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So you want to become a beer judge? Good for you! Not only will you be helping yourself by expanding your knowledge of beer, brewing and sensory evaluation but you’ll be helping others improve their brewing as well. An admirable goal! But how do you go about becoming a beer judge? You must first pass an online exam before moving on to a tasting exam.
A visit to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) website (www.BJCP.org) provides the curious with plenty of information to absorb. Understanding in detail the brewing, fermentation, finishing and bottling of a beer and what can go wrong at each stage and how these flaws can appear in the finished product are critical. So you’ve mastered all of that. Awesome!

The BJCP Guidelines

the BJCP Style guidelines are what judges use to help score beers based on their style.
Next are the BJCP style guidelines for 2015. You must know the styles quite well when you’re taking the tasting exam as it’s not an ‘open book’ exam. Once certified, you can and should look at the guidelines prior to judging a flight, but you’re not there yet. So study the style guidelines. It’s a good idea to not only study the guidelines but also check out the list of commercial examples at the end of each style. This is where it gets really fun. Buy a few of the commercial beers of a particular style and get a few friends together to sample and compare to the style guidelines. To really understand the style, also get examples not on the commercial list. In addition, getting samples of similar styles and comparing the two side by side is a great way to get a handle on the subtleties of each style. For example, can you not only explain but taste the difference between a Kolsch and a Cream Ale?
Now you’ve mastered all the style guidelines and can recite them like beer poetry to anyone that may ask you about a particular style of beer. Note that if an innocent bystander asks you what a particular style should taste like, pay attention: if their eyes start to glaze over, just stop talking, take a sip of beer and say “Beer is great, isn’t it?” Remember, not everyone appreciates beer poetry, so don’t force it.

Sensory Testing

So you have a wealth of beer knowledge and you’re brewing some of the styles in the BJCP style guidelines. All is good. Now comes the real learning and what I find to be the most interesting part of drinking and judging beer: sensory evaluation. So how do you improve your ability to taste and put into words what you taste in a beer? How do you identify flaws in a beer as well as identify subtle nuances that move a beer from very good to sublime? Experience is the only way. Learning from an experienced judge with a trained palate is the quickest way to learn. Don’t fret if your good friend or neighbor isn’t an experienced beer judge, you can still learn.
Enter BJCP Competitions for feedback and compare their tasting notes to your own.
Here are some suggestions for training your palate:
1) Enter your beers in a BJCP-sanctioned competition. Yes, I know it’s not easy to pay money to give away your homebrew. Whether it’s the best beer you’ve ever made or a beer that you know is a bit off but can’t identify the off flavor or aroma, impartial feedback on your beers is worth the money if you’re interested in improving your beer.
2) Steward at a BJCP sanctioned competition. If you show an interest in learning, most judges will freely share their knowledge. Often the judges will invite you to also sample the beer in a flight which is a great learning experience. After judging each beer the judges will compare scores as well as discuss highlights and flaws in the beer.
3) Look at joining your local homebrew club. Many larger, well-established clubs have BJCP study groups. The study group will have a style of the month to study up on and then get together and taste commercial examples of the style as listed in the BJCP style guidelines.

OK, so the competitions are too far away for you to travel and you don’t want to ship your beer as it’s too much trouble to pack up the beer. On top of that, you don’t have a local homebrew club to join. Are there other options? Yes! Gather up a group of friends that are beer nerds. Not only is it more fun trying different beers with others, it’s also very informative to hear what flavors and aromas people pick up on in a beer. Some folks are more (or less) sensitive to various compounds in a beer and you’ll soon find out who have a well-defined palate and those in the group that you can pass off a mediocre beer to and they’ll think it’s a world class beer. Beware though, that nice person you passed off your mediocre beer to may just be working on developing their palate and your trick may only work once.

Conduct Blind Taste Tests

You may also find that doing a triangle test with your group of beer nerds does a good job of finding out who in the group has a sensitive palate. Take two similar beers (commercial or homebrew), the more similar they are the better. You’ll be serving a total of 3 samples to every person, two of one beer and one of the other and the objective for each taster is to tell which two are the same. Ideally they should be served in non-transparent cups to avoid any visual bias. They should also be labeled in a non-biased way, for example not 1, 2, 3 or A, B, C but something like blue, purple, green or random 3 digit numbers like 752, 904, 381. Be sure that both beers are served at the same temperature and served with the same amount of head. Everyone gets the same samples (same two alike for everyone) and they write down their name and their guess as to which two are the same on a piece of paper. You get their answers and you’ll find out who in the group has the most sensitive palate. If everyone gets the answer right, you may want to look at getting two beers that are a bit more similar. If no one gets it right, you may want to pick two beers that are less similar.
Now you’ve got your group of beer tasters. Now comes the really fun part of learning: blind tastings. Select, say, 6 commercial beers of a certain style and set up a blind tasting flight for each of your friends. No letting them know which beer is which but just provide a list of what beers are being sampled. Everyone gets a basic score sheet on which to write comments about each of the beers and write their guess in this game of ‘name that commercial beer’. We don’t always realize how influenced we are by a label and taking that influence away forces you to pay attention to the beer and your perception of the beer. Blind tastings are a great way to start training your palate. Beyond just playing the game of ‘guess that beer’. Also ask your friends to note which was the most enjoyable to drink and the least enjoyable to drink and why. Sometimes folks have trouble with this but usually the beer in the flight that gets finished first is the most enjoyable. Of course, if your friends drink beer the way most dogs eat a dog treat then that doesn’t apply. Don’t completely discount those friends from the group as they’re the ones that will drink the beers that are unpalatable to the rest of the group!

