Being a homebrewer, it’s only a matter of time before you come into contact with the world of beer judging. You’ll meet judges at homebrew club meetings. You’ll overhear conversations or read about homebrewing competitions, either in your area or nationally. You’ll want to get purely objective feedback on your beer, and someone will recommend entering it in a homebrew competition. Or, even more simply, you’ll wonder what people are talking about when they discuss a particular style of beer and you’ll find yourself perusing a set of style guidelines. Sooner or later, you’ll think: “Wow — wouldn’t it be incredible to tell people I’m a certified beer judge?” Yes. Yes, it is incredible. All of your wildest dreams will come true, and you will instantly become the most interesting person in the room: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I judge it.” Men and women alike will swoon.
OK, maybe not. But it’s still a fun and interesting thing to lay claim to, and it has the added benefit of helping make better brewers through your feedback (and you a better brewer, thanks to the preparation required to become a certified judge). Becoming a beer judge is unquestionably a challenge, but it’s one worth taking on, and it’s something that anyone can do if they put in a good-faith effort to prepare properly and treat it with the respect it deserves.
Here Comes the Judge
Beer judging is (surprisingly) not all that focused on drinking beer. It’s a process of systematic evaluation that aims to provide objective description of the beer in the glass and compare that description to a known standard. This might sound uptight and boorish, but it’s for a very good reason: We’re guarding against preference, which is inherently subjective. It might be easier to break this out into three steps: Description, analysis, and feedback. It’s important to understand these, because they represent a big chunk of what the certification exams test for and should guide your preparation.
Systematic evaluation starts with description: What’s in the glass? A judge has to be able to parse out specific flavors and communicate them in language that uses solid reference points and is commonly understood. “Nice hop aroma” isn’t very useful to a brewer. It uses relative language and lacks specificity — after all, “nice” can mean anything, and “hops” smell like…well, these days, almost anything. Instead, we shoot for phrases like, “medium-high pineapple and orange aroma initially, fading quickly in favor of a bready malt background.” That language is more than just fancy/technical, it’s specific. Your goal is to provide the most precise and comprehensive objective verbal description of the beer that you can.
Then it’s time to engage in some analysis. Every beer should be judged to a known (and published) standard. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and Brewers Association (BA) both publish style guidelines, and many (most, I’d say) competitions use one of these as their standard. You’re drawing a simple comparison: How well does the beer you just described “fit” the style parameters that you’re judging against? Some are very specific (“should never contain diacetyl”), but most offer a range to hit (low to medium hop flavor). A closer fit will usually increase a beer’s score, while elements that land outside the stated range will reduce it. How much it is reduced — and the extent to which the beer’s “intangibles” or combination of flavors make it enjoyable or not — are still a bit subjective, but judges will generally land within a few points of each other on the 50-point BJCP scale.
Last, as a judge you’re expected to do more than spit out a point total like a beer-sniffing machine: You should provide corrective feedback to the brewer. This can include recipe adjustments, process recommendations, correction strategies for noted faults or flaws, and even suggestions for a style category that might provide a better fit for the beer in question (“…consider entering this as an English Pale Ale, since it has earthy hop flavor and less alcohol than is typical in the double IPA style.”). Picking winners and losers can be a fun part of judging, but its most valuable function is in helping brewers make better beer! We can help by offering technically sound, courteous, and appropriate feedback.
So, how does one make this transformation from homebrewer and beer enthusiast to Certified Beer Judge? Well, like a lot of other credentialing processes — from licensing people to drive or cut people open — it entails passing some tests.
The BJCP Beer Judge Certification Process
The BJCP is a non-profit organization with the primary purpose of certifying beer judges. Its published goals are to promote beer literacy, promote the appreciation of “Real Beer” (a little vague, but you can guess what they mean), and recognize beer tasting and evaluation skills. Becoming a certified beer judge, the BJCP argues, requires technical knowledge, a trained palate, and the ability to communicate. To that end, they have implemented a certification process to help ensure a minimum level of competence in beer judges and (hopefully) consistency in beer judging.
Prospective judges are required to pass two examinations before being certified: An online “Beer Entrance Exam” (the Online Exam) and a practical, live “Beer Judging Exam” (the Judging Exam). Both cover a range of topics and skills, and both require some committed preparation (more on that in the next section). Let this serve as a reasonable warning not to take these exams lightly. They are not pushovers. They are scored to a real and rigorous standard by people who are committed to maintaining that standard. They are not exclusive, by any means — I’ve seen people with very limited beer and brewing knowledge pass these exams after a diligent and thoughtful effort to train up for them — but they are certainly not exams that can be passed casually. This is true even for experienced (and even professional) brewers.
