A Beer Judge’s Diary

Tim Belczak judging at Haztoberfest in Erie, PA. Courtesy H.A.Z.A.R.D. Home Brewing Club
Tim Belczak judging at Haztoberfest in Erie, PA. Courtesy H.A.Z.A.R.D. Home Brewing Club

Written by Ken Carman

The Topic: On His Way to Grand Master… Tim Belczak

bjd-265x300  A few years ago I realized, while on tour, that there was a competition down the road in Niagara Falls during the same time I was usually performing in northeast Ohio. Being a native New Yorker, who has been living in Tennessee since 1978, brewing since 79, I wanted to share my own passion for homebrewing and judging with other equally passionate folks, so I drove north to the AWOG competition: Amber Waves of Grain. I think it was at the third AWOG where I judged with Tim Belczak. A short while latter, for the first time, we met again at King of the Mountain and NY State Fair.
 You really need to stop following me, Tim. I won’t get a restraining order… yet.
 Or am I following you? I hope you don’t get a restraining order. Besides, as Millie might say, tis tough to restrain me. Bet Cheryl has NEVER said that about you.
 Well, in one way, many of us are following far behind, for in such a short time here is just part of what Tim has achieved…

Recognized: 1/9/2014
Certified: 4/1/2014
National: 3/18/2015
Best scores:
Written: 83
Tasting: 90
Total: 87

 Yet, despite the speed with which Tim has been ascending… did I see a hint of a halo last time we met, or was that just the rim of a competition sample glass? …most interviewers might consider interviewing a Grand Master judge, or even Master, instead.
 Not moi’.
 There seem to be a lot of judges willingly stalled at Recognized, or Certified. Inspiring folks to be being more Tim-like: being more an achiever, more dedicated, more well focused, are noble goals. Hence this edition of A Beer Judge’s Diary.
 Millie, my wife, judged with a Grand Master in Schenectady, NY a few years ago at Knickerbocker: one of the first Grand Masters, and she admitted that she wouldn’t pass the test today. With ever, expanding, adapting, more specific, style guidelines, I would think grading for the written exam has probably grown tougher as well, overall. While some may claim online testing for up to Certified might be easier than the old legacy exam… (A debate to be had, yes.) …going beyond online becomes, “One more (bigger) big step for all judge-kind.”
 Tim just made that leap, and in such a short time. Jokes aside about “ascending,” my experience judging with Tim has been one of an unpretentious, dedicated, quick witted, judge, with a talented palate, who is always willing to learn. “Always willing to learn” from anyone: no matter what rank, or lack of. But more about that latter. First let’s go straight to Tim’s own words about what may seem, to some of us, his quick rise: if for no other reason than to inspire more of us, yes, maybe even me, to be better, do better…

So how did it happen you started judging beer, and how long have you been judging?

 My wife still doesn’t believe me on this one, and she may even know me better than I know myself. Shortly after joining Niagara Association of Homebrewers, I decided to steward their upcoming annual Amber Waves of Grain homebrew competition in March of 2013.
 As a steward, you make sure the two or three judges you’re attending have the supplies they need, pour and serve the beers at the proper temperature, check some math and complete some paperwork. A perk is that you get to sample the entries along with them and listen to the discussions that follow their independent evaluations. This is a big benefit for any homebrewer looking to identify hallmarks of a particular style as well as hone in on off-flavors. It was both educational and fun, but I came back telling my wife that I would never want to be a judge.
 She smirked and said, “You know you will.”
 I truly didn’t.
 Just a few weeks later, at a club business meeting, our club was starting to fill seats for a mid-September tasting exam. My cousin-in-law (for all practical purposes, I just call him my cousin) was also new to the club and wanted to pursue becoming a judge. The homebrews shared by our members during the social portion of our meeting that night were especially good and just may have lowered my reservations to the point of giving a still somewhat reluctant “yes.” I was told that anyone can learn to judge beer and that we could be trained. So I got on a waiting list for a seat and started seriously cramming during the next five months.
 I judged my first competition that September as a provisional judge, just one week before my tasting exam. The second flight was with a National judge and grader who was patient with me and provided some good exam advice.
 When I got my results back in January, I was shocked to have scored an 80 on the exam, which qualified to take the written exam. Written exams within driving distance were even harder to find, and the only one scheduled in the next couple years was just ten months away. This goal was not originally on my radar, but I saw it as an opportunity I couldn’t pass up – I didn’t want to wait 3 or 4 years to advance.
 I decided to sign up and drive 150 miles to Syracuse, NY the following November, but I still needed 20 experience points (with at least 10 from judging). I started frantically traveling to every competition I could in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania to get the required points. So even though I am still a relatively new judge, my liver’s seen a couple hundred entries in the past year-and-a-half, all in the name of the BJCP.
 As it turns out, the BJCP added geographically-dispersed quarterly written exams in 2014 and I was able to buy myself an extra few weeks and take the exam locally in Buffalo this past December.
 Do I love it now? Yeah, most definitely!

