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.

The Topic: What Does It Take to be a Good Beer Judge?

My apologies in advance to those familiar with beer judging because I’m going to give everyone else a very short, admittedly inadequate, synopsis of what it takes, and what it means, to be a beer judge…. because I want to get on to the topic. Then another apology to fellow judges and beer folk if one of my suggestions offends you. At least one will be considered heresy, I admit, but I firmly believe that sometimes what was once considered heresy often becomes what understood to be common sense. Always obeying orthodoxy is as senseless as always rejecting it.

We still don’t think of the world as flat, right? Not all beer has to have just hops, water and malt: nothing else, right? For example, it wouldn’t even be beer without yeast, right?

But I’m mostly relativist, so what so I know for sure?

Philosophy aside… for those less familiar with judging beer here’s the very, very short overview of beer judgery…

Understand from the start that sanctioned beer competitions aren’t anything like Beerfest the movie. Even beer fests are usually not like Beerfest the movie. Being a beer judge is a serious business to be approached with professionalism. I tell people I’m a beer judge and they think it an easy job, even a joke. They think any test for it would be a joke too.

No way in hell is any of that true.

The BJCP test helps us learn how to be professional judges and show we know enough about beer to judge it well. How much is “enough,” and what direction should the test take? Well, that’s part of my “heresy,” I suppose.

BJCP: Beer Judge Certification Program.

It’s a very tough test where you need to know your styles backwards and forwards: and there are almost 30 styles, not including the many, many sub-styles. These: styles and sub-styles, are all very detailed as to aroma, mouthfeel, taste, appearance, gravity (Kind of “how heavy” in too simple, yet layman, terms.) …and many other specifics. Each time you take this very detailed test it will change: these sands with time will shift beneath your feet. Sometimes just different questions asked from a very large pool of questions that can change over the years both as to what the questions are and the answers. New questions have obviously been added over the years, and will be in the future, I’m sure. Sometimes the categories themselves change, and/or their definitions change: sometimes a lot… sometimes a little. What are considered commercial classic examples of the style change, I’ve seen that too.

All of this, and far more, you need to know practically like you know how to breathe.

Take it from me; a two time test taker who has sat in on other tests as well: having a photographic memory would be a big, big plus. I have been told by engineers of various kinds the test is harder than anything they took in college, and I know it’s harder than any of the tests I took studying to be a studio engineer, and English/Education major or Communications Mass Media. Or the various college programs in Science and Math I had to take since I started in Liberal Arts.

You really need to be dedicated to knowing all about beer, defects, style specifics and how to judge it. You also must know very specific information on how to brew it, which I will get to in a few sentences, for that is the main thrust of my comments in this edition of Brew Biz.

Want to know more? Start by going to the BJCP web site: that’s probably the first step in what I hope becomes a passion for you too.

Here is my problem with at least one of the concepts enshrined in both the test, how we study for it, and how that sometimes differs from what it takes to be a good judge…

Is it true that one must know a lot about how to brew any specific beer to be a good judge in a room with other test takers and with no prompts? In fact, let me refine that so I can make you understand some of my concerns: do we need to know a whole ton of specifics about brewing any one of the very specific beer styles, and sub-styles; any of which could be chosen for the test to be a good judge? Make sure to include a perfect malt profile, perfect hop or spice sense, the right amount of alcohol, gravity with not the slightest defect? If a judge isn’t able to do that with exacting specificity when taking the test, does that make them a bad judge?

Of course not. Indeed they could be as good a judge as someone who could brew that beer blindly. But that’s what they demand: design from scratch any recipe asked of you. You lose points if you can’t, which would mean the BJCP has taken the stand that a judge who can brew it without guidelines (recipe) is a superior judge, and one who can’t is an inferior judge, in comparison.

I maintain that a judge who could do that could be a terrible judge just as easily as one who can’t. It really has little to nothing to do with actual judging. Generalities of each style? Yes. That specific? I challenge the assumption.

Now, in regard to all of this, I do believe we must know how to avoid defects and have a general knowledge of brewing to be a good judge. But I think the test has lost that: “general knowledge” sense.

I’m speaking to exacting knowledge here: the kind demanded by the test. Those kind of specs are in the guidelines and in the recipes one can find damn near anywhere and I’m not so sure that amount of specificity that makes one a incredibly good brewer is necessary to be a very good judge.

Let’s provide some rather odd examples to help me make my point. Really a judge of beer is not unlike many types of judges. A judge in a criminal case certainly must know the nature of any crime when he is a judge in that case, he must be able to ascertain just when the person (or the brewer) has crossed some line, or walked it well enough. Depending on the state the jury helps with this more, or less, but let’s just consider them to be similar (not the same, obviously) to other judges at a beer judging table.

