A Day in the Life of a Beer Judge

One of the most common reactions I get when I mention that I’m a beer judge is, “Do you spit it out?”

Actually, it takes hard work and focus to judge beer. Beer judges have a mission, which is to improve the quality of beer on every level. If judging is better, homebrewing will get better. If homebrewing improves, consumers will demand better beer from commercial breweries. At least that’s one theory.

Judges owe it to the homebrewers to be fair and helpful. Homebrewers submit their beers to these competitions to get expert opinions on how they’re doing (above and beyond the potential for prizes and recognition, of course). It’s the judge’s job to analyze the quality of the beer, give advice on how to improve it, point out stylistic flaws or potential procedural defects, and so forth, as well as to encourage good work.

It does take training, but above all it takes discipline. It would be really easy, faced with a dozen Belgian strong ales at 9:30 a.m., to surrender early and plan an afternoon nap. But no, you have to come back after lunch and judge a round of light lagers or (gods forbid!) brown ales, and then maybe you’ll also get asked to participate in the Best of Show panel. So you have to moderate your early intake, pace yourself, and judge quickly and efficiently or your palate will be numbed before you get to beer number four.

I judged at one competition where I was wined and dined (beered and dined?) and sent home with lots of free souvenirs; another held in conjuction with an organic fair where coffee was as hard to come by as, well, beer in Saudi Arabia; a third that I drove to during a light snow, stayed to judge two rounds, and returned home in freezing rain and ice. I never got my truck home and ended up walking the last two miles uphill in the sleet.

In the year or so since I passed the Beer Judge Certification Program judging exam, I’ve learned three things about competitions: You see mostly the same 20 or 30 faces at all the competitions in one region, nobody wants to judge brown ales, and some homebrewers are absolutely fanatical about making a lot of good beer.

One Saturday

This is the story of one judge’s experience at one event, the Yankee Brewers Conference. Held in the spring at Chick Orchards in Monnouth, Maine, it was the fifth in the series to determine New England Homebrewer of the Year. Chick Orchards is the site of the Cask & Hive Winery, makers of Chickadee Hard Cider, Cyser, and Mead. The competition was sponsored by the Maine Ale & Lager Tasters, the statewide homebrew club of Maine, and organized by Cask & Hive co-owner Bruce (or Brews, as he spells it) Stevens.

7:45 a.m.: Hit the road. I spent Friday night with my sister in Freeport, Maine, about an hour’s drive from the site of the competition. I was on the road by about 7:45 a.m., leaving time for getting lost and planning to be there by 9 a.m. or so. The judging was to start at 9:30, and I was bringing over a few late entries that needed to be logged in and sorted.

I found the orchard with no problem, carried in my case of entries, and helped Brews’ wife Marsha register, number, and sort some of the late arrivals. Brews quickly led us on a tour of the facilities, to indicate where the facilities in fact were.

9-9:30: Stand around. After the tour we stood around, 30 or so judges, with coffee and muffins, waiting to get going.

9:30: Swear to be good judges. Brews opened the festivities by having us all take a pledge of responsible behavior and then introduced Andy Hazen, owner and brewmaster of Andrew’s Brewing, Lincolnville, Maine, who spoke to us about the perils of “starting small.” His advice: “don’t” — find the money and do it right from the beginning.

10 o’clock: Receive assignments. Assignments were given and panel number one got under way. My judging partner was Kit Anderson, and we drew “light lagers,” along with Martin Stokes and Bill Giffen. We divided up the 16 or so entries between the two pair. Bill and Martin took Munich helles and American light lagers, Kit and I started on Dortmunds and pilsners, aided by our steward Sam.

10:15: Start sipping. To our amazement, silently and independently, Kit and I arrived at the same score for the first beer. It looked like it was going to be an easy day! Tasty, crisp-but-a-bit-too-hoppy pilsners, thin-bodied-for-style Dortmunds, and one nice Saaz-y Czech pils. We got through our half of the category, no controversies, no horrible beers, and then compared notes with Bill and Martin. We then did a runoff to determine the best three beers in the category, retasting our best two and their best three, and then ranked all the beers from 1 to 16.

