A Beer Judge’s Diary: Becoming a Beer Judge

The most recent BJCP guidelines, for use in all competitions in November. Expanded quite a bit from 2008.

Written by Ken Carman


bjd-265x300 Right up front: this Diary is going to be different. And I’m not going to sugar coat anything: this is a sales pitch, a promotion. If you love beer, especially craft beer, you brew beer, or are interested in the process and might like to learn: think of becoming a beer judge.
 You don’t have to become a BJCP beer judge to judge beer. And please don’t call them “Certified.” That’s a rank. There’s Recognized, Certified, National, Master, Grand Master and almighty, unquestionable, all powerful (especially once I’ve had a few brews) BEER DEITY: ME!  Yes, the last was just me goofing around, the others actual ranks.
 The test is very tough, takes a lot of studying, and don’t pay much attention if someone claims they don’t want specifics, they just want to know the breadth of your knowledge. Horse hocky. Before you pass you’ll need to know, backwards, forwards and upside down, many specifics… so many “specifics” I’ve known those who say the BJCP beer test is tougher than some of what they had to do to get their PhDs. .
 Good news: you can take it online. More on that in a moment.
 But, no, you don’t have to be BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) to judge beer. Join a homebrew club, find out when, and where, a competition most convenient to you and your schedule is being held. Go online, find the site where you can register to steward the first time, then judge the next time if they need you. If you show up usually they’ll find something for you to do, but I would do digital footwork first, or go to a meeting of the club doing the competition and start asking questions. Doing both? Even better.
 You’ll learn a lot just by watching and listening as a steward during the discussion as the judges check scores, perceptions, then banter back and forth about differences they may, or may not, have. It’s an education in style, defects and the nature of each entry. If the judges can, and are willing, you may be able to share an occasional taste, or even what you think. But disturbing them while they judge is a no no.
 I judged beer for Music City Brewers many years before I took the test the first time… and failed. That earned me the now as extinct as the dinosaurs rank of “Apprentice.” They even gave you a big certificate that you could hang on your wall announcing to the universe, “Hey, everybody, I FAILED! Ain’t I ‘proud?'”
 A couple years later I retook the test and became what my wife, Millie, has always considered me, “Certified.”
 No, you can judge without the title, you just need to be paired with a BJCP judge.
 ”Why should I do that, Ken?”
 Well, I can only speak from experience. Starting with craft in the early 70s, before it was called “craft,” I eventually ran beer tastings that had, over the years, hundreds of different brews, all different styles. I started homebrewing in 79. By the 80s I thought I knew more about beer than your “more than the average (beer loving) bear.”
 I was wrong. I have learned more about all the different styles, what they’re like, how they should be brewed and what makes them not to style, by being a beer judge than anything I had ever done before that. I learned from person experience the nature of defects, learned how to identify them, avoid them, what causes defects and how some “defects” are actually part of the profile of some brews.
 My beer world exploded exponentially, and I have the BJCP, and being a beer judge, to thank for that. I have also learned about new styles, historical styles: and on one rare occasion been involved in a mad rush at the judging table to find out more about one that hasn’t quite hit the guidelines yet.
 If you love beer, you find beer a continual, joyous, adventure, being a beer judge, and judging as much as you can, will put that adventure on steroids. And I do recommend learning to homebrew first. It does give you a different perspective that will add to your knowledge, your appreciation. Start with something simple, and I don’t mean trying to brew Budweiser. That’s actually very tough and you have almost nothing to hide your inexperience behind.
 I became a beer judge before the online test was a “thing.” You can get as far as Certified by taking the online, and doing a sit down judging of beers: tasting, with other potential judges. And you can retake the test with relative speed.
 Once upon a beer judge time you had to wait a while for the test to reboot with different questions, and find out when and where a test was being given. Usually homebrew clubs set these up, and it often takes a lot of effort. Many clubs never set up tests. But you usually don’t have to be a member of the club to take the test, you just have to get permission to be part of it from whomever is running it, ask to sign up and see if there’s room for you. Oh, and pay a minimal fee.
 My club was a few years away from giving another test, so my second test was in Knoxville, almost 200 miles away and a different time zone. We left at 3am and tried to sleep on the way as Millie drove. Didn’t work out that way: I was too keyed up.
 But the online is no “give me.” 200 questions in one hour. And they ain’t easy, and, yes, some are “tricky.”
 Hopefully your computer will work better than the one Millie did her first online on. It kept skipping pages.
 Let me give you an example of someone who I think would make a great judge, and not. If you have no interest in exploring different styles, learning about defects, or what makes a beer more to style, or more incredible, don’t bother. But we have a writer here at The Professor who, from what I’ve heard and read, has the palate, the interest, loves learning: she just needs to sit in with a BJCP judge. As with all newbies: it takes gentle guidance. I’m referring, of course, to Maria Devan.  But I think Tom Becham would make a grand judge too. You just have to be able to hold back on what you prefer, what you think, and let the guidelines guide you while you judge.
 I can’t yell at James Visger: he’s already a judge. Besides, I’m sure his wife, Jami’s jo, does plenty of that, and well deserved “yelling.”
 Yes, I’m joking again.
 I think, more than anything, it’s the process of judging, and studying for the test, and having to be ready for “whatever,” that puts your beer experience at warp speed, as well as working with other judges.
 We’re about to switch from the 2008 to the 2015 Guidelines. We’ll be using them in October at Old Forge BIG Beer and Odd Ale Competition, in Old Forge, NY. Hey, it’s a BIG Beer and, more important Odd Beer, competition. I figure we’ll need more info than your average comp due to the “weird” factor.
 A lot of judges seem a tad scared of them, and indeed they are more complex, more detailed.
 Kind of the idea here, folks!
 Guess I’m where I need to be. We don’t have to start until November. I’m rushing that a tad so we’ll use them in October. I just used them, briefly, at King of the Mountain, in Willoughby, Ohio. We had a brew not listed in 2008.
 I’m excited. I’m eager to jump into the deep end of the multiple style, brew-filled, pool.
 Yup, “guess I’m where I need to be.”
 And if you really love beer, craft beer and homebrew, you need to be there 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, 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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