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BJCP Study Group: Introductory Session

by Rob Friesel

I’ve decided to become a BJCP judge.

In other words, I’ve decided to learn about the 34 beer categories (and their many sub-styles) recognized by the BJCP, about structured evaluations, about brewing ingredients and process and technique, about off-flavors and contaminants. I’ve decided to subject my palate to so-neutral-they’re-flavorless American Light Lagers and the sometimes-pleasantly-sometimes-punishingly sour Belgian beers like Oud Bruins and Lambics. I decided earlier this year that getting the judging certification was something I wanted to do, a goal I’d set myself for the year.

But once I went to register for the exam, I discovered that (1) the only physically nearby session for 2017 was already full, and also (2) that there was a lot more work that went into the study than I’d anticipated. Lucky for me, members of the local homebrew club were already organizing a study group in preparation for the local exam in 2018. I signed up right away.

What I hope to do here, with this series of blog posts, is to review the materials and study group notes,1 and also to capture bits about the process that might be useful for other people with other study groups out there.

Study Group Kick-Off

I wasn’t privy to most the lead-up, organizing, and prep work so… not much to say there. I know that a Google Group and a sibling Facebook Group (both private) were set up; someone was generous enough to donate space. But I found out about the group sort of last minute, so most of this was in place and I just snuck onto the roster and showed up. As for that first meeting:

  1. Introductions. What’s an ad-hoc study group without going around the room for personal introductions? We went around the room and gave our names, what drew us to the study group, and what we hoped to get out of it. FWIW: I gave my name, explained how I’d been on Untappd since 2012, and doing “detailed” reviews for at least the past two years, and how I took the BYO Boot Camp on tasting/judging with Gordon Strong in November 2016 and got really serious after that; and that I wanted to see myself come out of the study group with a good score on the BJCP exam. (In other words: I want to be judging in competitions in 2018!)
  2. Talking through study group tips and goals. Our BJCP mentor for the night passed out some sheets and talked us through what he saw as the goals for the course and tips on how to approach both studying and the exam. In a nutshell? The goal was to prep the study group members to pass the BJCP exam and get certified, and to make friends and meet new beer styles along the way. How were we going to do that? We were going to learn about the structured evaluation technique, learn the styles, and learn how to apply a structured evaluation to a beer based on the style and not based on what you personally like.
  3. Introduction to the scoresheet. Next up, our BJCP mentor walked us through the scoresheet. He talked us through what the sections were, how to approach them, and the expectation that you’d want to finish your sensory evaluation between 8-10 minutes.
  4. Introduction to the structured evaluation. Our BJCP mentor then walked us through what a structured evaluation looked like. He broke it down according to the sections on the scoresheet. He talked us through what to consider and comment on when it came to aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. He emphasized that it was equally important to comment on the things that you DID NOT perceive, especially if it was something that should be there. He suggested that, while we were studying and training, to go through each section and jot down our raw perceptions, then to go back and review those perceptions as they compare to the style guidelines, then to fill in any gaps, and THEN to assign scores. He emphasized that we should be providing feedback on the scoresheet about how to improve the beer, but cautioned against making assumptions about how the beer was made. (Tricky business!)
  5. A practical crash course in tasting. It was at this point that the funnest part of the study group began. We were going to take those lessons and put them to work by evaluating a couple of beers…

The Beers

  1. A Flemish brown. Not what I’d call a gentle introduction. Many of the study group members had never had a Flemish brown (23C. Oud Bruin), and of those of us who had… not more than a few.2 So there we were, a group of novice would-be judges, trying to figure out how to do a sensory evaluation on a just-OK-maybe-slightly-flawed sour beer. Cool! Lots of discussion.
  2. Guess that style! Perhaps the most fun part of the night. Our BJCP mentor brought out a couple of bottles with their labels removed and asked us to do… just that: to guess what style it was. We all poured and… eww? Comments like: “Actually cider vinegar?” and “An infected barleywine?” and “Sherry, right? Not even a beer?” So naturally no one willingly drank any… but we cajoled each other to do so and… still no closer. Anyone? No one. Finally our mentor explains: it’s a 16 year old English pale ale. (!!!)
    16 year old British pale ale

    The 16 year old British pale ale. (Photo courtesy Jason Stuffle.)

  3. And some homebrews. A British Brown. An American Brown.3 A black IPA (mine). And a New England IPA. (We focused on sensory descriptors for these and didn’t bother to score.)

Takeaways

As we wrapped up, I jotted down a few notes about the areas where I decided that I personally needed to focus and “do homework”.

  1. Must get faster. Our BJCP mentor had indicated targeting 8-10 minutes per beer for the full sensory evaluation and scoring rubric. I was certainly averaging over 10 minutes. I would need to get those times down.
  2. Remember what’s not sensed. Just as important as commenting on what you do sense in a given beer, you want to call out what you do notshould be present. As I reviewed my scoresheets for the night, I noticed that I was doing a good job of capturing what I perceived but not what I perceived as missing; this would present a problem on the exam.
  3. Stop skipping “overall impression”. For some reason my scoresheets that night didn’t have much (or anything!) under the “Overall Impression” heading. This seemed a simple omission on my part. Rushing. Feeling time constrained. Like the specific heading comments would paint the picture. But I knew better. When you talk about balance, you talk about all of those components as a whole. Do the work.
  4. Provide specific feedback. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to flaws and off-flavors. For the most part, I must be giving the benefit of the doubt to most brewers. And/or I’m not as sensitive to the off-flavors? But even when considering overall impression and balance (independent of off-flavors) — I wasn’t providing specific feedback on the scoresheets about what the brewers could do to improve. For effective judging, that would be necessary.
  5. Go explore more beers. I made a note to myself. “Go buy unfamiliar beers; esp. unfamiliar styles; judge them!” I printed out a bunch of the BJCP scoresheets. I went to the local beer joints and brought home bottles and cans. Time to start preparing my palate.
  1. For me, writing about things helps the lessons to sink in. []
  2. For what it’s worth, until that night, I’d only ever had two Oud Bruins — and neither were true Belgians. []
  3. I got licorice notes in the flavor profile which got us into a whole sidebar conversation about yeast washing. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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