Any unique ways you approached studying for the test?

 Years ago, Al Boyce wrote “The BJCP Exam for Dummies” to cover the legacy exam which combined tasting with essays. I used that as a starting point for my studies, but I’ve read that his guide can only get you so far since graders want to see independent thought from the examinees rather than parroted answers from a well-known guide.
 The question pool for the written exam is published, so there should be no surprises come test day. It was a huge undertaking, but I thumbed through every brewing book I own as I researched each question and prepared an answer that I could get on paper within 16 minutes. I allotted 20 minutes for my recipe question. That left only 3 minutes for the 20 T/F questions and 3 minutes of wiggle room for other questions (not a whole lot of time at all).
 I kept my recipes simple and created a spreadsheet with all OG, FG, SRM, IBU, PPPG for each malt, mash efficiencies, mash types, dough-in strike temperatures, yeast strains, pitching rates, water types, hop varieties, alpha acid utilizations at 60 and 10 minutes based on each recipe’s gravity, ounces of hops at each addition, and ounces of priming sugar.
 This may seem like overkill, but so many things can be bucketed into common values and it’s easy enough to remember the exceptions for each section. I wanted to demonstrate creativity and be able to show how the math worked for the numbers I was using (water volumes, temperature calculations, IBU calculations). If you can show real numbers other than what Al Boyce suggests in his guide, you can really shine and demonstrate creativity and independent thought.

Any unique ways you prepared for tasting?

 I know it sounds like a chore, but you’re going to have to drink a lot of beer (and that doesn’t mean keg stands of Milwaukee’s Best). Sample as many commercial examples as you can. Write up score sheets for them until you’re comfortable completing them in 12 minutes. After that, at least continue to think briefly about each aspect of each beer you drink (it’s really hard not to).
 We set up a study group that met for the 10 weeks leading up the the exam to discuss technical topics prepared by other examinees, taste commercial examples with experienced judges, and practice writing score sheets. By pooling our money together, we were able to cover most styles for about $75/person.
 One of the weeks we did the Siebel off-flavors kit, which I feel was incredibly valuable in building sensory memory for things like DMS, diacetyl, acetaldehyde, trans-2-nonenal, isoamyl acetate, butyric acid, etc. You typically don’t get these in commercial examples. If you’re taking an exam locally, see if you your exam administrator will order up a discounted Siebel Comprehensive Sensory Kit for your group.

Tim "studying" hard with two wannabe penguin judges?
Tim “studying” hard with two wannabe penguin judges?

What advice would you have for those hoping to do well and get beyond Certified?

