Competitions are an important for the homebrewer, especially a “would-be” like myself. It is not always easy to get constructive feedback on your beer. Most of my friends aren’t hardcore craft beer aficionados. When you share your homebrews with a Bud Light drinker he/she will probably say the beer tastes like a Sam Adams because it is likely the only beer that the person can think of that has actual flavor. Even when you share your beer with a beer geek, if he/she isn’t familiar with the brewing process he/she won’t likely be able to offer any advice to improve you beer.
Most competitions are use Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) judges, scoring, and style guidelines. Not all of the judges who judge your beer are certified by the BJCP. Any brewer or beer lover who feels like he/she knows his/her stuff can judge a competition as a novice judge. The competition organizers will pair or group a novice judge with an experienced or certified judge(s) to provide guidance. My girlfriend and I volunteered as novice judges at this past Boston Homebrew Competition (BHC) organized by the Boston Worts.
At the competition the stewards will organize and deliver the beer. The judges will take a look at the bottle to make sure it’s filled properly. From there the bottle is popped and poured into small sampling cups. First the judge will smell the beer and take in the aroma. Then the judge will look at the beer and take note of the appearance to see how the color, clarity, and head match the style of beer. After that the beer has had a moment to warm. The judge will stick his/her nose in again to get a second sniff of the aroma. By then the judge will taste the beer taking note of the flavor and mouthfeel. The judge will score and comment on the beer’s aroma, appearance, flavor, and overall impression.
When most people drink a beer he/she will mentally ask “does this taste good?” Beyond identifying obvious flaws, when a judge tastes a beer the question is “does this beer taste how it is supposed to?” In the past I have entered beers I really liked into competitons, but because the judges felt they didn’t conform to style the scores weren’t as high as I had hoped. When I judged at the BHC I was assigned to the stout category. I remember having several beers that were entered as Imperial Stouts that were enjoyable beers, but they didn’t feel heavy enough to be an Imperial Stout. I wrote on a couple of scoresheets that I would have given the beer a higher score if it was entered as a Foreign Extra Stout.
Judges become certified by the BJCP by passing an online test and then passing an in-person tasting test. From there based on the number of competitions you judge and passing additional tests, a judge can move up in rank. After judging at the BHC I started thinking about becoming a certified judge. What made me decide to make the leap was that I felt that the knowledge gained as a judge would help me as a brewer to make better beer. As great as constructive feedback is, it would be nice to place or even win at a competition.
On their website the BJCP recommended that a prospective judge find a place in a tasting exam before taking the online exam. When I looked initially I didn’t see any tasting exams in New England. If I am going on a plane somewhere it will be somewhere warm and where I can gamble, not to take a beer test. I checked back about a month ago and saw there was an exam in Portland. I contacted the judge administering the exam. He got back to me a couple weeks later advising that he had two open spots and that I needed to pass the online exam and forward my certificate.
For once my “jack of all trades” approach to brewing paid off. Having brewed several different styles I was familiar with the different styles going in. As a beer drinker I enjoy almost all styles, that certainly helped as well. Entering and judging as a novice gave me a decent background on how judging works. Beyond that I reviewed the study guide on the BJCP website. The off-flavor flash cards were particularly helpful.
After a few days of studying I passed the online exam on my first try. I have now officially achieved the ranking of Provisional Judge. Yes, the test was open-book, but it was timed. Answering 200 questions in 60 minutes is a challenge. The questions were true/false, multiple choice, and the dreaded multiple answer. I am an excellent test-taker. In the past I finished all the questions on the Wonderlic Test for a job interview. For this test I was able to answer all 200 questions in 44 minutes.
My tasting exam is on November 22. I anticipate this being more challenging for sure. The week before I will be judging at the Best of Boston Homebrew Competition on November 15 in Cambridge to help prepare. If I am going to try to find parking in Cambridge it had better help!
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