After the game is over, discuss what each of you tasted in the beers, both good and bad. This is where the real learning happens, from one another. We’re all sensitive to different compounds in beer and sharing our sensory strengths and weaknesses helps all of us to become better tasters and brewers. It’s also fun to mix in a homebrew or two in with the commercial beers just to see how they do. Sometimes it may be easy to pick out the homebrew, other times they may do better than the commercial beers. What is most important is paying attention to your senses in evaluating the beers. All that your friends will know when you serve the tasting flight is the style of beer. It’s best to initially pick a style that your friends are familiar with and go from there. Start with American IPA and grab some commercial examples that your friends are fond of and add in a few other American IPA’s from the BJCP list for American IPA’s. Next time you meet maybe do an American Lager tasting flight with the Bud/Miller/Coors/PBR as well as a few others. Really, I’m serious. This is a great way to train your palate. Can you taste the different adjuncts? Can you pick out the flavors that are part of the brand? No matter what you think of these beers, they are a great training tool for picking up subtleties in a beer.
I’ve learned over many years of judging that I’m very sensitive to phenols and mercaptans but I have difficulty with detecting diacetyl and acetaldehyde. I’ve been able to train myself to pick up diacetyl and acetaldehyde in a beer but it took some time and what proved to be the most helpful was tasting beers with others that have different sensitivities than mine as well feedback from BJCP scoresheets. So find a group of beer nerds, learn your sensory strengths and weaknesses and work on improving your weaknesses. But most of all, enjoy the beer. Now get out there and start studying!
Thanks to my friend Glen for including me in his beer tasting group as that was the inspiration for this article.
I just got my Tasting Exam grades back last week! I passed with a "Certified" rank on the first attempt! F0983
Having a few judging points (5 meager points) helped me cross the threshold to "certified". You don't have to be a ranked BJCP judge to help out. Get out there and support your local homebrewing community by helping judge some competitions. They can use the help, trust me! It's a great way to start learning about the judging process while earning points that will be credited to you upon passing the exam. Follow this link for a list of competitions... contact the organizer of one close to you and get your tail in a judging seat! It's fun, educational and FREE BEER!!!
I'd STRONGLY encourage anyone in this community to pursue the BJCP certification... It's a great journey of tasting, discussing and studying... Fairly rigorous exams, yes, but the satisfaction of passing the exam is really something to enjoy and be proud of!
I have nothing but the highest respect for folks who have the ability / skills to be BJCP judges. Every time I am interested in starting - the amount of work involved just seems overwhelming for me at this stage of my life (young family - lots of work hours, etc).
I'm almost ashamed to say this - but I just don't think I would enjoy brewing as much knowing all the things that could be wrong!
I think most of us have been at a place where we don't have enough time for homebrewing. There's also nothing wrong with just finding what works for you and being happy with what you brew. Remember it's beer and it's supposed to be fun. So find your fun and enjoy!
Thank you for the article. I would like to do this one day. Question: Is there a way to know whether you would be any good at the tasting part? I suspect that there is a small percentage of people who are really good at it because they are born super-tasters. Then, there are a bunch of regular schmoes who can train themselves be acceptable judges. And then there are small percentage who couldn't taste tar mixed with carrion on the 4th of July.
I think I'm in the schmo category, though I seem to have an above-average sense of smell. Lucky me. This means strong smells -- especially most colognes or perfumes -- are unbearably obnoxious. However, if that means I could become a good judge, that would be worth something.
Here is what helped me a lot to pass the tasting exam: scoresheet filling and comparison. Here are scoresheet of classic styles: http://www.bjcp.org/course/ClassicStyles.php ; I searched for the same beer, tasted it and compiled the scoresheet in 15 minutes (the tasting exam time) and then compared it with the corresponding on BJCP site. When I ot close enough, I was quite confident to pass the exam.
Judging is a learned skill. Tasting is something that you develop over time, yes some people are more perceptive to flavors than others but that doesn't mean that you can't learn. Practice makes perfect and in this case practice is getting to drink delicious beers!
Here's an interesting scenario that happens a lot in the competitions that I judge (BJCP G1340). Someone will say "Boy I taste something off in this beer, I can't tell what it is but something isn't right!"
The second judge will say "maybe, I get a very small amount of diacetyl, tastes kind of like artificial butter from the movies."
Even though the first judge clearly tasted this particular off-flavor he was unable to identify it. The second judge was able to perceive the flavor slightly and then identify it even though he wasn't picking up as much of it. Which of these two judges is the better one? This sort of knowledge takes practice so get out there and start drinking!
Hopefully you can open the link above. A very good article (and the book is worth reading). You can train yourself but it requires practice and willingness to push yourself to learn. In my mind it's no different than an amazing ornithologist as they aren't born knowing everything about birds though you might be tempted to think so if you were to take a springtime walk in the woods with them as they rattled off the owner of each birdsong. Keep practicing and learning!
The online exam is a killer. I never want to write that again if I can help it. Now I'm waiting to see if I passed the judging/taste exam.
How long did it take to get your scores? Curious as I recently sat for the tasting exam. And congrats!