Brew Biz: Werts and All

Written by Ken Carman for

Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years.

One of the most difficult things regarding judging beer is not all the categories, or assessing the style vs. the beer you’re judging at the time. Not even sensitizing you palate to defects you sometimes have to suffer through, or beers you must give lower scores simply because they are so bloody out of category.

(I mean, really, how can you even think of submitting a Pale Ale in Oatmeal Stout category? But I’ve seen worse.)

The hardest thing is something no course in the exam, or study effort, can teach you. Think of it like CSI: putting a “team” together that works well and finds common ground.

I came to this realization last competition…

Before we even started judging I decided to discuss decorum: essentially how we approach each beer. Some judges prefer utter silence at the table until we all come to a point where we can discuss a beer. (Not me.) Some prefer we discuss as we judge. (Me.) I can work with either approach, and see the value in the approach that’s “not me.”

There were four, or five, of us and one judge answered by insisting we judge all the beer in silence and then discuss only after we had judged and scored all the beer. He insisted all competitions were run that way.

None I’ve ever judged at, and I’ve been judging for over 10 years from Albany, NY to Dallas, TX. But I willingly admit… I don’t know that isn’t the case in some.

That’s when I made a mistake, in my opinion. I mentioned that I was Certified and, unless he was too… or higher… that meant I was head of the table. I also said I didn’t want to insist on my approach, but I wasn’t comfortable with waiting until the end before we even compared scores and adjusted.

Simply put, if for no other reason, if we were way off in our scores and we waited until the very end; after all beers were judged, until we discussed anything we might spend a hell of a lot of time spinning our wheels trying to get back to scores where they weren’t miles apart, IMO. But that’s how I feel about it. Maybe you disagree.

The reason I felt it was a mistake was I realized, no matter how I phrased it, it may have sounded like I was pulling rank. I suppose in a way I was. But more so I simply wanted to make sure we decided one way or another before we started. I even called over the organizer/head of the judges (very small competition) to get a ruling. Again, I felt I may have made a mistake. I really didn’t want to be seen as railroading anyone either way.

BTW, I did that because the other judge said he was Certified too, and I realized we had hit a stalemate.

Well we came to a compromise (very, very brief discussion, only) and, except one beer, we were all within 2-3 points for the most part. And that was a Recognized judge who scored a lot higher. We adjusted. All of us even wrote down similar comments about the entries.

Mission accomplished… and then some.

Beer judging is not like a murder trial, and it certainly isn’t an ego contest. I’ve been there with a Grand Master who thought judging consisted of him lecturing everyone about how everyone should judge each and every beer… loudly. The best way I judge is giving equal respect all around, even if it’s the first time a non-BJCP judge has done this. In fact I have noticed they bring something to the table: sense something the well trained palate may miss. I assure you, even as a Grand Master, you will be a better judge if you listen more and ego blast less.

How we convince each other to lower or raise scores is crucial. At Blue Bonnet in Dallas one year we were judging Scottish Ales and I had a difference with the rest of the table over an 80. They thought it was right on the mark, I thought it was a great Scottish but “not an 80.” Again two of us were Certified, the rest lower or non-BJCP.

That’s when they made their mistake. They swore they thought they knew who may have brewed that beer and they had won many competition in this style and were usually “right on the mark.” They wanted it #1 in category.

Excuse me? You’re not supposed to be judging it if you think you know who brewed it. But I have no intent on assigning myself the rather risky job of being judge police. Imagine the headlines: “Murder at the Competition.” But I didn’t say that. I wouldn’t say that. But I did stick my stand regarding it not being an 80. We made it #2. And though I would have rather have had it #3, I was comfortable with that.

I am amazed at how close judges come in score and assessment. Yes, we often come up with different defects, but usually we know when there’s something wrong, or the beer is simply out of style. I have always thought that if you could show me exactly what vanilla ice cream exactly tastes like to you I might say, “That’s not vanilla ice cream, that’s…” But we come to an agreement, like or dislike, that certain flavors and textures are identifiable and distinct. Does it matter if taste buds vary, but we don’t know exactly how much they do?

I grew up being told “that’s what vanilla ice cream tastes like.” No one who told me that knew what it tasted like to me. They just assume we all taste things exactly the same way. I disagree. I think taste may be as individual as, well, individuals vary: a lot. But how it actually tastes to me vs. how it actually tastes to you is secondary: at best.

I’m sure it seems I’ve veered into the esoteric, but there is a very concrete point here. If we can join together and find common ground regarding all the styles of beer, does it matter all that much that we differ on specifics sometimes? Anything we can do to help the brewer, and the craft of brewing, is what we need to be doing. And that common ground we arrive at, in my opinion, only helps the brewer and the craft, even if we disagree on some rather specific specifics.

To me it matters far less that sometimes we arrive at that destination by different paths, and much more that we arrive.


Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to reviewing, discussing and commenting on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer. Essentially, all things “beer.”

©Copyright 2011
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
All Rights Reserved

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