Could you be a beer judge?

Tom Ayres explores a day in the life of a Beer Judge.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a beer judge? I mean, how cool does it sound to drink beer all day, chat about it and fill out a short form? Seems pretty easy and fun, right? Well, being a beer judge isn’t really as simple as all of that. Read-on and I’ll tell you all about what its like to be a beer judge for a day.

So Now I’m a Beer Judge…

A few weeks ago, my homebrewing buddy, Trevor, sent me an email from his favorite homebrew supply shop looking for BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) judges or “knowledgeable beer people” for judging a local homebrew contest. When I was hesitant, he suggested it might be an interesting experience to write about. That along with my interest in improving my beer tasting sensory skills convinced me to give it a try. Trevor and I contacted the homebrew shop and they decided we met the criteria for being a “knowledgeable beer persons”. So now we are beer judges!

Judging Prep…

My buddy Trevor, was way into being a judge. He diligently prepared for his judging debut, scouring the Internet for BJCP style guides, judging advice and guidance. He graciously shared his learnings with me, to help me prepare as well. He even provided me with a commercial beer to practice judging on, disguised in a brown bag so I could conduct the judging blind to the brand. Trevor’s research started to make me a little nervous and intimidated; this beer judging is serious business! I mean, I want to do a good job for my fellow homebrewers so I better buckle down and hit the judging books.

My Judging Debut

Trevor and I made our judging debuts at Harmony Hall, a local brewery in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. We joined a room full of judges of various experience levels from the sponsoring homebrew supply shop (O’Connors) and fellow sponsor City Built Brewing Company. I was pleased and relieved to learn that I had been assigned to judge Lagers this day. Relieved because not only do I love the style but also I figured it might be easier on my pallet than a day of judging say, Sours or Belgian Ales. Trevor failed to communicate to the contest organizers his preferred styles so he was assigned to judge the “Seasonal” styles, much to his chagrin.

The contest organizers had the good sense to partner me with a more experienced judge, Drew, to guide me through my day. Drew took me under his wing, explaining the process, how to fill-out the forms and the pace to work at. Turned out we shared a mutual love of all things lager, so this was going to be a fun day.

Judging is Hard

It turns out beer judging is a lot harder than it looks. All of the judges took their jobs very seriously. It appeared that everyone was closely following the judging best practices Trevor had shared with me from the BJCP website. Its clear everyone wanted to do a good job providing contestants with accurate and useful feedback about their beers. I followed Drew’s guidance closely by first looking over the bottle appearance before opening. Was the beer filled too high or too low? Both could be problematic for the beer inside. Thankfully we didn’t have any “gushers” during the day. “Gushers” are beers that explode upon opening either from over-carbonation or an infection. Upon opening, Drew would pour me a few ounces into a clean, clear plastic cup. As quickly as possible, we would sample the beer’s aroma. Then we would note and briefly discuss its appearance. Next we would sample the beer itself, discussing what characteristics and flavors we detected. The entire process took around 10 minutes. Lastly we compared our individual and total scores to arrive at a consensus overall rating. This rating determined if the beer would move on for “best in show” consideration.

I lost count of the number of beers I judge over the next 5 hours…yes I said 5 hours! By hour three, I was looking at my watch and starting to question my commitment to my fellow homebrewers. I mean, I love Oktoberfest beers but after a half a dozen, I was tempted to trip-up our server and break a few bottles to lighten my load. Filling out the scoresheets was increasingly tedious as well. You start out striving to provide flowery and insightful commentary. After a few palate-crushing hours of sampling, you find yourself scribing hieroglyphics just to get the damn sheet filled out as quickly as possible. Alas, despite the grueling pace of more and more bottles to sample, I chose to soldier on.

Judging Surprises

For the most part, Drew and I agreed on the ratings for each lager we sampled. We both wrestled with pushing our individual biases aside. These biases mostly included advocating for under-appreciated sub-categories and elevating the importance of a specific brewing attribute (e.g. beer clarity). Surprisingly, there was also some pressure from the contest organizers to push beers through to the next round of judging. This was done to ensure there was a specific number for each beer style in the final round of judging.

Common Errors Made by Contestants

Beers that failed to move-on to the next round of the competition had many similar flaws. The most common flaw seemed to be beers being entered under the wrong style. In other words, many brewers hurt their chances for success simply by not understanding which style they were brewing. Other common errors included beer clarity and carbonation. My most memorable error were brewers choosing to use too much of their favorite ingredient. During the final hour of my judging stint, Drew and I helped judge beers in the Specialty Wood Aged category. These tasty beers were a welcome change from lagers and included chocolate, vanilla and cinnamon and other spices. During judging, we quickly found some brewers who must have loved a particular spice so much that they overdid it to the extreme. One memorable example included so much cinnamon, that it almost made Drew and I gag on the first taste…just too much of a good thing.

What I Learned

After 5 hours of tasting beers, I learned some things about judging and myself. Beer judges are a lot like the rest of the craft beer community, as much about contributing to the community as they are about enjoying themselves. They take their volunteer job seriously and are genuinely interested in giving back to support craft beer. I was seriously impressed by their willingness to volunteer to make competition events like this successful. My judging partner Drew was a good example of this. He helped me a ton to learn the judging ropes and kept me from making a fool of myself.

To my surprise, I learned I have a decent palate. With only a couple of small exceptions, I managed to keep up with my more experienced judging partner in identifying various characteristics associated with each aspect of the beer score sheets.

All in all, I enjoyed my judging experience. Sitting down afterwards with Trevor (incredibly over a beer) we discussed our mutual experience and if we would do it again. Trevor loved judging and is all in with doing it again. He’s even considering becoming a BJCP certified judge! For my part, once is probably enough. I would be glad to help out if needed, but would prefer to be the contestant to being the judge. Maybe I’ll enter this competition next year, and write about my view from the other side of the judging table? Cheers.

One thought on “Could you be a beer judge?”

  1. That first photo in the Judging Is Hard section shows a HORRIBLE scoresheet. Assuming it’s finished, that judge should be embarrassed. You have to fill in THE WHOLE THING. Every line. Every time.

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