What Did I Get Myself Into?

By Glenn DeLuca

For BeerNexus.com


Last year a couple of my Draught Board 15 comrades took a BJCP prep course. I
had thought about it but decided not to and being the brutal winter it was that
probably worked out well. This year it was mentioned to me again. I’d really like to
improve my descriptive tasting ability and thinking this would help in that area
decided to give it a shot.

Well I was in for a shock starting with the first class. First of all I really didn’t research
all that much about BJCP, which is the Beer Judge Certification Program. Founded in
1985 this non-profit organization certifies and ranks beer judges, sanctions
competitions and provides educational resources for current and future judges.

If I was a homebrewer I’m sure I would have been more familiar with them. In thirty
years they’ve administered 9,000+ exams. There are currently 5,700+ active judges
with probably 5,000 of them in the US, meaning we take our homebrew seriously.
Their purpose is to encourage knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the
world’s diverse beer, mead, and cider styles; promote, recognize and advance beer,
mead, and cider tasting, evaluation and communications skills; and develop
standardized tools, methods, and processes for the structured evaluation, ranking
and feedback of beer mead and cider.  

So what does a beer judge have to know/do; isn’t it just take a few sips of a beer and
give it a score? Oh contraire; first they need to know the intricacies of every beer
style of which there are thirty-four. But there are usually two to four sub categories
under each styles, so we’re talking >100. Certainly there are characteristics shared
within the thirty-four basic styles, but nuances among the subs.

Looking at a standardized scoresheet, gives you a better idea how organized this is.
A judge will review and rate in five categories:
•        Aroma – comment on malts, hops, esters and other aromatics – max score of 12
•        Appearance – comment on color, clarity and head (retention, color and texture)
– max score of 3
•        Flavor – comment on malt, hops, fermentation characteristics, balance,
finish/aftertaste and other flavor characteristics – max score of 20
•        Mouthfeel – comment on body, carbonation, warmth, creaminess, astringency
and other palate sensations – max score of 5
•        Overall Impression – comment on overall drinking pleasure associated with
entry, give suggestions for improvement – max score of 10.

The first four should all relate to the particular style of beer being judged, which
means it’s not whether you like it or not. You personally may not like a particular
style, but you are supposed to be judging the entry based on what it’s supposed to
represent.

I download the BJCP Style Guidelines for class and there’s a page of
info/characteristics on each of the 100+ sub categories! First the Vital Statistics, the
range where the beer is expected to be in five areas; OG (the specific gravity of the
unfermented wort or density of liquid before fermentation), FG (the final gravity or
density of the beer after fermentation), IBU(International Bitterness Unit, which
measures the bitterness from the hops), SRM (Standard Reference Method which is
a scale for beer color) and ABV (alcohol by volume). Then we get the Description
Section of the five judging categories as well as Comments and Ingredients. And
lastly Commercial Examples, so a listing of beers you see on the shelves in that style.

One of the best things about these classes is we get to sample a variety of beers
each class to understand more about the style and to listen to each other’s
comments/reactions/thoughts about each beer. As one would expect we start at the
lighter end of the style spectrum, so class one is Standard American Beer,
International Lager, Czech Lager and Pale Malty European Lager. My first wakeup
call is when we try an International Amber Lager and he brings out Brooklyn Lager!
So yes Brooklyn does have a great ethnic mix, but I’m not expecting Brooklyn Lager
to be an international style; to be honest had never really thought about beer style
categories to that degree. Then to learn Shiner Bock is a Dark International Lager;
who woulda thunk it. Okay so like truth in advertising, a label is not necessarily
gospel and you may need to do some digging to really understand what you’re
drinking.

The class revolves around three areas; beer styles, learning to taste and judge and
the chemistry of making beer. Again I’ve never homebrewed so never been exposed
to this, not to mention I have taken chemistry in decades.  This could get real
interesting.

I’m most interested in refining and training my smell and taste sensors.  I’ve never
had a particularly good sense of smell; meaning being able to distinguish different
scents. I also drink wine and have many times read the descriptions of floral,
grapefruit, wheat, etc. for whites and blackberry, current, earthy, etc. for reds, but
very seldom if ever do many of those come through. Our classes are in a private
room in Delicious Heights, which they don’t charge us for, so a nice idea if we buy a
beer or two or something to eat. So here we are in class two and a woman at the next
table ordered chicken fingers; the waiter brings them in and guess what; I’m smelling
her chicken fingers; I can’t smell much of anything from the beers, which for class two
are Pale Bitter European, Amber Malty European, Amber Bitter European and Dark
European Lager. I cannot believe it; not her fault of course, but just interesting how
that smell just took over.

So I’ve got another ten weeks of classes and we’ll have to see how this progresses.
Based on the first two I’m sure it will be interesting. When done I intend to take the
online 100 question multiple choice exam. If I pass I could take the next step which is
an actual tasting where you’re graded by other beer judges, but I’m not planning to.
Personally I’d rather go out and have a few with friends, have a bite to eat and a few
laughs than sit at a competition and taste the same style for hours. It is important for
homebrewers who want feedback on how they’re doing, but not sure judging beer at
a completion is for me. Whatever I should be more knowledgeable when it comes to
different styles and what they’re supposed to be like and if I can increase my
observatory smell and taste skills, it will certainly have been worth the effort.




Glenn DeLuca writes about beer and culture of drinking. He may
be reached by writing thebigG@beernexus.com.

***   ***   ***
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