The Road to Becoming a BJCP Judge

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Picture this - you come home from work and grab the mail. You are excited to see a manila envelope from the coordinator of the homebrew competition you entered a few weeks prior. This is it! You are ready to receive the glowing reviews of your finely crafted malt beverage. You open the envelope and much to your dismay, see your final score of 25. You start reading the comments from the judges, which are brief, nondescript and certainly not helpful. You are left with a feeling of disappointment and confusion. How did they not like your beer, and what can I do about it?

This situation, which I will say is becoming more rare due to the hard work of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and quality judges, has happened to me and many other competition entrants. It was the impetus for my desire to learn more about the BJCP and to take the steps to become a judge myself so I could offer quality feedback to entrants. Today, I hope to explain the process of becoming a BJCP Judge (If you aren't familiar with the BJCP I highly recommend navigating to http://www.bjcp.org/ and reading all the valuable information they provide.).
So how does one become a BJCP Judge? To be succinct, you need to pass two exams:
  1. Pass the Online Entrance Exam - A 60-minute, 200 question exam consisting of True-False and Multiple choice questions. This is a Pass/Fail test.
  2. Score a 60% or greater on the Tasting Exam - 90-minute exam evaluating and filling out score sheets for 6 beers.
So now that you know what tests you need to take to become a judge, how do you study for these exams? The BJCP Exam Study Guide provides all the information you could need and you will definitely need to print out, or order, a copy of the BJCP Style Guidelines to memorize. Yes, you read correctly, memorize. When you take the online exam you may have time to look up a few questions, but during the tasting exam you will need to know the styles from top to bottom. Reading through the exam guide and constantly rereading the style guidelines when you have a free moment, (even five minutes at a time) can be a solitary venture and will help you prepare for the online exam. You will need to be able to recall stylistic parameters of beers, as well as know basic brewing procedures - John Palmer's 'How To Brew' and searching through the forums here on HomebrewTalk can provide this knowledge. Make flash cards if you need to! If you don't pass the online exam the first go around, don't sweat it, you can retake the test again after a one day wait period. Once you pass the online exam, you have a full year to take the tasting exam.

As I mentioned previously, studying for the online exam can be a solo mission, and although I am sure a few people could study alone for the tasting exam and pass, I do not recommend it. Everyone has different thresholds for flavors and aromas in beer. For example, it would take a whole bottle of Orville Redenbacher butter extract for me to notice diacetyl in the aroma of a beer. Tasting beers with others allows you to compare your perception of a beer against one another, as well as picking up on flavors or aromas you may have otherwise missed. Additionally, you will learn how to notice an "off flavor" by your other senses, like the slick "mouthfeel" given off by the aforementioned diacetyl. Conversely, you may notice you are extra sensitive compared to most judges on other beer attributes. These group beer tastings help you learn your strengths and weaknesses which will help you become a better judge.
Speaking of judges, if you can get an existing Nationally ranked or better beer judge to be a part of your tasting group, it will greatly help you define your palette! I can't even count the number of times where we were tasting a beer, and it just ended up being a bad bottle! If you are tasting an off flavor in a beer you have never tasted before, you want to know its "off" and not an indicative flavor of the style - think of a light-struck (skunky) flavor often associated with Heineken. If you get it out of the can (rather than a light stricken green bottle) the flavor will not be present. Skunk character is not appropriate for the category 1C Premium American Lager (Heineken) style.
On my own journey to become a judge, a study group fell into my lap. I looked at the scheduled exam dates and contacted the coordinator for the exam nearest me to sign up - the exam I was looking to take was full, but I was told I could sign up for the next exam six months later. A few months prior to my exam date, the coordinator contacted me to see if I would be interested in the BJCP Exam Prep course he and another judge (Both BJCP National Rank) were offering. I signed up, and it was the best decision I made in my study preparation. (This course alone was probably the reason I was able to score an 85 on the tasting exam my first try!) The course consisted of meeting for two-hour tasting sessions, once a week, over a 12-week period. In addition to tasting beers from every BJCP style, there was homework, a handful of graded score sheets and even a mock tasting exam. The mock exam acclimated us to fully filling out score sheets and the feedback provided by the course directors on our completed score sheets was invaluable.

