As part of my quest to become a BJCP certified beer judge, I signed up to steward the 2017 Champlain Valley Fair Homebrew Competition on August 26, 2017. I hadn’t seen a competition in situ before, and I believe it would be useful to see how the events are organized and run. Further, I could meet a few judges, perhaps get some advice, and build some goodwill.
Little did I know that I would get the opportunity to help judge a flight myself.
I showed up to the event promptly and, after a quick orientation on where everything was and what kind of help I could provide, I got to work sorting the entries into their categories. The competition had four categories:
- Common American Styles (BJCP styles 1B, 1D, 18B, 19A, 19C, 20A, 20B)
- Agricultural (BJCP styles 25B, 29A, 29B, 30A)
- Standard IPA (BJCP styles 12C, 21A, 22A)
- Other IPAs (Non-BJCP styles Fruit IPA, Fruit DIPA, New England Style IPA, New England Style DIPA, and BJCP style 21B)
While we were sorting, Tyler (one of the judges) asked me: “How would you feel about judging?” Seems they needed one more palate in order to get through the flights in a timely fashion. Tyler and Jason (another judge, and the Green Mountain Mashers president) had both seen me perform sensory evaluations and fill out scoresheets before (here and here, respectively) and felt comfortable having me evaluate a flight under the tutelage of a certified judge.
I pointed out that I had a beer in the Agricultural category, and they sorted me into Standard American Beers. I knew these styles pretty well, so I sat down to the flight with a lot of confidence.
I won’t comment on the specific beers (because that would be a lot to remember) but I’ll roll up the experience.
- Dialing in my tasting process. My approach was to write down all the sensory descriptions first — everything that I could smell or taste or feel, everything I could see. Once I did that, I went over the sensory characteristics again, comparing what I’d written down with what was in the style guide. Then I jotted down some “top line” impressions. I penciled in a “target” total score based on those overall impressions. We compared scores; we compared notes; we discussed the beer. We distributed the points across the characteristics to get them to add up. Score it. Move on to the next.
- The discussions were interesting. Talking about a beer immediately after I’d done the structured evaluation was very useful. It helped to organize my thoughts more clearly, and to get some perspective on how/why we believed it “should” score the way that it did. It was always interesting where we found ourselves overlapping, and/but especially where we disagreed.
- My scores were close. Each time we compared our preliminary scores, we were always within 0-2 points of each other. Except for one time — but even that was “only” about 4 points apart, and it didn’t take much work to converge on a score that was 2 points apart.
- Don’t underestimate the physical toll. Going through a flight of eight was more work than I’d originally anticipated. The hand cramps from jotting down every little thing that came to mind. The back ache from hunching over. The palate fatigue — oh the palate fatigue. (And I wasn’t even judging IPAs!) I tried to make sure to drink a few ounces of water between each beer, to munch on a cracker. But there weren’t any breaks — unless you count running to the restroom really quick as a break.
- Separating what you like from what is to-style. This was something I’d expected, and it’s been something we’ve talked about quite a bit at our study group. There was a little bit of that here — reminding myself to look back over the style guidelines, to make sure that my sensory impressions were aligned with the “supposed to”. That said, when something is to-style and you personally like it… Well, that’s a high-scoring beer right there, I can tell you that.
- We scored the beer that went on to win Best of Show. There was a stout. It was delicious. It was to-style. It scored #1 in our flight. Then it went on to win Best of Show. And as it turns out… I’d had it about a week before at the end of our Category 7 study session.
Overall, the experience was great. My perceptions are well-developed, but I could stand to do a little more sensory cross-training and vocabulary development. I was able to give good, actionable feedback on the scoresheets. And I wasn’t afraid to give the score that I felt the beer deserved. While I know I have more to learn, I also know that I have a decent foundation to build on.
About Rob FrieselSoftware 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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