A Beer Judge’s Diary: 2015 Guidelines v. 2008

Music City Brewers club president Justin, and I, have been having fun arguing as of late. The latest topic was the 2015 v. 2008 BJCP Guidelines.

  Let’s start with an apology…

By Ken Carman
By Ken Carman
   As a beer judge I had never done a complete A/B comparison between 2015 and 2008, even though A/B comparisons aren’t exactly a concept I’m unfamiliar with. As quality control in the record industry I knew this was a standard practice: take two records of the same album and compare lead ins, cuts, bands. Is that odd sound non-fill or a plating problem? The same is true, with different parameters, in beer world, like when comparing a 1997 Sierra Nevada Bigfoot to a 1998. How well have they aged?
   However, as a beer judge I’ve only done a little comparing: 2015 v. 2008 Guidelines. Most of that was between competitions, where one would use 15, the other 08.
 There’s no need when assessing entries during competition.
 There’s no need when studying to learn the craft of judging.
 There’s no need when attempting to raise your score on a BJCP test: toss 2008 away. 2015 is the standard now.
   After our discussion I went home and started comparing.
   Justin, you were right, a lot of 2015 specifics compared to 2008 are cut and paste. Where the vague descriptions like: “moderately low to moderately high” exist to confound judges in 2015, usually they were there to confounded in 2008 too.
   Not 100% the case, but the percentage is high.
   There seems to be an increase of slip-slidy words like ”may have,” meaningless phrases like “low to high,” or limiting important distinctions like roasted barley for stouts. But some of that may be due to an increase in the number of categories and styles not mentioned before.
    In many ways 2015 is better…
1. There are many styles included now that needed to be covered, like Piwo Grodziskie (Gratzer).
2. Expanding on explaining styles with Overall Impression, History, Comments… all interesting, though not anywhere near as important as definitive phrases and terms that define what makes any style distinct.
3. Style Comparison: a great add, except…
   Many of the comparisons refer to styles shifted to out of category to way out of category. Some simply have always been in different categories. This makes the comparisons less valuable for some judges. Keep more of them in category and the most they have to do is flip a page, navigate a lot less. Navigating with some handheld devices would be less difficult, like my Nook; and navigating with some handheld devices can be quite the issue.
   This could be limited by, say, going from English to American versions of a style while judging in one category. It helps a judge assess an entry better; understand what makes the style they are judging distinct. It also emphasizes some frequent differences in similar styles that are related: how Brit versions may be malt focused, American more hop focused; a lesson that might be transferred to other judging tables. Yes, there may be craft variations on that, but that comment could be included in descriptions. To me, shifting them to different categories is more counterproductive than not. Shifting less to help in judging, more to chase craft trends, is like trying to catch an unwilling, greasy, cat on an icy road.
   Another attempt was to keep higher gravity, more complex, brews from being judged in a category alongside seemingly less complex, lower ABV brews. But this seems to me just another example of Mother Guidelines trying to fix poor judging remotely instead of encouraging discussion at the table.
   To be clear, I understand no matter how you put the categories together insufficient judging might be possible. You can’t child proof the judging table.
   Justin and I still disagree about Kellerbiers…
    Why are Kellerbiers, obviously a spinoff of some base style, listed with styles like Alt or Vienna? The category is Amber Bitter European Beer. But Kellerbiers are neither necessarily amber (Pale Kellerbier- “Medium yellow to pale gold.”), nor all that bitter (Amber Kellerbier- “slightly bitter”).
    The original source for what’s distinct about a traditional Kellerbier is, “Traditionally served on tap from the lagering vessel.” These are, essentially, based on a young version of some lagered style, that was served from that vessel before yeast can do what yeast does so well: clean up a beer. Otherwise, “Reflects base style.” And that base is not Kellerbier.
   Similar to some fruit beer which, other than the fruit, could be any style.
    Including it in Category 7 strikes me as a shotgun marriage. Kellerbier not only doesn’t have to be all that “bitter,” or “amber,” I suspect one could brew a Dark Kellerbier, despite it not being listed. Maybe a Belgian Kellerbier? It’s almost like putting fruit beer under Irish Beer. Yes, one could use an Irish style for the base, but otherwise they have close to nothing to do with each other. And keeping styles that are related together helps judges.
    OK, OK, entrants could try to mimic it, and then bottle. And there are commercially available bottled versions. Of course there are also commercial versions of fruit beer based on some other style.
    How about including Kellerbier with other entries that have a secondary, “base,” style? Perhaps call it, ‘Mixed Base Styles?’Judges on that table will understand the task, and go in prepared to bounce between the two. One judge could have the style in front of them, the other the style it is based on. I could even think a program could be developed for Nooks and such where you input both and show them side by side, or quick navigation between the two.
   If we are to keep the guidelines more like they are now, in future revisions such a program could facilitate bouncing between the different categories style comparisons come from. That would be more difficult without some program, and an electronic device, since there are multiple categories one must bounce between…not just two.
    Judging what I’m calling ‘Mixed Base Styles’ is really somewhat of a different task than just judging, say, an American Stout. One might argue the secondary “style” is Stout, but that only reaffirms my argument for reintegrating related styles… kind of like the 2016 AHA Guidelines did. What was done with 2015, to me, seems like a beer judge organization shifting guidelines away from judging, more toward whatever the trend in craft world is this second and attempting to add an element of remote control: being a beer judging table mommy.
  Interesting comparison to me because that’s also what I think of the check off judging sheet. Never you mind you or I get some different sense it an entry, or what other describe as “pine” smells like something else: you must waste your time on we have pre-selected for you. Make sure you circle, not check, or check, not circle!
  Yes, Mommy Judge Dearest.
   I must admit I struggled with the concept of separating English IPA from the IPA category into Pale Commonwealth. (Does the fact those brews have some English-related heritage matter all that much in the scheme of judging things?) There are so many IPAs listed and IPA entry levels these days are often so big. Yet to keep this IPA “team” split up, next revision, are we to include Gerbil IPA? (POOR Gerbils!) Absurdity aside, there sure seems to be a lot of potential for shifting sand here that could be satisfied by having English as B then “21c Specialty.” Specifics about current variations could be in an index right after the 21 category.
  Is there any way to do such a popular style without complications? Probably not. For now it seems split tables will continue as a frequent item, no matter what the future Guideline future of IPAs may be.
 Perhaps the toughest question here, the one I’m not sure of: is 2015 is too complicated, or 2008 too simplistic? Maybe my answer might be ‘both?’
   As to future revisions…
   There are advantages to more specificity, more categories, more styles. There are advantages to less.
   Perhaps perpetual compromising between specificity and simplicity is always the best path?

A commercial version of Kellerier

 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.
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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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