Author: Lucy Corne
This post was originally supposed to focus on the globe’s biggest beer competition, to be published in the run-up to the World Beer Cup. But of course, like everything from tastings to festivals to concerts, the so-called ‘Olympics of Beer’, staged every two years in the USA, has been cancelled in 2020. Now with beer lovers all over the world pretty much confined to their houses, there seems no better time to start studying to become a beer judge – something you can do from the comfort of your own spare bedroom (or kitchen, or back garden).
There are numerous different judging methods used at beer competitions around the world. Some use a hedonistic (do I like this?) judging style, while most ask the question ‘is this a good example of the style it was meant to be?’ Some of the larger US competitions use the guidelines published by the Brewers Association, while smaller contests – in the US and around the world – use the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) guidelines. And the best thing about the BJCP is that you can study at home, taking an exam once the quarantines and lockdowns and self-isolation periods have all passed.
What is the BJCP?
Founded in the States in 1985, the BJCP guidelines were originally written to help American homebrewers evaluate their beers in the days when they couldn’t get their hands on classic examples to taste them against. Imagine wanting to make the perfect English bitter, but not being able to actually sample the real thing. Travelling brewers would evaluate and describe beers tasted on their travels and those descriptions would help trailblazing homebrewers to try out a range of global styles.
Today, the BJCP is a widely recognised way to evaluate beer in competitions. At last count there were more than 7000 registered judges in 63 countries. And you could be next. Exams take place all over the world throughout the year, although obviously not during a highly contagious global pandemic.
So – where to begin? Here are 10 tips on prepping for the all-important tasting exam:
1. Read the guidelines. A lot.
The BJCP separates beers into 34 categories, largely along geographical lines. There are currently 122 subcategories, each with an in-depth description detailing aroma, appearance, flavour, mouthfeel, overall impression, ingredients, history and a few classic style examples. When you eventually take the exam, you could be served anything from these 122 options, and you’ll be flying blind (closed book exam) so the single most important thing you can do while studying is familiarise yourself with the guidelines. You can find them online here, or better still, download the app, available for Apple and Android.
2. Taste alongside the guidelines
Actually, perhaps the single most important thing is tasting. Memorising guidelines only gets you so far if you can’t evaluate what’s in your glass. Get a selection of beers, work out which style category they belong to (RateBeer can be a handy tool for this if you’re unsure) and taste them alongside the guidelines, trying to pick up the qualities described, or noting down if those qualities are absent.
3. Blind tasting
Once you’ve got to grips with the way the guidelines are laid out and the sort of characteristics you’re trying to pick up, ask your partner or housemate to give you a blind beer tasting. Take notes on the aroma, appearance, flavour and mouthfeel then ask what the beer is. You can then check your tasting notes against the guidelines. There’s nothing more satisfying when you’re starting out than realising that your “floral hop flavour” or “medium copper colour” notes are word-for-word what’s in the guidelines. Once you’ve written notes and read the guidelines, this is a good time to start trying to assign scores to the beers. If you’re on lockdown by yourself, blind tasting is tricky, but you can still taste first and read the guidelines later to begin training and testing both your palate and your descriptive skills.
4. Throw in some red herrings
When you eventually take the exam, at least one of the beers will be presented to you as the wrong style. For example, you’ll be given an English Porter but you’ll be told it’s a British Brown Ale. You will always judge it to the style against which it was entered, but obviously a beer that’s out of style will not score as highly. (Consider for example, an American IPA that was presented as an English IPA. It could be a great beer, but the hop character would be out of style, causing it to be marked down). If you have a beer savvy household member, ask them to slip you the occasional out-of-style beer when you’re practicing for the exam. (Note that the red herring style should have a similarity to the actual style – they shouldn’t present you with a Helles and tell you it’s an imperial stout…)
5. Taste everything
And I don’t just mean beer. Taste your food and try to pick out which herbs and spices have been used. Sniff your fruit, nose the spices in your cupboards, inhale the different flowers in your garden, decide whether your mid-morning biscuits are more caramel-like or toffee-ish. If you’re looking for ways to liven up lockdown, grab a blindfold and get someone to feed you mystery foodstuffs. It’s amazing how much your palate is hindered when your vision is removed from the picture and it’s a great way to train your taste buds.
6. Try some DIY beer taints
To do a real “off flavours” or taints session, you would need to sign up to a workshop or course – not practical in the quarantine era. But there are a few things you can do to start recognising inappropriate flavours in beer. First, familiarise yourself with the BJCP off-flavours list and of course try to pick up any of those characteristics in commercially purchased beers. If the beer near you is all top notch, you can recreate some of the taints in your own home. Take a lager in a green or clear bottle and leave it in the sunlight for an hour or so, then chill and serve for a lesson in light-struck beer. A small splash of vinegar or lemon juice can demonstrate the flavour of sour beer, and for the brave, a splash of water from tinned sweetcorn should give you an idea of DMS.
7. Practice filling out the judging form
Although you’ll likely start with just hastily scrawled and often sparse notes, as you get better at tasting, it’s time to start filling out a BJCP scoresheet for each beer you taste. One of the things examiners look for is completeness, so try not to leave any plank space. You should aim to complete an evaluation in 10-12 minutes.
8. Improve your beer tasting vocabulary
Once you’ve got the hang of tasting, the next step is to improve on how you describe what’s in your glass. Using terms like “malty”, “good head” and “crystal clear” are fine to start out with, but using descriptive language is the key to getting a good score on the tasting exam. The BJCP website can be a little tricky to navigate, but there are good resources for those that persevere. One of the most useful is the examples of both terrible and excellent scoresheets. Another way to widen your beer evaluating vocab is to scour some of the more in-depth reviews on RateBeer or BeerAdvocate.
9. Set up a tasting group
Although you’re probably not allowed to socialise at the moment, you could still set up a virtual tasting group and chat over Zoom, Google Hangouts or similar. Set challenges for each other, such as getting everyone to find the same beer to evaluate, then comparing notes. You could also quiz each other: read a description or a set of vital stats and ask people to spot the style, or come up with a list of questions and practice for the online entry exam.
10. Sign up and get studying
Once you’ve got to grips with the tasting part, it’s time to register with the organisation. There is an online entrance exam to tackle – something that could keep you busy for weeks of lockdown or isolation. The 180-question test is tricky, covering all aspects of the guidelines, and some brewing knowledge is highly advisable. The exam must be completed in an hour, but luckily it can be retaken once a day until you pass. Then it’s time to get a crew together (usually 6-12 people) and request a tasting exam. Exam dates are usually several months in the future, affording you extra time to get to grips with the nuances of the guidelines and of your ever-improving palate.
Once your tasting exam day eventually arrives, you’ll get 90 minutes to evaluate six beers. You’ll be given the style number and name and a form to complete but no guidelines to assist you. And even if you never actually take the exam, studying for it has to be a lot more fun than re-watching old shows on Netflix for five hours a day…
Pictures: Lucy Corne