I've been asked a few times about the BJCP exam and program, so I thought I would just post up a few tips and answers that might help anyone thinking about taking it or signed up to do so. If anyone has any other questions, never hesitate to ask away, whether in a thread or by PM. I am teaching my club's BJCP study course this year, so I'm right in the middle of it, too.
It's probably easiest to do this in a FAQ format, so here goes:
Is the BJCP exam hard?
Yes, it is, and for a few reasons.
First, it covers a vast
amount of information. It is not just about describing beer styles and regurgitating ranges for OG, FG, IBU, SRM, and ABV. You will be asked about ingredients, brewing techniques, and off flavors and aromas. One of the questions usually is to come up with an all grain recipe for a certain style, also.
Second, it's long. In fact, it's three hours long, so fatigue is a factor. The test is, in no way, impossible, but it also is not fun. You have to pace yourself properly and hang in there. Just writing for that amount of time taxes nearly everyone, even someone who has taken more three hour essay tests than he cares to recall.
Third, you have to judge beer in the middle of all that. In fact, you have to judge four beers in the middle of all that. When the exam administrator brings around a beer to judge, it usually is abrupt, and it certainly is a distraction. Drinking what amounts to 8-16 ounces of beer during what usually is the first hour of an exam also adds to the fatigue factor.
However, the material is not so difficult, by itself. It's all about beer and brewing. Chances are you already know quite a bit of it, in one form or another. If not, this is a great time to learn.
What sort of questions are there?
The exam consists of the "classic" question (see the Study Guide), nine essay or short answer questions, and four judging beers.
As mentioned, the essay questions cover a vast amount of information. The good news is that the form of questions varies little from exam to exam, so you should not see much of a surprise. In fact, with a decent amount of work on your part, you should be able to answer half of the essay questions by preparing for that very question in advance. The Study Guide
has an invaluable section on the list of questions from which the Exam Director will select to create an exam.
When it comes to judging, you judge the beers as you would in a competition. You start the exam with four blank scoresheets. At some point, a proctor will come around with a beer and announce that the style to which you will judge that beer. That's what you do. Fill out the score sheet and move on. That happens four times, and usually early on during the exam.
As far as I know there is no proscribed formula for the judging beers, but you usually have at least one beer that is classic to the announced style, at least one that is far off the announced style, and at least one with significant off flavors or aromas.
How do I prepare for the exam?
Nearly everything you need to know for the written portion is in the Study Guide
, the Style Guidelines
, and the other resources linked to the BJCP Exam Center
. However, to get a very high score, you need to go beyond those resources. The reading list found at the beginning of the Study Guide is excellent. No, you do not need to read everything there, but the more you read and absorb, the easier you will find the exam.
For the judging portion, get out there and judge! Even if you do not hold a BJCP rank, you can judge in just about every competition out there. If you cannot judge in a competition or you are not comfortable doing so, go steward in those competitions and see how it is done. If you have no competitions in your area, work on judging your own homebrew, as well as commercial examples. Practice filling out score sheets and thinking about beer that way. Have the guidelines with you as a checklist for what to look for and think about (note, though, that you will not have the guidelines with you during the exam). Do things a little off the wall, too, such as judging a Sierra Nevada Porter as an American Wheat, a Brown Porter, and a Belgian Saison. Try and judge styles you have not tried or do not like. Breadth of experience carries tremendous value here. For excellent examples about how to fill out score sheets, look HERE
If you can, get together with a group of others interested in the exam and work together. The Study Guide provides a brief, skeletal curriculum for a study course. If you are a member of a homebrew club, it's best to organize such a course through your club and have it led by an experienced judge or brewer. If you do not belong to a club, see if there is one in your area that you enjoy.
How is the exam graded?
The Study Guide goes into that, and there also is a published Exam Scoring Guide
. While I cannot speak for all graders, I know at least a few graders (including me) that follow it closely. Pay attention to where the big points are. As mentioned in those resources, the written portion counts for 70% of your score, while the tasting/judging portion counts for 30%, so they are both important.
What tips can you give?
First and foremost, prepare well in advance
. You cannot cram for this exam. There is just too much information. Okay, maybe you are the walking computer who can absorb information and spout it out verbatim later on, but that won't help you with the judging unless you prepare.
I found that division also works well when pacing your time. Allocate roughly 45 minutes for the tasting/judging portion (or about 12 minutes per beer). Yes, it really can take that long to fill out a score sheet like they want to see them. In fact, if you just count each judging beer as a question, so that you have 14 questions, that allows 12.85 minutes per question. If you keep yourself to 12, you'll have a little time to look back over your answers, run to the head, moan a little, or just slide on your time.
On the essay questions, keep in mind where the big points are. Don't go into vapor lock because you cannot remember a commercial example of a certain substyle when the big points are about describing that substyle. Clarity of your answer is important, so get straight to the point. Be concise, and use proper punctuation. This is time to write like Hemingway, not Faulkner. If you just can't write something down, try to outline an answer, providing the information that normally would be in your brilliant prose. Such a form is especially clear for giving the "stats" on a substyle, i.e., it probably is just as good to write "American Pale Ale - OG: 1.045-1.060; IBU: 30-45" as it is to write "the OG of an American Pale ale falls within the range of 1.045-1.060, with bitterness between 30 and 45 IBUs."
On the judging, it's best to get right to the beer right when it comes around, or you might miss some volatile off aroma. Don't be surprised if they set something clear, golden, and bright down in front of you while telling you to judge it as an Imperial Stout, or visa versa. That's the way it goes. Likewise, don't be surprised if they set an Imperial Stout down in front of you and tell you to do the same. Take your time with the beer if you need it. Probably, you can write to fill the score sheet in about 5 or 6 minutes, so you have a little time to think about what you perceive in the beer. Concentrate on it, write it, and get back to your essay question. Don't be surprised if all four come around in the first hour or so of the exam. The proctors often like to get that part over with and cleaned up. However, don't be suprised if the are more evenly spaced through the exam. It is entirely within the administrator's discretion.
Also, keep in mind that the exam often is held on a weekday evening. Chances are, you could be a bit tired from your day. Also, it might run through your normal dinner time. If you can, get something to eat before going in, but keep it something rather bland. You don't want to screw up your palate moments before you need it. Also, get yourself a comfortable pen or two.
On how you can expect to do. Of course, it depends on how much you prepare and how well you know the material, but many score over 60, the minimum to hold a BJCP rank (i.e., "Recognized" or higher). More than half score better than a 70, the minimum to attain the "Certified" rank. However, very few score higher than 80, the minimum for the "National" rank. So, many experienced brewers with rudimentary knowledge of styles and a little luck can probably walk in cold and score about a 60. Just about anyone who prepares properly and doesn't seize up can score a 70 and become Certified. However, if you have your sights set on National or Master, you will have to work very hard to get there. That said, on any given day, someone might walk in and score a 90 or a 50. There is a bit of luck involved in the question selection and how you might feel that day. If you score lower than you expected, don't get too hard on yourself. It happens. Get back in the saddle and ride again.
Finally, relax. This is just the BJCP exam. This is a hobby thing, nothing more. Your job, your home, your family, the Super Bowl, the fate of the Universe, or anything like it is not on the line. Yes, you paid some good money to sit for the exam, but you'll get good experience out of it, one way or another.