A Beer Judge’s Diary: How I Studied for 6 Months, Drove 600 Miles and STILL Botched the Exam

  I asked to wait for this to be published until after I got the results because I didn’t want there to be even the slightest chance I’d influence scoring. I want to thank the graders. They have a tough job and I, unintentionally, may have made it tougher. (See my grader comments at the end of the column.) I got a 72. Considering my experience I am by no means proud of that, but I do think they did well.
 Do I have a problem with writing about moments in my life that some may think I should be embarrassed about? Apparently, in this case at least, not. And hopefully this might help those who haven’t taken it yet understand more about the tasting portion of the test.

By Ken Carman
By Ken Carman
 This is partially a story of a beer judge sleuth trying to figure out what went wrong. Kudos to my personal Holmes who outsmarted her not as clever as Sherlock husband. Millie set me on the right path: as always. (Sometimes? Maybe? Or “maybe” I should stop digging a hole for myself and get on with the story?)
  I’m BJCP legacy Certified, but I have never been happy with my tasting score. Both times I took it I focused way too much on defects so my final score was in the 60s. On the written exam I did better, obviously.
 When I came home from the Adirondacks in November I found out I had a chance to retake in December, so every day I studied the 2015 Guidelines and judged beer at home. I did this for many reasons. Without the Guidelines my memory is what it is. It’s always been weird what sticks in my head and what doesn’t. And because my writing sucks I wanted to work on that. My elementary teachers passed me because they could see how hard I was trying. I have Gene Wilder’s Blazing Saddles writing hand.

  “Look at this!”
    “Steady as a rock.”
    “Yeah, but this is the hand I (write) shoot with.”

    (Hand shakes up towards the ceiling.)
 Cancelled: they never got enough people. So I started looking. Cincinnati? I increased my study efforts. As I loaded up the Honda Element weather forecasts all the way up were nasty. Wind gusts around my Tennessee home blew so hard they made the top half of the letter “C” with some of the trees around my Tennessee home. At 64 with multiple spine issues, feet issues, borderline diabetes, dare I take a chance only to find the next morning it had been cancelled too?
 &%$! I hated dropping out of that one.
 Hey! Phil Farrell was having an exam in Atlanta. Hey! Why not spend lots of money, drive about 300 miles, take two nights at a motel then drive all over Atlanta where the traffic varies from suicidal to parking lots posing as interstates?
 Are you getting the notion I can be a ‘little’ stubborn? (“A little?”)
 As well as increasing all I was already doing I created practice sheets for carbonation, body, color, head, phenols and oddities I’d found in the Guidelines. I even created a beer judging game I could play. I practiced on the way down, in the motel room and judged two beers. I resisted judging beers on the way. Troopers frown on that.
 Why all the intensive effort? I know myself. I have a tendency occasionally to rely too much on, “Use the beer force, Ken!” These efforts might provide that inner voice whispering, “Uh, Ken. A slightly sweet in the finish… Saison???”
Important note: when I judge I use a special method for assessing aroma because aroma (or appearance to some extent) changes/fades if I try to do one then the other. It involves a second ‘cup’ with a cover. Helps assessing head too. I mentioned it on the way in and was told, “Sure, go ahead.”
 Remember that.
 The first beer went well, except I ran no more than a minute overtime. By the second I had extra time: Ordinary Bitter. Interesting caramel background. After this the beer the judge train was about to slowly start to slip off the tracks. Kolsch was next. I don’t remember for sure if I used my method or not. I don’t think so, but my sleuthing after indicated it might not have made much of a difference. Between this and the next I had thought I had finished the Bitter in the aroma glass. Looking back maybe there had been a little more than just a coating left that I didn’t see.
 Remember that too.
 Unlike competition I didn’t have a dump bucket, but I didn’t think to ask for one. My fault. Taking time off to run and rinsing every time would have severely cut into my limited time. Usually I can ignore something I sensed in a previous entry if I forget to rinse, unless it’s severe, or I miss something important.
 Remember that as well. (Sorry.)
  I felt safe. I shouldn’t have.
 America IPA: I found it incredible, with just a little caramel aroma in the background and the flavor: not enough to disqualify it as an American IPA (“light caramel”).
 I was on a caramel roll here. By the 4th, unbeknownst to me, the test train had gone way off the rails: there was something in the IPA that intensified the caramel sense.
 “Wee Heavy:” I got caramel in the nose, a lot in the taste. The color was even caramel-like. (It shouldn’t have been, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
 The last one: a Russian Imperial. The nose offered a slight sour. I wondered if the brewer had included that slight Guinness-like souring sense I’ve heard several explanations for. Kind of odd for an RIS. Color right, head fine, but what was really off was the flavor: the sourness dominated. Hard to drink. Obviously a serious defect. But as I focused I could tell that otherwise this was one incredible Russian Imperial: the abv just a tad low, but OK near the lower end of the style… it seemed. With the malts right, bitter perfect, I could find no other fault: except the obvious. I spent a lot of time assessing the base beer to make sure I was right. Too much time, apparently. I was still adding up when they came for the sheets. I had to rush not to leave my sheet incomplete. I jotted down my quick math; double checked it, and after looking at each category to make sure each score wasn’t way off for my perception of each, I handed it in.
 The math I got right, but if I had had time for my usual reassess of the total score too I would have probably given it about a 22, but I didn’t. It did not deserve a 28.
 Considering they said it should have been in the teens after the test there might be a little beer judge heresy on my part here. If an entry is otherwise phenomenal, yet with a serious defect, the teens are just too low in my opinion. “28?” Yikes!
  By the way I was also off on the IPA, but I dismissed the score difference on that. One of the judges came close to my score. I would be curious what he said. Again, there was that caramel sense that kept hanging in there. They said they had aged it and stressed it. Stressing was done by putting it next to brewing vessels where the temp had gone up and down.
 Carmelization? Hmm…
 Understanding why two of my score sheets were off I was left with what I considered my biggest mistake. The Wee Heavy was a Munich Dunkel. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaatttt???? How did I go so far off the rails? So I entered sleuth mode when I got home. I immediately suspected my “special method.” Great for competitions when you judge one category, or two, with plenty of opportunity to rinse, dump, but in retrospect not so great when switching from style to style with no dump bucket, no logical chance to rinse. Maybe even if normally I can dismiss what was in the last entry if I forget to rinse.
  But I wasn’t happy with just that answer. I had to know more. The two styles are not completely dissimilar, but the amount of body sense, amount of caramel and color should have seemed out of style. Especially the color.
 I bought two bottles of Hofbrau Dunkel. They were very classic Dunkel: very, very light caramel. Nowhere near what I had sensed that day, and the body wasn’t the same, the color was different. This is not what I judged.
 Saving the day was Watson: Millie, my wife, providing the final clue how a Munich Dunkel could be seem to be more like a Wee Heavy. Millie said…