 The written exam is a challenge, but certainly not impossible. Commit to studying a lot, write you own recipes and prepare your technical answers well in advance. You will never have time to put down on paper all that you want to say, so you need to focus on the major points and time yourself as you put it on paper. Whenever I had few quiet moments free, I recited an answer in my head and referred to my study guide if necessary. Memorization was never my strong point, so I probably spent more time committing my answers to memory than others.
 Styles are still a challenge for me, and I know I could have been more specific in many areas (“med-low to med-high hop aroma” versus “medium hop aroma”). I plan to start memorizing the 2015 guidelines as soon as they drop and am aiming to retake the written exam in 2016 when I am closer to the 40 experience points required for Master (at least 20 from judging). In the meantime, I’ll be grading exams to hopefully learn from other graders what is most important and I will modify my study guide accordingly.

What advice would you have for doing well in tasting?

 Like anything, it’s practice and repetition. We have a large pool of very experienced judges in Western New York, and getting paired up with someone who really knows his or her stuff brings you up to speed very quickly. You can only learn so much from drinking commercial examples that score in the 40‘s (out of 50).
 Experiencing a competition flight with a knowledgeable judge helps calibrate your scoring and lets you ask about unfamiliar perceptions. It’s all about building sensory memory. You can read descriptions of off-flavors, but until you actually experience that aroma/flavor/mouthfeel, you may not have that neural pathway built. I was judging King of the Mountain in Mentor, OH when I was hit with a strange aroma I never experienced in a beer.
 Usually, discussion between judges is reserved until after both score sheets are completed, but I interrupted the head judge at our table to him ask what it was. He immediately said, “Band-Aids.” Ahhh – of course. Everyone knows what Band-Aids smell like, but it’s not as easy to pick that up when out-of-context. It’s kind of like seeing someone you know you recognize in public but just can’t place where you know them from. Practice, practice, practice.
 And judge or steward as much as possible. Stewards need no experience, and any non-BJCP judge genuinely wanting to help fellow homebrewers by providing honest feedback and who tries to completely fill out a score sheet is welcome in just about any competition. Best case scenario is that they’re assigned as a third judge and have two other judges from whom they can learn.

The BJCP calls the test, “Tough, but fair,” do you agree?

 It’s not a cakewalk, but it’s also completely fair. I found the online entrance exam to be a bit frantic with 200 questions in 60 minutes (I checked the time after completing the first 100 and was at the 40 minute mark!) A somewhat experienced brewer a with decent knowledge of styles and common issues can pass. On the tasting, even a fair knowledge of the tested styles can likely get someone a passing Recognized score if they write a complete score sheet that addresses all aspects of each section and is within 10 points of the assigned score. In the study group we formed, everyone made it to Certified on their initial try.

Any improvements you’d like to see in the test?

 It may sound like splitting hairs, but I’d like to see the 20 True-False questions about the BJCP eliminated or at least moved outside the 90-minute time limit. These are questions that you don’t get credit for answering correctly, but lose points for incorrect answers. Every minute counts on the written exam, and these are mostly common sense questions that can easily be misinterpreted when trying to rush through them. I would have loved another 3-5 minutes to spend on my two style questions.

Any kind of training for your palate you did before the test?

 It helps to hear others’ perceptions, so the group study class was critical for me. As we tasted, we picked out what we tasted and smelled as far as hops (spicy, earthy floral, citrusy), malts (toasty, grainy, graham cracker, bread crust, roasty, burnt), esters (pear, apple, cherry, banana) and phenols (pepper, clove, smoke). For me, this was a great way to build palate memory. When I encounter new flavors or aromas in commercial beers, I’ll turn to reviews on BeerAdvocate or RateBeer and scroll through reviews until something clicks with me.

What kind of mistakes do you feel test takers make?

 Since I haven’t graded yet, I can only pass on what I have been told by other graders or read in the BJCP forums. I’ve heard most examinees struggle with time management on the written exam. In reading through my own exam, I made some obvious and silly mistakes, simply because I was rushing. While writing my study guide, I had some of my initial answers reviewed by a grader and was told I made some common mistakes. Make sure you describe all ways each of the three given characteristics are perceived in the first technical question instead of jumping right into the cause, control, and appropriateness of it. In the recipe question, 35% is based on how the recipe fits the style – describe every ingredient and process.

