A Beer Judge’s Diary- Trusting Your Senses

By Ken Carman
By Ken Carman
 I think perhaps one of the first personal lessons that I learned as a judge, and have to keep learning because there are almost an infinite number of variables, is problems I might have when identifying aromas, mouthfeel, etc. Sometimes it just takes more experience, but sometimes it is caused by relying too much on those who insist everyone visualizes smells and other perceptions the same. And when someone doesn’t sense the same the second biggest (perhaps just as important or more) mistake we make is automatically blaming it all on them for having a different perception.
 How easy and self aggrandizing is that?
 When it comes to judging beer I think one time one of these ongoing lessons was emphasized, reinforced, had to do with the ‘pine’ descriptor.
 I have never, ever smelled any hop, any beer, that’s pine-like, yet it is a common description. This is me. I certainly don’t insist anyone else is like this.
 So I started to assess why. I have sensed an aroma that one might consider to be ‘resin-like,’ but that, at best, could be described as ‘sticky.’ How does one sense ‘sticky?’ Good question I have no answer to. It’s a perception, perhaps not unlike partially dried fruit juice which can be “sticky,” even slightly soured.
 Why no “pine?” Am I “pine blind?” No way in hell. I partially grew up in the Adirondacks surrounded by pines, hunted among the pines, helped loggers cut down pines. Nothing in hops has ever approached that specific aroma I classify as ‘pine.’ Living in the south since 1978 I find southern pines have close to NO aroma. I am guessing pines have different aromas depending on the kind of pine and where.
Adirondack pines, courtesy Paul Smith’s College

 Sometimes some perceptions may seem so odd they also may seem silly, but as judges we need to consider them anyway. A few years ago I judged with an unranked judge who had recently become a vegetarian. He was
Amber the substance
identifying the same aromas I was sensing, but to him they smelled like different kinds of meat. Maybe you’ll laugh at that but I didn’t. I feel as a judge part of my job is to make the connections with fellow judges even if they seem odd, think them through as to how they relate to what I sense, then go to, “Do you think that would be appropriate?”
 Color is similar. “Amber,” if you look up the color on the web, has a wide variance. Or you can just consider it to be the substance. On SRM charts copper is considered darker than
Dark amber the color
amber but I think “darker” is somewhat inappropriate, even if you just consider all the variances on amber the color. But if you look at the picture of copper posted here the real difference between copper and amber is not darker or lighter. Copper has more red. The difference is TINT.
 Over the years I have had many commercial beers they called “amber,” but were pretty dark. Certainly NOT just the color of the substance. But we could insist on being purists and say only the substance qualifies as ‘amber,’ however how many people these days are familiar with the substance that once was quite valuable but is increasingly not even used in cheap handmade jewelry? Since most competitions have unranked judges too who may be more familiar with wider variations, wouldn’t be better to at least consider that perceptions of amber are not so rigid?
Actual copper. How red is that?

 Quibble with all this, or not, the point here is when judging how you or others sense differently is important too, no matter how odd that may be. And paraphrasing Grand Master Andrew Luberto, you need to figure out exactly how YOU sense rather than just using the observations of others.
 Trust what others sense, but trust what you sense enough to write that down and consider it. Then make the connections between the two.
 Czech Saaz? I pick up notes of anise and, I hate to type it, but the slightest hint of puke.
 DMS? I think not just corn, but corn on the cob.
 Willamette? I find a hint of sour cherry.
Hop Union hop aroma wheel. Don’t feel intimidated if anything here doesn’t apply to what YOU sense.

 Am I saying you’ll have to find the same? No, it may be the opposite. How you sense things is unique to YOU. And that’s my point: find out descriptors help you sense these things, not just what I say it’s like, or Andrew Luberto, or the BJCP, or… That doesn’t mean ignore such advice, don’t consider them. These observations have been made by a lot of very experienced people. But if you don’t sense what they sense there’s nothing wrong with you. Maybe you’ll sense it later. Maybe not. What’s at least as important is figuring out how you identify it.
 There are quirks specific to any individual palate, nose or, yes, possibly even vision. Those quirks are important, but since they’re yours it’s your job to identify them. Example: I just went through 4 different types of hops. In pellet form, dissolved in water and aged. I keep coming up with slightly different descriptors because different day, different things I’ve eaten, temperatures, and a lot more.
 If you want a better score on the tasting test you need to see it through your own eyes, your own palate and make the connections with what others say. I sense “pine” now far better than I did, and other hops, once I sat down and wrote my own sensations. Call it “bridging the gap,” perhaps.
 Going back again to Andrew comments, we don’t just sense things differently, we sense them differently on different days, different times of day and hours perhaps. It has to do with so much: what we eat, what we don’t, what we breathe and how our brains are connecting it all together at that time. Short list.
 We are complex beings, not computers, androids or robots. This is why we make good beer judges at a multiple judge judging table. Multiple judges at a judging table have a better chance of “bridging the gap” and helping the homebrewer because they do sense differently. More individual assessments may mean a better chance of connecting with the brewer.
 I promise you: find your own path to how you sense these things, listen to others, make the connections. You will be a better judge.


 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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