A Beer Judge’s Diary: 17? When the ‘Logic’ I Use Bites Me in the… Beer Judge!

By Ken Carman
 No, I won’t tell you where I heard this.
 No, I won’t tell you when I heard this.
 No, I won’t tell you who said it.
 And I must ask, is this some change somehow I’ve missed, or just hasn’t reached the many places I judge? I suspect the last.
 This not a commentary on any competition I’ve judged, any fellow judge, or any organizer. These days I find competitions almost always run quite well, and having started two myself: it’s hard work you do for the love of competitions and judging. No, it’s about how someone can find themselves suddenly considering arguments they once dismissed. It’s about how scoring ‘logic’ can spin around and bite someone in the… beer judge.
 We were judging an entry that had at least two serious defects, was quite off style and, well to be fair, unpalatable: all of which I wrote far more diplomatically on my score sheet. Judging since 99, 6 or more competitions a year; there are less than a single handful of entries I’ve given a 13 to. I am far more hesitant to score a 13 than I am to score over 45, and those who have judged with me a lot will tell you my scores over 45 are rare. For these reasons, and more, this was one of the various few.
 I have discussed the courtesy score concept with fellow judges many times. Some feel it flawed, but I don’t agree. I really do believe the minimum policy score is wise. I’ve heard and read the arguments and agree with those who say you want to encourage brewers to continue brewing and absolutely not humiliate them. Plus, I agree that as a judge you don’t know for sure what happened on the way to the judging table, working back from handling to shipping. Maybe it was a single bottle accidentally skipped when cleaning or sanitizing, although if it’s that problematic one might consider asking for the second bottle. Sometimes the second bottle is fine, often not.
 So, back to the story, a competition where I gave one of my very, very few thirteens. What followed was, “Oh, no, courtesy score is 17, you don’t want to humiliate the brewer.” I responded that all the years I’ve been BJCP it’s been 13, to which they said, “Oh, no, that’s just for the tasting exam.” Since this was what the organizer wanted I adjusted the score, but as soon as I could I Googled BJCP consensus score. The first page of links all said 13.
 During a later online discussion with a highly ranked judge I learned he had been at many competitions where the courtesy score was 17. I countered that at all the competitions I’ve judged at no organizer had ever mentioned 17. But I also told him I knew he has judged at far more than I have over the years since we both have been judging. He’s that highly ranked and highly ranked judges are in demand for sure. (I started in 99 or 98, not sure which, but I wasn’t BJCP for a while.)
 We discussed that 17 is a decision made by the organizers, as it should be. The reason I contacted him and started this post judging discussion was because I was starting to hear the ghosts of previous discussions with other judges in my head. Problem was I was hearing myself using some of the very talking points used against me, like…

 ”Why even HAVE 1-13/1-17 then?”
  “This makes the score meaningless.”
  “Isn’t this like grade inflation in our schools?”
  “Oh, everyone gets a pony!” (Or, ‘a trophy’)
 “That makes the box that explains to the brewer what the score means useless.”
 “Isn’t 17 close to automatically awarding the brewer 20 points? Where do we stop? 20? 25?”

 Here are just a few of the answers…

  “Because we have to start somewhere for consistent, meaningful, scores that are actually helpful, not discouraging.”
  “No, there’s still enough of a score spread.”
 “No one is going to think a 17/13 is ‘good.’”
 “17/13 is no ‘pony.’” (“No ‘trophy.'”)
  “The point is still made and you don’t want to discourage them”
 ”We have to set it somewhere.”

 Do we “have to set one ‘somewhere?'” I think we do, but it’s still a valid question to not just ask but have discussions regarding, when not actually judging. “Where do we stop” is also a perfectly good question to ask when not judging, and those who ask any of these are neither stupid, uniformed or politically incorrect. (“Beer-ically?”)None of these questions should be considered stupid, uniformed or politically incorrect.
 I suspect almost everyone would agree a courtesy score of 28 or 30 would be absurd. But isn’t the borderline between ‘absurd’ very subjective? And, like not discouraging a brewer, do we want to discourage judges who challenge such things? Once again: obviously getting into the weeds here at the judging table is not advised. But we need to encourage discussion otherwise. How did 17 start? Probably the same way 13 became policy: fellow judges questioned whether too low of a score was counter productive to the goal of helping the brewer.
 I love this kind of inner and outer debate when it’s respectful because it spills into almost any issue we have as a society. Generally, no one wants school shootings like in Florida to be more acceptable in society; more frequent. How we encourage less is the question, the discussion to be had. Those attempting to frame things as if the rules/laws as they are were brought forth from Moses on tablets and therefore should not be questioned, discussed, do a disservice to judging. They also prevent long term progress, improvements in judging: like 17 if you feel 17 is best. They do a disservice to better judging no matter what direction we wish to go.
 No decent judge wants to humiliate brewers, or discourage them from trying again.
 As I wrote this, a barrage of both 13 and 17 counter arguments continue to bounce back and forth in my head and I realized this too easily becomes an endless rhetorical game of ping pong… which is why it best kept away from the table. And I’ve never been convinced by mean spirited arguments like, “Should we give everyone a pony?” no matter what the topic. But many of these questions are necessary to continue to make judging as good as it can be.
 Two facts remain: multiple contentious voices in my head will continue, but not get in the way of judging… and opinions/rules/standards do change. Maybe 17 will become the standard used for all competitions, at least until some other standard pushes 17 out of the way.
 I’m OK with that.
 But the voices in my head, and away from the table in-depth discussions among all of those who consider these issues, will go on.
 And I’m more than OK with that too.

Ken A Beer Judge’s Diary is one of many columns by Ken Carman: Certified BJCP beer judge, homebrewer since 1979 and seeker of both simple and complex quaffs who once upon a time thought he didn’t care all that much for beer. Then he discovered brews beyond the standard fare’ available on the east coast in the early 70s. Thus the adventure began.

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