What kind of mistakes do you feel tasters make when writing up sheets for the tasting exam?

 Again, I can only pass on what I’ve heard from graders or read in the BJCP forum. Use the descriptors provided for each section and comment on what’s there (or isn’t there that should be). Cover them all and make sure they are addressed in the correct section. Astringency is not a flavor and bitterness is not a mouthfeel.
 The grading rubric for both exams is publicly available on the BJCP website, so read through it and count the number of descriptors you use in your score sheets. Basically, be as detailed as possible, both in testing situations and when judging competition entries.

What should they focus on more than they do (both in tasting and written)?

 For the tasting exam, simply judge what’s in front of you as though you’re in a competition situation (which is really what’s being tested). If you’re judging a roggenbier, don’t put down “rye malt aroma/flavor” just because it’s supposed to be there. You don’t know what the exam administrator has chosen for you. You could be given an old, dull weizenbock (with no rye) and be told it’s a roggenbier (which does have rye). You may not always get a world-class example and may not always get a stinker. Just don’t try to game the exam!
 For the written exam, be complete and be right. Show your grader that what you put down on paper is your own unique research and work.

How has being a member of a homebrew club helped, and specifically NAH (Niagara Association of Homebrewers)?

 I’m incredibly lucky to have the resources of NAH available to me. We run a competition that brings in over 600 entries each year, so we need a large, experienced judge pool of judges to provide the kind of quality that brings entrants back year after year. Informal chit-chat with a knowledgeable judge about a beer is often much more valuable than feedback from a homebrew competition since it’s a two-way dialog centering around recipe and process.
 My early days of brewing were spent brewing exclusively IPA, Pale Ale, and Stout. Tasting other styles has really broadened the styles I’ve brewed and it seems like each month, my list of “I’ve got to brew one of these,” or “I’ve got to use this yeast, or these hops” grows to an unmanageable number. There are some amazingly talented brewers in our club, some of whom have gone on to become professional brewers.

Tim @ AWOG, Saturday, March 328th, 2015
Tim @ AWOG, Saturday, March 328th, 2015

 Any specific ideas about grading exams you’d like to share?

 I just signed up to be a volunteer grader, but have not received my first exam set yet. I’ve heard that just as judging makes one a better brewer and vice-versa, grading exams makes one a better judge and examinee. I’m hoping to retake the written in 2016 under the new guidelines and crack that 90!

Any suggestions about homebrewers and how they brew, what they enter?

 A competition like AWOG is extremely competitive with over 600 entries each year. While a competition this size draws great prizes from our generous sponsors, the real benefit is the feedback. If you happen to medal and get a cool prize, even better! Brewers new to competition brewing may not realize how packed the IPA and American Pale Ale categories are. These are usually done in split-flights with a mini-best-of-show to determine first through third from multiple tables. If a brewer is chasing his or her first medal, there are much sparser categories to play in.
 Stick to the style guidelines. A bright, clean citrus bomb may be the most absolutely delicious beer in the American Pale Ale category, but if the hops are too aggressive for the style, it will likely lose points because of it. The guidelines exist in order to level the playing field and define a common standard.

I notice you, like me, run a competition. What advice might you have about those who want to start their own?