But does a judge, or juror, in a criminal case need to know how to pick a lock to someone who did? To be a good judge would a judge have to have committed that crime himself to be a good judge, and to have committed it well? If a good Samaritan helps an old lady across the street do we need to know exactly how to do that, including the exact number of steps to take, how fast we must walk, how long their stride, to judge them a good Samaritan? Must we know the precise amount of pressure it takes to push a child out of the way of a speeding vehicle to assess if someone who does that is a hero?

Must one be a good brewer to be a good judge?

I doubt it.

Now just like anyone attempting do do the crimes, or the good acts, above may need to be able to perform those tasks, certainly a brewer may need to know such things. Or at least be talented enough. Yes: to brew any specific style of beer a brewer needs to be a technician and a specialist. To judge beer, however, one might want to be more of a generalist who knows some specifics. A generalist sees beyond what is exact to what makes something superb, moderately interesting, boring or problematic. Except “problematic” this may be a far wider perspective than is necessary to be a brewer if one is to serve their audience: their audience being anyone who might drink their beer… especially pay to drink their beer in the more commercial sense of “brewer.” A brewer, for example, who knows how to brew the same beer over and over, what she might call a “Pale Ale;” a beer that is too heavy, an odd color, no clarity: can’t be seen through, has little to no carbonation or foam, but her customers love? Well, she’s done her job well, though not to the satisfaction of some for sure. The judge has to deal with overall drinkability and “to style:” something that goes beyond friends who may love your beer, you who love your beer, or customers.

Any commercial brewer may get all they need in brewing to their exactly customer’s tastes. But that’s not what judging is about: just like whether a crime was committed well, or as needed by a certain audience, has anything to do with what a judge, or a juror, should decide.

Then we have “balance.” A commercial brewer that brews a popular unbalanced beer has done their job. But a judge of beer doesn’t consider that as important as balance, or a judge in a criminal case who has to balance any verdict with the law.

Judging is a far wider perspective by its very nature. Popularity may not be at issue here. A Pale Ale like I mentioned may be very, very popular, but should not be scored highly in the category of Pale Ale. Just like a person who murders a very unpopular person shouldn’t be judged innocent, or a good Samaritan shouldn’t be judged a cad for his good deed simply because the lady he helped annoys the hell out of everyone with her crankiness.

A commercial brewer who brews very unpopular beer for the brewery, however, should be fired: no matter how well he, or she, “brews to style.”

All this goes to what it means to be a beer judge. I have heard various comments from judges as well as various comments made by the BJCP regarding this. But what does it mean to me? I want to give brewers the most impartial, to style, assessment of their beer and be able to offer as much advice I can without actual having been there to brew their beer myself. I want to be able to assess what may have gone wrong, and what they did right. Of course I also wish to promote beer education and an appreciation for good beer, for all the styles of beer, mead, braggot, cyser, pyment…. everything we judge.

OK, I admit it: that last sentence is a paraphrase of BJCP literature, but I agree.

But let me add something I feel is important: it means a lot to me to encourage brewers who attempt to go where no brewer may have gone before… encourage them to help expand beer into an ever expanding creative/inventive universe of beer styles. That doesn’t necessarily mean grade them better, just display my appreciation: especially if it’s interesting, or an interesting concept. My greatest fear in beerdom is that we will go back to when one basic style was considered to be the only type of beer by many folks. While that was American Lager in this country when I was young, the single style doesn’t matter. As much as I love Russian Imperial I don’t want that to be the only style either. And as much as I am not as fan of what was the only style for all practical purposes: American Lager (especially “Lite”) I would object if it was tossed out of beer world.

I’m a giant fan of beer diversity, and I believe any judge should be. The big bang beer style explosion in America since the overall beer-sameness of the 50s and the 60s has taught us more about the incredible nature of what beer can be, could be and about historical styles lost to antiquity.

The BJCP has claimed their test seperates the real judges out from the lesser judges. As it is right now it may mostly sort out those who can memorize a lot of technical information and catch phrases, or those who have photographic memories. For instance: focusing in so much on making sure the test taker can regurgitate back many specifics of any sub-beer style is a problem. That information is in front of you as you judge, as it should be. Overall breadth of knowledge should be more important: something they often say when doing classes on the test but really doesn’t apply that much to the test as it is now.

In my own clubs, for I am a member of two, I know some damn good brewers: folks who know how to brew far beyond anything I’ve ever attempted, and do so so well they win multiple awards damn near every competition. Are they always the best judges?

Um, no. Sorry guys. I’ve judged with with and some are, some aren’t.

I am asking for no changes in the test, though some may be inferred from this rant. I am simply typing this to start conversation and hopefully make you think and realize…

Whatever knowledge you may have about brewing and beer, don’t auto assume that means you’re the better judge…. or know everything about any specific beer. And since taste buds can vary I always assume judges: both BJCP and non, have something to offer… bring to the table. Respect between all at the table is important. That’s how I approach judging: especially when I’m head of a table.

Can’t promise I always succeed.

But, like brewing the best beer, or judging anything, who can in life?


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

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: