A Beer Judge’s Diary: The Balancing Act

First Round 2016 Nationals: Nashville @ Blackstone Brewery’s production facility
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There are many reasons many of the situations mentioned in this edition shouldn’t happen in a competition, but due to the very human nature of competitions readers need to be aware they can happen, and do happen.-kwc

>strong>By Ken Carman
By Ken Carman
 How many times have you received score sheets back from some competition and said, “What the &%$#?” While we can’t dismiss the possibility of poor judging, it’s far, far, far more likely there are other reasons including, well, the judges might be spot on with their assessments. Indeed, when you get conflicting comments it’s possible both judges are right. One judge may sense an issue with an entry and describe it one way, the other judge senses the same character but describes it differently. Or each judge senses some different issue and both may be a problem with the entry.
 You probably have heard many of the standard reasons for why judges aren’t “spot on:” last in flight, palate fatigue… both might be valid. While it should have no influence, being the last entry judged, or first, might have made a difference. Big high gravity flights can be tough towards the end. We do our best to pace ourselves, smaller samples… but judges are human.
 If judges have one problematic brew after another, and then what seems a phenomenal one, scores could get skewed. Dare I repeat, “Judges are human?”
 Oh, I dare, I dare.
 Some things are inexcusable, like score sheets filled with nasty snark, or just one word responses.
 There are other reasons score sheets may seem odd. Usually an organizer wants scores to be within a certain number of points, most of the time it’s seven points with a preference for five. I’ve judged where they want only a four or three point difference. That can be quite the challenge. This part of the process can cause conflicting sheets; both in content and comparing that content to your score.
 Imagine two judges with serious disagreements regarding an entry. One gets some phenol, one does not… or thinks that perception is something else more appropriate. Both think they’re right and score accordingly. Discussion follows and, with good judges, they adjust.
 When major score adjustments and perception differences happen, occasionally, I put what I call a “consensus sticker” on the form: something of my own creation.

 “Consensus judged: possible conflicts between scores and comments due to judges adjusting.”

 It makes me feel good to give entrants just a hint as to why content and scores may conflict. My E-mail address is on my sticker if they want to know even more about consensus judging, and maybe this might encourage them to write me.
 However, far more frequent, scores generally line up, we just have different perceptions. Usually we accept that something’s funky about the entry, and I don’t mean in some “we love funk” way.
 Recently I judged with a vegetarian. He was often describing off aromas as some kind of meat. I would provide an alternative possibility for that sense during our discussions. But we generally agreed when something seemed off so scoring was close. I think two, or more, different ways to describe an entry can help the brewer, even ifthey are unique to judging. Maybe even when they are unique. I know this because I had trouble figuring iut what “Band Aid” was supposed to smell, taste like. My wife,Millie: also a judge, reminded me of when I was on the road and used a green rubber hose for my tour bus water supply.
 ”Oh, NOW i get it!”
 I imagine there might be some brewer out there, who might also be a vegetarian, who reads what my fellow judge wrote and say, “Oh, NOW I get it!”
 Here’s another situation many brewers who enter may not know about: the judge who is very sensitive to one off flavor, off aroma.
 I am sensitive to chloraseptic-like, and Band Aid-like, phenols, or my description: green rubber hose. However, I am somewhat diacetyl blind. Apparently I don’t mind a slight butter-sense in my beer.
 Mmm… BUTTER! “Parkay!” Nah, I’d think Parkay-sense in beer might have more a slick feel than an actual butter sense, and maybe even a bit more plastic-like.
 Those who have judged for many years know judges who are, or claim to be, extremely sensitive to at least one off flavor, off aroma. But I think very sensitive folks can sometimes skew scores too low. For this I’ll use a example from fiction so we won’t get bogged down in the claims of those who think they are always spot on for any one defect. Let’s imagine kryptonite is real…
 If no one else is all that sensitive to kryptonite, should we be damn sure there’s not even the faintest whisper of a kryptonite-sense in any beer? Should it radically skew what, otherwise,might be an incredible entry? If someone claims to be the Superman of sensing kryptonite, OK, but maybe kryptonite adds some intangible sense most folks appreciate in beer, like some water profiles can.
 If at some low level 99.909999999999999999999% of the public and judges can’t sense, “kryptonite” in beer, should we adjust any set of scores more towards that one judge?
 Judging is a “balancing act.”
 Then there’s something I call “score inflation,” or “score deflation.” Maybe the first entry seems phenomenal and the next one even better. Judges start a flight by scoring low, or high, and a scoring curve develops. Not supposed to happen, but I have found, sometimes, I realize it may have been happening at the end of a flight, or towards the very end. This is why judging with someone you differ with frequently can help prevent inflation or deflation. When Terry Felton was judge coordinator for western New York’s AWOG competition he would often, intentionally, pair judges who were likely to disagree. It helps prevent inflation or deflation, in my opinion.
  Judging is a collective endeavor, and should remain so. All opinions should be considered, even non-ranked judges. If a fellow judge says she gets a green eggs and ham sense I listen, consider and ask her what she means, how she perceives that. Often such odd comments can be tracked down to a defect that ranked judges are more familiar with. But, then again, how am I to know that lady judge might actually be some future matron of perceiving a “green eggs and ham” sense in beer, some kind of…Ma Suess?
 Sorry, couldn’t resist.
 Bad jokes aside, while it is true that none of this will ever be perfect, like any great beer: together, judges can provide well balanced assessments of an entry. That makes judging an adventure, and a delightful learning experience, for all.

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 2016
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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