 In 2014, the Erie County Fair decided to hold a homebrew competition to go along with the wine competition they’ve been running for years. While the organizer did a fantastic job and took the competition 90% of the way, it required someone to find judges and organize flights, so I stepped up as judge director just ten days before the set judging date and started scrambling for judges. It could have been a disaster since the entry fee was $20 (which included five admissions to the Fair) and allowed UNLIMITED entries per brewer across all BJCP beer, cider, and mead categories.
 Luckily, it wasn’t publicized much and we ended up with 57 entries that we easily handled in two evening sessions with six judges. However, this also affected the flights and there were some strange collapsed categories.
 For a new competition, I’d recommend limiting it to a subset of maybe 5 categories so more logical flights can be constructed. Advertise your competition far in advance so brewers have time to make an entry for it rather than dust off any bottless they may have lying around. I think what you’re doing with your Old Forge Big Beer and Odd Ale competition is a great theme.
 This year, we are excluding cider and mead as well as limiting the participant to a maximum of five entries. I still don’t expect a large number of entries since drop-off is 8:00 AM – 4:30 PM Monday through Friday only at the Hamburg Fairgrounds, but at least we have more medals ordered up this year to accommodate twice the number of collapsed categories. And as a fun twist, Flying Bison (a 15-year-old, 10,000 bbl brewery in Buffalo) is going to brew the winning beer to be served throughout Buffalo and at all five beer locations during the Fair, sold as “The Erie County Fair Beer.” They are also going to do their best to use all NY State ingredients while staying true to the brewer’s recipe. Cool prizes like this are what brewers compete for!

People tend to get frustrated taking the exam. Any suggestions?

 I’ve never felt frustrated, but always felt as though I could be better prepared in terms of knowing the guidelines more completely – not just general characteristic of a beer but the full acceptable range for each aspect. There is an active and very responsive Facebook group for BJCP judges and prospective judges, so if there are any specific frustrations, they can be addressed there. There is also a forum on the BJCP website for anyone with a BJCP ID. Any questions can be asked there for judges looking to advance their ranks.

Anything you did to sensitize your palate, learn to assess brews better for the tasting part of the exam?

 I live on spicy food and doctor just about everything I eat to give it a kick, but I lay off the spices the day before any competitions or tasting exams. I avoid greasy food as recommended, and start the morning with something sweet (“Mmmm… donuts” – Homer Simpson). I also flush my sinuses with a neti pot the day before and the day of any competition or tasting exam. I didn’t know how common this was until I brought it up to some fellow judges and discovered a bunch of closet neti potters.

 Well, before I close, I’d like to share my own sense of Tom while judging with him, and also on the…
 Regardless of all the judging I’ve done, Mississippi to NY, I knew Tim immediately the next time we met, despite the fact I sometimes have to rack my aging old man brain to remember specifics about judges I sit across the table from. I haven’t the faintest idea what we judged. Maybe I remembered Tim so well because our palates are similar?
 “Dedicated?” Well, as Tim mentioned, I run a competition in Old Forge, NY. Buffalo has to be at least 250 miles away, considering roads to this Central Adirondack haven. Since Tim was going to be in Central NY anyway he got up super early and showed up at 9am. He plans on doing it again this year.
 In a very small competition where the loss of one judge can be crucial, so I offer a big “thanks,” Tim.

Tim's wife, Cheryl, brings new brewer into the world?
Tim’s wife, Cheryl, brings new brewer, and judge, into the world?
 Reminds me of our second Mississippi competition where Millie and I drove all night and slept in parking lots. We’ve already repeated that this week for a family situation and for AWOG .
 Gee, think some folks like judging, brewing and beer a tad, eh?
 My experience judging with Tim has been quite intuitive, yet also methodical: we either find the same problems, or pleasures, or make up for whatever the other missed. I think I tend to be more a, “Use the force, Luke,” type of judge, which has its advantages, but a big disadvantage: more room for error. Tim tends to be that, but also methodical: having both is a talent I wish I could claim to have more of.
 His climb up the BJCP ladder has been fast since he joined Niagara Association of Homebrewers (Buffalo area) and, as he mentioned to me earlier, he didn’t know about the BJCP until recently, or about half of the styles. He had homebrewed for “a handful of years, making only pale ales, IPA and stouts. It was a lot of work, but the whole BJCP experience really opened the whole world of beer to me.”
 He’s scheduled to grade his first exam in April.
 Tim is the kind of judge we need more of, no matter what the rank.

tim and 2B

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, until the very early 70s, thought he didn’t care all that much for beer. Then he discovered brews beyond the standard fare’ available on the east coast.
©Copyright 2015
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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