We were warned by Brews that there were commercial entries in this competition, so the ranking was particularly important (the commercial beers are not counted in the homebrew competition awards but scored against each other in a separate class, even though they are judged blindly by the same panels doing the homebrews). As it turned out later, two of our top three were in fact commercial brews, so it was actually our numbers two, four, and five that ended up with ribbons at day’s end.

11:45: Lunch (yes, with beer!). We broke for lunch, wandering around discussing the orchard, the plans for the post-competition party, and where in Maine to get a good beer (lots of possibilities there!). Lunch consisted of pot-luck: chili, seafood gumbo, salads, and so forth. Lots of spicy food, and the question begged to be asked: Would it spoil the palate? Not only that, but they had started the barbecue pit for the roast turkey and venison planned for dinner and the smoke kept wafting through the door into the hall where we were judging. Nonetheless, there were a couple of kegs of beer donated by a couple of the breweries that had entered the commercial class, and we sampled them with lunch.

12:00: Lunch outside, on picnic tables, in the Maine spring sun. For most of us, this was the first outdoor meal of the season (it was early April in New England, after all…) and we relished the warmth, reluctant to go back in. But duty called.

1:30 p.m.: Back at it. Kit and I were paired again, and our steward Jim brought out smoked beers and fruit beers, two distinct categories that were collapsed together due to small numbers. A couple of smoked porters, one of which I recognized as the signature beer of the Vermont Pub & Brewery; a nice, delicate pear-flavored light lager (our eventual blue ribbon winner); a raspberry Munich helles; a raspberry imperial stout; and a classic rauchbier. It’s a tough category to judge, but what a wide range of flavors!

2:15: Steal a break. With only seven beers to rate and number, we had time for air before the next round. Out into the orchard, walk around, talk about beer.

2:45: Another round? Tom O’Brien, coordinator of judging, suggested to me that since I was done, maybe I’d like to do another panel. Instinctively I said sure, I’d love to, but then it turned out there were only two categories left. Spiced beers, in which I had entered something, and — guess what — brown ales. Oh well, live and learn. Next time I’ll judge more slowly.

So Kit, Jim, and I went back to the table, and out came the brown ales. Milds, northern browns, southern browns, American browns. Somehow we got through it, in fact finding a couple of quite nice brews.

3:45: No more! With the last brown ale rated, we headed back outside, stood by the barbecue for a while talking beer and bars, sports and weather, telling jokes, and then out came the cigars. Three or four portable humidors circulated. Out of 20 people standing around, at least 17 had a cigar. We hoped none of us would get asked to do the Best of Show round!

4:15: Best of Show. Brews came outside and began to try to round up a Best of Show panel. Normally, organizers try to get high-ranking judges, well-known judges, or judges who have traveled a long way to get to the competition for the BOS panel. Since I was one of two judges there from Vermont (and the other was inside working on strong ales), Brews asked me to do BOS (I would have to overcome the cigar afteraffects). Five minutes later Brews tapped me on the shoulder and expressed his condolences: I couldn’t do Best of Show after all; I had one on the table.

This is one of those double-edged swords. On the one hand I was thrilled to be in the running for Best of Show. On the other hand I would dearly love to do a Best of Show round. After all, that’s where the best beers are, right? So what do you do, not enter any good beers with a chance of winning?

5:30: The end. In the end, after a complete tour of the orchard, processing and sorting plant, apple-storage rooms, cider press, and meadery, we returned to the hall and the awards were presented. I got a third place in spiced beers (for a light gingered ale) and a first in Belgian ales for my oud bruin. The oud bruin also ended up second runner-up for Best of Show.

