ADVENTURES IN BEERLAND
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Here Comes The (beer) Judge
“Come on, what do you mean the S. cervisiae didn’t react properly at A.A. 67%? Maybe the Krausening was too late
or too high or even too low.” And maybe I just got a headache in the first two minutes of the initial class in a fully
sanctioned course in preparation for the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) test. Yes, I wanted to be a beer
judge, an official one. Needless to say any beer drinker is an unofficial judge every time he or she lifts the glass,
takes a sip, then smiles or spits up. It would be fun, I thought, to have some sort of certification attesting to my
already self proclaimed prodigious powers of beer analysis. Cue the music – as the Scarecrow of Oz might sing –
“With the thoughts I’d be thinkin’ I could be another Michael Jackson if I only had a certification”.
There was a problem however; somehow I had missed the key point in this entire thing - the BJCP certification in
reality did not give one an imprimatur for judging beer in general but only for home brews in particular. The course
and test was designed for those very people; plain old drinkers like me weren’t a consideration. To put it simply, not
being a home brewer was going to make passing the course about as hard as trying to drink a Dom Perignon '53 at
the correct temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the Sahara at noon without any ice, or trying to
borrow a comb in a Buddhist monastery.
The course was eleven weeks long, one three hour session weekly. And it was all deadly serious. No tomfoolery,
kibitzing, or carousing – three things that go well with beer. The course was being held in the back room of an
establishment named The Buckets of Beer and Blood Lounge otherwise known to the local upscale gentry as
Delicious Heights in Berkley Heights, NJ. It’s a decent craft beer place with an modern, attractive decor that just
happened to have an empty side room not being used on Monday nights. It seems they donated the room for the
class with the understanding that all beer for the meetings would be bought in-house. They also knew that any class
with 30 beer drinkers that comes to a bar will buy, what else, beer. Charity is nice but it’s better when it ends at home.
There were no breaks given in the class; every Monday brought 180 minutes of straight ahead, intense learning.
Even the beer tasting (sipping and thinking is tasting, not drinking) was for learning purposes only. All tasting was
done in silence followed by a requirement to fill out a long, intricate score sheet complete with multiple open ended
sections for critical analysis. This is the sort of stuff that could easily make any craft beer fan into a cider drinker.
I was going to say “Budweiser drinker” but in actuality that was the very first beer tasted in the class to (shockingly)
great acclaim by our instructor, an official National Level Judge. Yes, that’s correct–great acclaim. Clearly our
learned teacher was loony as he extolled the wondrous virtues of the King of Swill, but no, there was a method to his
His point was that we were there to learn to evaluate the quality of a beer in the context of how well it matched its
“style guidelines”. In this case, he proved that Bud was an outstanding example of an “American Standard Lager”.
According to the BJCP guide a great beer in this category had to “have no strong flavors; a light body from the use of
a high percentage of adjuncts such as rice or corn; a slight carbonic bite, levels of grainy or corn like sweetness,
etc.” Ah, I get it. If a bad beer is really bad it’s actually good.
Each class consisted of three segments. The first was instruction in the technical aspects of home brewing. As a
non -brewer (despite my 1979 semi-success with a Mr. Beer Bag –“hang it on a doorknob and you get beer”) this
proved more than confusing. I knew the instructor was speaking English when he used words like ingredients,
fermentation, yeast, mashing , boil, and conditioning to introduce each evening’s “tech topic” but when he got to
content he mysteriously switched to an alien tongue. And I mean that literally; could have sworn I heard him say
“Gort! Deglet ovrosco!” followed by several mumbling “Nanu-Nanus.”
In the second segment “off flavors” were tasted. Why? Well, it seems a certified judge is required to identify a long
list of things that should not be in a particular beer style. Be aware however that a fatal off flavor in one style just
might be welcome and required in others. Get it? And while we’re at it freedom is slavery, war is peace, ignorance is
strength, oh, and water is beer. Off flavors were supplied by an appropriately named “off flavor kit”. The kit itself is
rather pricey which is hard to believe considering that demand for it can’t be overwhelming. I mean, when was the
last time you needed to spike your favorite IPA with a few well chosen drops of chemical goop from a vial to really
The process was straightforward. Two pitchers of the least flavorful beer on tap were purchased at the bar which in
this case was Amstel Light. Every student was given a “control” glass of unadulterated beer along with one that had
been “doctored” with the flavor we were being trained to identify. I usually fared well in this as some flavors like
paper, almonds, solvents, and popcorn were easy to identify. I didn’t do as well with others like half smoked cigars,
sweat stained socks, and rain soaked hay grown in May on a farm in Northern Iowa. Each week we studied more and
more such items from the kit. Interestingly, on occasion, the doctored beer tasted better to me than the pure Amstel
Light. However to Amstel’s credit, the night of horse manure and decaying broccoli flavors was not one of those
The final third of the class was my favorite and most stressful segment – beer judging. The instructor would discuss
the style for the evening and then pass out official BJCP “Beer Scoresheets” suitable for “Sanctioned Competition
Program” and “Judge Training Classes”. I also discovered that when folded up they worked great as beer mats. The
sheet itself is a maze of categories, descriptors, and empty lines demanding to be filled. The main categories are
Aroma (the nose knows), Appearance (half the students would fail this one), Flavor (the flavor is, well, beer),
Mouthfeel (nothing thanks to the dentist giving me Novocain earlier), and Overall Impression (sorry, I don’t do
I learned it’s not enough to simply say, for example, the beer’s flavor is fruity. You’ve got to identify the specific fruit.
