A Beer Judge’s Diary: Judging Forms

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 Attention Music City Brewers: the version of this column appearing in the March-April edition of the Music City Brew-Score is a different version from the one appearing here. The MCBS edition, for example, is filled with more local references. There are also other variations that may make reading both interesting.

By Ken Carman
By Ken Carman
  In the last month Millie and I quickly went from pre-judging for NHC (National Homebrew Competition) to AWOG (Amber Waves of Grain) in Niagara Falls, then back to NHC. Of course we’ve participated in many competitions over the years, as well as just this year, using the regular judging sheets all us judges are quite familiar with.
 In this column you will find pictures of the judging forms. On top the sheet used for First Round NHC. Next your standard BJCP judging form, then an example of a highly questionable: supposedly completed, standard form. And the last: the AWOG judging sheet from this year’s Amber Waves of Grain, sponsored by Niagara Association of Homebrewers, and several other clubs, if I remember right from my online interview with Terry Felton last year.
  Anywhosie, I was familiar with the AWOG sheet since I’ve judged there three years in a row. The regular sheets? Of course I know them well. But the last time I judged Nationals we used regular BJCP sheets. Not this time.
  I have spoken with those who prefer the new sheets, and I respect them, and accept how we differ. I think their major comment was, ”Once you get use to them they’re faster.”
  But, should that really be the object here?
  Back to that in a moment.
  The new sheet to me reads like a vast, complicated, and bad, laundry list. You’re not just supposed to check off aromas, appearance factors, flavors, etc., but if something is inappropriate you circle it instead. And, add to that, you’re supposed to fill the tiny squares or put a perfect little check.
  OK, scratch that last one with my shaky hand. And the circling? Well, sometimes I’d remember, mostly not. Look at all the boxes. Is it any surprise some parts are missed, or maybe even ignored? Once again: this goes to those who intentionally, I would assume, do not judge well. And also, again, I will get back to that in a moment.

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 Even seasoned judges might spend a lot of time wondering, “Did I check this, did I circle that?” so much valuable time misspent: better used to offer the brewer advice as to what to do to solve problems, compliments or explaining how the experienced palate describes the brew they worked so hard on. To me judging is an in depth experience: I let the beer swallow me. Then I try to describe the experience in ways the brewer might find useful. I can’t say I do it as well as I should every time, and my poor script does get in the way.
 Now for those who prefer not writing this may seem a better, faster, form. But even if I wasn’t bothered by the somewhat overall visually messy collection of little bitty boxes, I’d still find them insufficient. Like hops: at least twice while using this form I have been judging styles where one wouldn’t expect much aroma, or even flavor: if any of either. Sure, the possibility is there, but I wound up writing “bitter” in most of the time because “piney,” “citrus,” “earthy,” were kind of beside the point as per style.
 In some ways it’s a bit like trying to describe how much you love someone through a check off system: how well you fit together, or why you broke up with them.
 ”Did he snore?”
 (Check if you like snoring or circle)
 ”Chew too loudly?”
 (Check or circle)
 ”Call in a mob hit on you?
 (Check or circle, in blood if you must.)
 OK, it’s not a perfect analogy, by any means. But it’s workable.
 Faster? Well if you just want to check and circle; and could give one hoot about actual feedback, or giving the brewer the sense an actual judge assessed his beer: yes.
 But the more important question to me would be does it help bad judges, or actually enable them? The BJCP Facebook page has had a spat of poor judging forms posted there, minus the judge’s name, where there are few comments, to pretty much none, or worse than nonsensical… like a series of zeros, or the letter “O.”.
 Seems to me this form could actually reward judges who would rather judge as little as possible. Such judges would most likely check off little to nothing, much like the judge wrote nothing of worth in the form shown here. To me the blank space speaks volumes about how good a judge was who judged your beer, but a simple check off system says little except the form may have confused the judge.

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 I love the forms used at AWOG. You can see a picture of one at the bottom of this column. AWOG (Amber Waves of Grain) is held in Niagara Falls, NY, and I have judged there three years in a row. At least the last two years, maybe in 2012 too, they took the standard BJCP judging form and organized it so the spaces to write in are bigger: more space between the lines and there are more lines per Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouthfeel and Overall Impression to write in. The other sections are still there with only slight differences.
 Here’s what Tom Barnes, who has written a lot of articles about judging for the BJCP wrote about the new form when I asked his wife, Kira, about his opinion. (If you click on link, scroll down to “Informational Resources.”)

 I actually prefer the AWOG BEER scoresheets to the BJCP Official Scoresheets because there is more space to write and less “dead space” devoted to things other than judging beer. (i.e., smaller logo, less “administrative space.”)

 I agree. To me this is a superior judging form: especially for those of us who write large and have very shaky writing hands.
 My guess is, other than speed so First Round went faster, the attempt was to make sure the judges addressed all the variables on hops, head, etc. at least with a check or a circle. But to me no check off system can ever address that, or reach the sheer poetry of some judge’s comments. I admit, it’s a rare entry I reach my goal of making my comments a pleasure to read: and I don’t just mean my poor script.
 I hope some day I can write all my score sheets so well that even if the entries don’t do well the entrant will be grateful for whatever advice I might give, and enjoy what I wrote.
 One can dream, right?
 To me that’s the way to judge beer. A check off system is like an overly complicated game of tic tac toe, or at best a lazy, quick, way to dismiss an entry, or pass it on. I did try to write as much as I could in the skimpy spaces provided, which of course made the process last longer than if I had the actual BJCP form they use in most competitions. The spaces are not conducive to script and a form with so many places to mark merely encourages check and move on to the next entry.
 It’s seems to encourage bad judging even from the best judges. Not the intent, I’m sure. But a shopping list approach does encourage something that happens with actual shopping lists. Have you ever gone to a store with a list and still forgotten what’s on there? I think everyone has. Sitting down and thinking, considering is far more effective.
 For future Nationals they might want go back to the regular BJCP forms, or take a cue from the great folks at AWOG who took the regular form and made it better, useful for more complete, in-depth, judging.

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                                                           -30-

 A Beer Judge’s Diary is a column that follows the judging adventures of BJCP judge Ken Carman and his wife, Millie; a column that celebrates both homebrewers and professionalism in beer judging.
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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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