJCP organization updates the style guidelines every couple years and they will add a new style if there is enough popularity amongst home brewers and professional brewers.

Enjoy, evaluate, repeat …

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Posted by Bruery brewer Sean Flannery. An avid homebrewer, Sean started brewing in college and has worked at several So Cal breweries. Sean is a BJCP judge, too. Duh.

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