Intro to Judging and Tasting Beer

BJCP logoAs a homebrewer, it’s likely that you have either entered a competition previously, or you’ve thought about entering one in the future.  But, most homebrewers don’t know what goes on between the time that they enter their beer and the day they get their scores back.

The good news is that it’s not overly complicated and most (BJCP sanctioned) competitions follow a very standard format.  To discuss how competitions are run and what judges do to taste and score your beers, I sat down with John Federal, organizer of the Piedmont Brewer’s Cup, which will be held this weekend at Big Boss Brewery in Raleigh.  It is one of the largest competitions in the state and they saw a record number of entrants this year – almost 400 beers!

John has been entering, judging and organizing competitions for many years and is a BJCP Certified judge, so I asked him to give us the low down on how judging beer works and what it takes to be a judge.

CC: First off, congratulations on what is shaping up to be another successful year at the Piedmont Brewer’s Cup.  Can you give us an idea of the basic structure of BJCP competitions?  How do you divide up judging, how are categories grouped, and how do you go from over 350 beers all the way to a single Best of Show winner?

JF: Thanks for having some words with me, Chris! The basic structure of the past three years of the PBC is that brewers register and drop-off entries in any of the BJCP style categories that so choose. Bottles are received, labeled with a number to maintain anonymity, and then sorted into their proper categories. A pair of qualified BJCP judges and other various experienced judges taste the beers, fill out a scoresheet, and then assign the beer with a score. Awards are given, scoresheets are returned, and the winners bask in their triumph. That is how all BJCP competitions are run in general with the occasional minor variation(s).

Judges fill out an online registration form and they can specify desired & undesired styles they want to judge. My software also blocks me from putting them in categories where they’ve entered a beer. I always pair a qualified BJCP judge as head of the table with either another BJCP judge or with an experienced taster. That way I can be sure the feedback being given is good, qualified, and keeps to the BJCP code of conduct.

Going from 350 beers to 1 BOS (Best of Show) is quite a process that involves organizing beers by category, subcategory, assigning scores, advancing the top beers to a Best of Show round, and then determining which beer stands out above the rest in terms of style-adherence, depth of character, and unique qualities.

piedmont-brewers-cup

CC: So now that we know how the competitions are organized, walk me through the process of judging a beer.  If you were scoring a beer, what are the steps you take and what are the things you are looking for?

JF: There are five areas that beers are judge on in the BJCP scoresheet: Aroma (10 pts), Appearance (3 pts), Flavor (20 pts), Mouthfeel (5 pts), & Overall (10 pts). I look and smell the beer first, jotting down what I see/smell. Then I consider the taste. I concentrate on mouthfeel for my third sip and consider, by this time, how the beer finishes and lingers or doesn’t linger depending on the style. About 4 minutes has lapsed at this point. By this time the beer has warmed and I repeat smell/sight/taste and jot down what I pick up as the beer has warmed. Then I mark any final assessments, considered improvements, and assign scores. Occasionally, there will be a beer that I have a very good idea of it’s total score as soon as I taste it and then I fill in the blanks as I give detailed feedback but I’d say that’s only about 2 of every 10 beers. Mostly I judge in the “top-down” style, parameter scores first, total score last.

CC: So now that you’ve judged the beer, and let’s say it was a good one, where does that beer go next and how is judging different beyond the categories, when considering a Best of Show situation?

JF:  If I have a really good one I get excited. I love it when homebrewers completely nail a style and produce a better beer than 80% of all commercial breweries. It truly shows the level of craftsmanship in the homebrewing community.