If you write “floral notes” you’d better be able to enumerate the specific flora or you’ll be smelling the fauna on the
way out. Who knew a degree in horticulture would be an asset when drinking beer? And you should never, never
say a beer is good because you liked it. It’s not about your likes or dislikes it’s all about whether the beer fits the
BJCP style parameters. BJCP publishes those parameters in multiple forms and platforms. They are basically
detailed descriptions of 26 major beer styles along with pages of style offshoots with multiple subsections. Its length
rivals the collected works of Leo Tolstoy though Tolstoy wins on ease of reading.
To expedite the pouring of the beer we were going to analyze bottles were placed at each of the tables to be passed
around by the students themselves. It was generally an understood, though unwritten, rule that each person would
only pour a 3 or 4 ounce sample to insure there was enough for everyone to adequately judge. It was an honor
system that would have fared better with folks like Jesse James, Al Capone, and John Dillinger. I noticed several
individuals quickly pouring the appropriate amount then slyly taking a healthy swig before stealthy refilling their glass
to the correct level. Others simply “forgot” to pass the bottle down to the next table. Well, that might be true. One
guy who said that told me before the meeting that he has had amnesia….. once or twice. Others prodded with a
“hey, pass that bottle down” seemed to universally favor the response of “I thought you guys got your own bottle”.
That was about as disingenuous as the guy who’s claimed his plastic plants died because he forgot to pretend water
Once the stewarding of the beer was complete total silence engulfed the room for our allotted fifteen minutes of
analysis. It was time to meditate, contemplate, and elucidate on the various qualities of the beer. Showing some
initiative I decided to drink it before doing any of that stuff. Soon the quiet of the room was jarred as people began to
feverishly scribble notes on the score sheets. The segment reached its deafening climax when pencils began hitting
the tables the instant our instructor shouted “time’s up”. Now it was discussion time. It was most enlightening except
that every class included wasted minutes in which self assured blow hards tried to tell our esteemed nstructor the
correct answers despite his gentle hints they were full of something other than lagers and ales. Needless to say the
clueless like me never volunteered an answer, content to nod in agreement to whatever the consensus seemed to
be. Over the weeks I became quite adept at quickly seeing when a majority of the group had raised their hands in a
vote on any technical issue. With exquisite timing I was able to jump on their bandwagon just before the vote closed.
Brilliant tactics like these most assuredly prevented anyone from totally confirming their suspicion that I was a dunce.
As long as I kept quiet there was still a bit of doubt.
Near the end of the 9th class we were reminded that in order to take the sanctioned 2 hour long tasting test for
certification there was a major prerequisite – a passing grade on an online exam of 200 questions to be completed in
60 minutes. The fee structure for the exam hinted at its difficulty - $10 for one try, $20 for three tries. I went for the
$20. Being the honest type (and not being able to find some ringer to take the test for me) I settled in for my first
attempt. The directions plainly said that any sort of legitimate aid was allowable including the course study guide,
review notes, and prayer. I used all three, stressing the latter. The directions stated that the test would be scored as
pass/fail and no other information would be given. Fair enough. Here we go. I pressed “begin”.
Sets of five questions appeared on each of 40 pages. All were either multiple choice, true/false, or multiple answer.
I began to realize that just about every one of the general topics was covered in the class but the specifics, wording,
and dept of understanding were in the province of serious, I mean really serious, home brewers. How serious about
their beloved hobby were my classmates? One night there were nearly a dozen open bottles left over, their
wondrous content destined for the drain or anyone who wanted to drink great beer. I assumed there would be a rush
to the bottles, after all everyone there was a beer guy (and one beer woman). Nope, the lonely bottles sat awaiting
their fate as people simply wandered away deep in discussion about the class. Well, not exactly everyone. Let’s just
say it turned out to be my favorite class of them all.
I answered all 200 questions in the allotted time, skipping not a one. When in doubt I went with answer “C” which was
probably a mistake in dealing with the true/false questions. Overall however my “C” logic was sound. By guessing C
on every question with ABCD answers I thought I’d get at least 25% of them right assuming the professor had
distributed the correct answers evenly and randomly, not favoring any one letter. That of course was brilliant thinking
only if your goal was to avoid a zero. It was in need of some fine tuning however if you cared about getting the
passing grade of 60%.
At the end of the second hour the test is instantly scored and your fate is revealed in a single terse sentence. Mine
said “you have failed”. So much for softening the blow. The wisdom of my $20 choice looked like it was paying off.
Facing 200 different questions on attempt #2 I assembled even more notes and books. It didn’t help. And with that I
decided to save my final attempt for one night in the future when the only thing I’ll have as a resource is a six pack.
Or two. After all, it’s a beer exam so why not?
On occasion people ask me how I fared on the test. I freely admit to failing twice but stress that I failed by only one
question….. both times! That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
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