I don’t think of myself as some guru or know-it-all answer guy. A lot of my experience comes from making mistakes and running into dead ends. And I have made a LOT of mistakes. And as this edition of A Beer Judge’s Diary will show I have been greeted by some dead ends.
I must admit I agree with Andrew Luberto’s comment in his excellent youtube interview that those who score very well to begin with may be missing something. Trial, error and trying again can make better judges, just like it makes better songwriters, better actors, better on air personalities and better almost anything in life. Those additions to “beer judge” are mine, not his, but strike me as truth.
I’ve come to realize the Guidelines are a vast country. Unless you have a photographic memory you will probably never remember everything you might need to know for the test. Experience definitely helps, but the reality of that you may not know as much as you think you do does have habit of popping up when you take an retake the test, and when you study to take it, may surprise you like some beer-based Jack in the Box.
While I never completely stop studying I definitely increased my efforts about 3 months before Atlanta both times. In addition to studying the Guidelines I added a few unique things. Maybe they’ll help you.
I was able to get a few seconds from a past tense competition. I would judge them then see how close they come to what the judges said and their scores. I think homebrew competitions might consider saving their seconds and doing this with a small group, or hand them plus scoresheets out to members. Don’t look at those sheets or discuss them until after.
I judged commercial beers too, but it was more to work on better, more complete, scoresheets.
One humbling experience I hope to continue was “mystery beer.” Judge a beer when you don’t know what style it is. Guess the style. It may be tougher than you think.
One thing I don’t recommend that wasn’t all that valid an approach was buying commonly used hop pellets and malts. I kept them in small enclosed containers. Every night I tried to get myself used to being able to identify them by aroma. The worst one was Cascade: in a day or two the aroma had changed significantly, and the changed again. This was true of all the malts and hops, but not one as much as Cascade.
Remember: if you try it and it works for you, great! It didn’t work for me.
Andrew suggested to write down what different aromas smell like to YOU. There’s some validity to this. For example “pine-y” is a common description, but I have never smelled “pine-y” in any hop, probably because I partially grew up around Adirondack pines. All pines don’t have just one specific aroma, and to me southern pines have no smell at all. Now “resin-y?” I get that. Almost juicy grapefruit-y and a hint of zest. Of course that crosses with Chinook, Cascade and other hops, to some extent. Perhaps this might work with defects? Something to consider if I do another retake.
I had just decided to discard the identify the specific hop or malt training when I read in one of Phil Farrell’s instruction sheets that identifying one specific hop is just asking for error. There could be many different types in any entry.
Defects have been a somewhat problematic study for me. My own club hasn’t done a defect seminar in quite a while. But I find them limited in effectiveness. As I told Phil Farrell I feel you have to keep hitting the palate. I tried this on a limited basis and I think it did help. I used substitutes.
Probably the more questionable substitutes was Martini Sour Apple for acetaldehyde: tiny quantities. Not sure how close that got to the actual experience of acetaldehyde. I used water from a can of corn for DMS, butter spray for diacetyl, an old beer for oxidized, pepper for pepper phenols, clove powder for clove. That one was important because there is a distinct difference, at least to me. Clove seems a tad sweeter, pepper drier. The cardboard sense helped me identify it in one test beer I might have missed before.
Andrew’s interview was a lot of help: what’s expected when filling out a sheet for the test rather than a competition. He mentioned you’ll find a link to the BJCP guidelines for scoring tests. It’s specific: like how many adjectives a potential Certified judge would use v. National, v. Master, v. Grand. There was some advice I didn’t follow. Mike Dixon suggests we use pen for legibility, but we’re supposed to use pencil on a scoresheet in competition. Plus I really need the option to erase. Andrew suggested offer complex technical advice to show the breadth of our knowledge. I only did a little of that. My writing sucks so much I focused more on carefully printing as best I could, and I felt my talents were better doing what I have done so long: write. I also admit if I had opened the technical door too much the possibility for error was probably higher than some other test takers. I’m more of a fly by the seat of my pants brewer, and I like it that way.
Not that I didn’t try, to some extent.
I hope others will share their experiences and advice. It can only help us become better judges.
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 60s. Thus the adventure began.
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