If you you aren't lucky enough to find a local course, or you don't live close enough to an existing study group, don't fret! There are some online options to help you study for the exam, such as Better Beer Scores. These courses provide interactive classes online, and I believe can be viewed at a later time if you can't make a session. If you have participated in this course, or a similar one, please share your experiences in the comments section below.
The last bit of advice I will pass on is to provide as much detail as possible on your score sheets. Under each section (Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouth feel and Overall Impression) the score sheet tells you what you should comment on. Make sure you hit each of these attributes when filling out the score sheet. If you don't perceive something, state it! (Mouth feel: no alcohol warmth). Someone should be able to read your score sheet and get a very clear picture of how this beer looks, smells and tastes. Always ask yourself two questions to describe an attribute of the beer:
  1. How much of? - Provide a level such as none, low, moderately-low, moderate, moderately-high, high
  2. What kind of? Describe what you are sensing with detail being as specific as you can
An example of this as it pertains to hop aroma in an American IPA: (1)high (2)citrus-grapefruit character associated with American hops with a (1) moderately-low background of (2)pine scent.
Ok, enough of my rambling, get out there and start studying for the exam! When will you ever have another opportunity to constitute drinking beer as studying?
Brett Shegogue writes for his blog, Shegogue Brew, and is the latest writer to join the HomeBrewTalk team! For more from Brett please follow this link, and keep checking back to HomeBrewTalk for the latest from this Blogger/ Brewer.
Nice article and I like the points you make about the quality of feedback.
This article somewhat confirms current thinking I have around the following: is becoming a BJCP judge the best use of my time to become a better brewer?
I think the answer is no. I think I will be better off spending the time learning particular things related to brewing like water chemistry and yeast management...although i do think becoming a BJCP judge is a great way to give back
Quite involved. I have noticed the need for improved feedback though. I see too many confused posts on this subject. But with so many versions of a given style out there, the task can be quite daunting.
@Likefully I don't think you were implying, but I certainly was not stating becoming a judge is the sole route to become a better brewer. This is a statement thrown around a lot, and I think you hit the nail on the head - from a time perspective, you may become a better brewer faster from other knowledge areas.
@unionrdr When you say improved feedback, are you talking recipe wise? It is rather difficult as a judge to provide advice when we don't know the recipe or processes. This is often why there is some generic feedback pertaining to a flaw in the beer. You can always email the judge and provide more specific details on the beer if you would like to receive further in depth feedback.
I love the article but I do have a question. Where is the control in the quality of beer that the judges are learning on? I mean when you are learning the differences or similarities between beer it all comes down to the quality of the beer they are taught on right? Say you send in for competition an outstanding Lager and the judge that grades you has only experienced poor quality lagers and grades your lager poorly because he has never experienced a quality beer.
I think the BJCP is a fantastic educational resource. However it is way to difficult from a logistical standpoint to become a judge and then actually judge comps for a lot of us. I have become a better brewer by just going through the BJCP guidelines and critically evaluating my beer.
@bmorosco Good Question! This is one of the reasons tasting with others, especially experienced judges, helps you fine tune your palette. An experience judge will be able to taste an example and let you know if it is a good or bad representation of the style and why. If you go through and taste multiple examples of every beer style, and have experienced every beer flavor, you should be able to judge any of the BJCP just by looking at the guidelines.
Perhaps dumb and late question but here it is:
When taking the BJCP tasting exam, you cannot refer to the style guidelines? If you cannot, what is the logic behind this? When judging a comp, the judges can refer to the style guidelines, correct?
Yes, judges can use the guidelines during competitions, but more as a quick reference for disputes or refreshers. If you're spending a bunch of time pouring over the guidelines, trying to understand a style throughout a flight, you'll never get through the flight before the session ends. Guys that are not writing much on score sheets probably don't know the guidelines for the style, don't really want to be writing, and/or there are not enough judges volunteering for that particular competition (very large flights get judges buzzed and cramp hands). In the exam, they require you to know the guidelines well enough to pass the exam without them so once you pass, you continue judging competitions with less need for the guidelines.
I would argue that it's not that necessary to "memorize" the guidelines word for word, as much as understand the styles and their relations to one another. Reading the guidelines over and over (preferably paired with a solid example of a given style in hand) helps with gaining that understanding. It's something that starts to happen naturally for anyone that brews for competitions. When you understand a style well, you can judge it (and brew it) more proficiently, leading to a more concise and complete score sheet.
I'll be the first to admit, I don't know many of the styles well, but I have some basic understanding of them. Enough to where I can refresh myself on most styles prior to a judging session and be able to give feedback without constantly revisiting the guidelines throughout the flight. So when I originally took my tasting exam, I just documented the characteristics I detected and compared them to what my basic understanding was of the style we were supposed to be judging. And then of I course noted any flaws and gave suggestions for improvement. It's really not a hard exam to pass if you take 6 months to sit down with some study partners every few weeks, gradually going through all the styles with good examples, run through a flaw kit, and practice filling out score sheets. It definitely helps make you a better brewer to style: becoming a judge means you know what judges are looking for. But it also helps lay a foundation for understanding how ingredients and processes play off of one another to create a finished product. Becoming a good judge would benefit any brewer, but I'm sure there are a variety of ways one could spend their time to become a great brewer.