Here’s how it works typically: Each pair of judges sit down with a flight of beers. A flight consists of either one lone category and all it’s subcategories (7-Amber Hybrid Ales = Northern German & Dusseldorf Altbiers & California Common), a combination of similar categories or subcategories (1-Light Lagers & 2-Pilsners are types of pale lagers; 6A – Cream Ale & 6B – Blonde Ale are two light hybrid ales), or one subcategory (10A – American Pale Ales). Depending on the size of the category (I try not to assign two judges more than 16 beers in one flight) depends on how I will arrange each flight. Each flight will have 1 First Place winner. Last year we had 23. This year (2013) we’ll have 27. At the end of the competition, each flight’s 1st Place winner advances to the Best of Show round where the higher-ranking BJCP judges at the competition taste each 1st Place beer. I usually have to use 4-5 BOS judges. They quickly decide which ones stand out and remove any that don’t. Then they deliberate on the ones that most perfectly define the style they were entered in and which ones are memorable.  The Best of Show round is not as score-derived as the first round. It’s a much more “organic” judging process that empirically chooses its winners.

Another instance of some creative organization is when I have a flight of indivisible beer styles. For instance, every year I have a TON of American IPAs. If I have over 16 IPAs (and it’s usually more like 30!), I can’t have two judges responsible for all of them. That would take forever and they’d be lit up like a Christmas tree! Therefore, I have to do a “split flight”. I assign two pairs of judges to the IPA flight and they split the flight between the two pairs down the middle . Each split flight assigns it’s top 3 places by score and then the head judge from each pair pull all 6 top beers together and conduct what’s called a “mini-Best of Show”. They basically decide which 3 beers out of the 6 are the top winners of the entire large flight. Then the 1st Place winner will advance to the real Best of Show.

CC: When I get my score sheet back from a competition, I see lots of notes from the judges and a scores for all of the different areas you outlined above.  What score is considered good?  What is the typical score of a category-winning or best of show beer?

JF: At the bottom of the BJCP score sheet is a range of scores. I generally think a beer that has a score over 30 is “good”. Between 30 & 37 are beers that have minor style discrepancies but are decent and drinkable. Category-winning and Best of Show beers are going to generally be 40-point+ beers, as those are outstanding.

CC: If people are interested in learning to judge at competitions, what do you recommend they do first?  What are some things anyone can do to prepare to be a judge and learn the process?  And what is the difference between a steward and a judge?

JF: To be ready to judge in any competition you must drink lots of beer (of course, not all at once!). There’s really no other way. Sure, studying can get you partly there but you must experience flavors, smells, sensations, and even flaws with your own palate. Homebrewing helps tremendously and without an understanding of brewing processes it is very challenging to give good, useful feedback to aspiring brewers. I would recommend that they start with a style they are interested in. Go to their local bottle shop and pick out 4-6 beers that imitate the style they want to learn about. View the BJCP style website to view categories. They even have commercial examples of the styles listed under each subcategory. Then taste them, take notes, jot down differences, research their recipes if you can find them, and note how the commercial examples compare to the style descriptions listed with the BJCP. Use a score sheet while tasting them to get used to scoring a beer. Remember, judging beer needs to be a descriptive process. You can’t just say “I don’t like this beer because I don’t like it”. You have to say why you don’t like it and how that relates to the style in which the beer is entered in.  I don’t personally enjoy judging Spice/Herb/Vegetable beers but I know when I’m tasting a good, style-appropriate one and I’ll judge it as such.

Attend tasting classes. Infect or adulterate some beers with off-flavors to get an idea of what light-struck, oxidized, and overly-phenolic beers taste like. A judge is just that, a beer judge. There are different ranks of judges in the BJCP, the highest being a Grand Master 4 (no, they don’t have more hit points than other judges). There is also a place for unranked judges called “Experienced” or “Novice”. I personally make sure those types of judges have either judged a BJCP competition before or have a good track record of brewing or tasting.

A steward is someone who helps with the organization of the competition and sits with the judges to assist them paperwork, water, and arranging bottles in the proper tasting order. They also sometimes do other jobs like file scoresheets, handle data entry, or work in the cellar.

CC: That sounds great!  Thanks for all of the insights John, and best of luck to you and all of the other judges at the Piedmont Brewer’s Cup this weekend.  Also, we are all looking forward to the opening of Raleigh Brewing Company!  It looks like you guys are going to be hitting the ground running with some delicious beer.