  “Why don’t we buy examples of the other beers you judged; use them to pollute each other, then you can understand how they affect each other?”

 The nosy, busy body old woman was right. We’ve been married a loooooooooonnng time. We can kid each other like that. You young’uns haven’t earned it yet!!!
 Jokes aside…
 Relying on what little residual there may be, I started with the Bitter and got caramel, went with a British IPA because it most likely would have a caramel sense (It did and not too much. In my opinion it was close to what I judged.) And then on to the Dunkel. I skipped the Kolsch for reasons I explained. Just residual coating didn’t have that much affect.
 Then I asked myself, “What if when the samples came up I thought I had completely drained the glass but I hadn’t?” So I re-poured one glass with just a hint of IPA and more than a hint of the Bitter. The Dunkel was at least 95% of what was in the glass. Still not right. I reversed how much of the two I slightly polluted the glass with: bango! This was quite close to what I judged. What the aging and stressing had done came across as caramel to me and both the Bitter and the IPA lightened the quaff to that classic color one expects from a Heavy. My intense focus on getting each sheet finished on time also helped me miss something very important.
 Damn, damn, damn. I had sabotaged myself, out clever-ed myself, and gave myself a disadvantage. How ‘unusual.’ Never done that before.
 Sarcasm duly noted.
 I thought, “The test graders must have wondered, ‘How in hell could a well seasoned judge with plenty of points could have been so off?’” I did too.
 It’s my fault, and so much I should have considered like there are reasons tests are the way they are and an aroma glass may not be well suited to using during a test.
 I was frustrated, of course. I think some might understand a response of, “I’ll never try THAT again!” But, but, BUT…
 I am writing better now.
  I am judging better now.
  I understand styles better now.
 (Oud Bruin a “sweet and tart finish?” Good to know!)
 My score sheets are more complete than before.
 Maybe I’ll cause less “can’t read this” headaches.
 Point being there are reasons to take the test and retake it: reasons that go beyond rank or score. So, yes, I will take the tasting exam again.


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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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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