I’m given to understand that competitions reflect the personality of their organizers (just like dogs their owners). MALT, Brews Stevens, and Tom O’Brien are to be commended for a job well done. On the surface, things looked a little loose, chaotic, scattered. But everyone got their judging done, more than 200 entries were registered, processed, sorted, and judged by some 30 or so judges and stewards, we were all well fed, appreciated, and entertained. A friendly atmosphere reigned over the whole day and boy, there was some good beer.

Competition MVPs

In any competition there are a couple of key players who get little if any recognition but without whom no competition could go on, let alone run smoothly. One is the entry coordinator/registrar. The other is the steward.

The registrar has to:

• Check all the entry forms for accuracy

• Categorize and label all the entries with an anonymous code to preserve the “blindness” of the judging

• Make sure entries are stored properly, allowing them to be served by the stewards at the proper temperature and in good condition

• Divide large categories or combine small categories to make judging more efficient

• Tally all scores and coordinate return of the judging forms to the homebrewers

The functions of the registrar, if performed correctly, allow judges to think only about tasting and analyzing.  We don’t have to try to decide which beers to judge or what category they belong in. In addition because the tasting is “blind,” we can be completely objective about the beers because we have no idea who brewed them.

The steward, during the competition, is the MVP. Most competitions provide one steward for each panel of judges. Stewards have the job of presenting the entries to the judges, keeping track of the entry number codes, opening and pouring the beers, refilling water pitchers and bread baskets, getting forms, cups, and other supplies as needed. Again, the good steward creates an atmosphere in which the judges can concentrate on their job, judging.

Many judges have their own preferences, such as wishing to inspect the bottle and pour their own beer, but this doesn’t interfere with or diminish the steward’s importance during the competition.

Most judging panels will also encourage the steward to taste along with them (this is great training for a future judge). The one thing a steward cannot do is give his or her own impressions before the judges have scored the beer they are judging.

Judging Beer

Step by Step

1. Look at the bottle. Does it show signs of contamination? Is there yeast sediment? Is the beer clear? Is the cap rusty?

2. Open and pour. How’s the carbonation level? Does it gush or overflow the glass? Does the yeast cake stay put?

3. Examine the appearance. Is the color right for the style? Is the beer clear (as per style)? Does the head stay or fall back?

4. Swirl the glass gently. Does Brussels lace cling to the glass? Does it foam back up?

5. Smell. What aromas do you get at first? Hops? Malt? Yeasty or fruity aromas? Off-aromas such as diacetyl, phenolics, higher alcohols? Dimethyl-sulfide? Spices, fruit, or smoke, for those styles?

6. Sip, swish beer around the front of the mouth and back to the throat. Is the carbonation level distracting? Is it astringent, bitter, sweet, sour?

7. Take another sip, concentrate on malt and hop flavors. Are they appropriate to style? How about the body: too thin, too thick? With some beer still in your mouth, breathe out gently through your nose. What aromatics do you get? Swallow. Does it leave an aftertaste?

8. Overall impressions: Would you want to drink this beer again? Would you buy it?

9. Now analyze, based on style descriptions: Does this beer match the standards against which it should be measured? Even if it’s a great tasting, very drinkable beer, is it truly in style?

Entering a Competition

Usually a competition asks for three 10- to 16-ounce bottles, without labels or distinguishing marks. Why three? One for the first round, one for a run-off in the category if necessary, and one for the Best of Show round. Of course most beers only ever need the one bottle. But it’s best to be prepared. Also, sometimes there is a problem in shipping or in handling at the competition site, and a second bottle can assure that a beer is judged properly.

The entrant fills out an entry form and a bottle identification label (held on by an elastic band and removed before the competition). Most competitions have a deadline one or two weeks before the date of the judging; others allow entries right up to the morning of the competition, which can make for a hectic last few minutes if the organizer is not as organized as he should be.

Some competitions ask for a recipe along with the beer. Others ask only for category or style information. Most reserve the right to ask for the recipe afterward. Many competitions provide a convenient drop-off point for entries, such as a local homebrew supply store or a brewery. Almost all competitions allow you to mail or ship your entries.

Issue: October 1997