The first step is to pass the Online Exam, though you may start by contacting local judging exam administrators, just to get ahead of the game a bit since seats may be scarce. But you can’t sit for the Judging Exam until you pass the Online Exam, so this is still the first real step. The exam is administered online (clearly), and consists of 180 multiple choice, multiple guess, and true/false questions out of a pool of roughly 300. You have one hour to complete as many questions as you can, and you may use reference materials (it’s an “open book” exam). The questions cover the BJCP style guidelines, brewing ingredients and processes, judging practices, and the BJCP itself (goals, purpose, etc.). The exam is pass/fail, and when you submit it for a score you receive an instant result — and, more importantly, a breakdown of how you scored across selected topic areas. If you didn’t pass, these will give you guidance on where to focus your attention as you review for another attempt. You can take the exam once per day. Upon passing the exam (congratulations), you are a Provisional Judge, which simply means that you have been cleared to take the Judging Exam.
Next up (if you haven’t already done so) is to find a Judging Exam somewhere nearby. The BJCP maintains a list of upcoming exams with contact information for the local exam administrator, so head over to bjcp.org to check out what’s available, when, and where. Once you locate an exam, contact the exam administrator, inform him/her that you’ve passed the Online Exam, and request a seat at their exam. Do not be surprised or disheartened if, at that point, the exam seats are already filled. In some places exam seats are in hot demand, so the next available exam might already be full — but there’s still hope. Ask to be placed on a waiting list or notification list, as it is very common for seats to open up as the exam date approaches. When that e-mail comes, and informs you that the first person to respond gets the exam seat, be ready! You might also consider widening your search radius — it isn’t uncommon for examinees to drive a short distance (2 to 3 hours) for the exam. After all, it’s a special occasion!
Let’s assume you’ve secured an exam seat: Just what are you in for? The BJCP Judging Exam requires you to evaluate, under exam conditions (closed book, timed) six beers of varying styles. You have 15 minutes per beer, and for each you will complete one standard score sheet (stripped of some helpful information, but generally identical to what you’d see at most competitions). The beers vary in quality and stylistic “fit” (it is a not-uncommon trick, for example, for exam admins to offer you a Schwarzbier but tell you that it is an English porter to see if you correctly note the style deficiencies/differences), and often at least one of the beers is starkly flawed (sometimes deliberately — a spike of vinegar or lactic acid, for example).
You will be scored along five dimensions of beer evaluation: Perception, description, completeness, feedback, and scoring accuracy (each worth 20% of your score). Your perceptions and scores are compared to those of at least two “proctors” — national-or-higher ranked judges that evaluate the same beers you do, under the same conditions. The closer your stated perceptions and scores are to theirs, the better you’ll score. The other categories (description, completeness, and feedback) evaluate how specific and vivid your descriptive language is, whether comments are in the proper places on the scoresheet (for example, whether you note astringency in mouthfeel as opposed to flavor), whether you fill all of the available comment space, and whether you provide feedback that is technically correct and which addresses the faults you note in the beer.
A “passing” score on the Judging Exam is 60 points or higher. If you score 60-69, congratulations! You’re officially a Recognized Beer Judge. If you pass with a 70 or higher, then you are eligible for promotion — once you earn some judging points — to Certified Beer Judge. If you’ve been judging while you await your score (as a “Rank Pending” judge), you may be eligible to jump straight to Certified if your exam score warrants it. If you came in below 60, then you are considered an Apprentice Judge. You can continue to judge as an Apprentice for one year, but after that time if you haven’t yet passed a new Judging Exam, your temporary status will lapse. You may take a new Judging Exam at any time, so long as you’re not waiting on the score from a prior exam.
Recognized and Certified are the only two ranks available to you based on the Online Exam and the Judging Exam. If, however, you have scored 80 or higher on the Judging Exam and you have earned ten or more judging points, you are eligible to sit for the BJCP Written Exam. This is a long-form essay exam designed to test your depth of knowledge as you attempt to qualify to be promoted to the National or Master levels. It is a grueling slog of an exam that will suck up massive amounts of your time and create untold anxiety in you; I would rather chew glass than take that exam again…but, honestly, the challenge and forced-march preparation regime actually is fun, and if you’re as fanatical about beer as many judges tend to be, then you’ll likely enjoy it! That exam, though, is a long way down the road. It takes some time to accrue the necessary judging points, and along the way you’ll meet lots of senior judges who can offer their advice. The Written Exam is offered quarterly, at multiple locations based on demand, and will not be over-filled.
So, that’s the exam process. How do you get ready for it?
Mastering the BJCP Exam
Preparation is essential if you’re going to pass these exams. The BJCP itself offers exam prep materials on its website, and these are a good start, especially in preparation for the Online Exam. If you’re a homebrewer, and you study diligently, there’s no reason you can’t pass the online exam without outside help. However, I strongly encourage you to look into an exam prep course for the Judging Exam, either in-person (if you have the time to commit and there’s one available to you) or online. Just like the SAT or GRE or any exam, guided prep from those who know the exam will focus your efforts and maximize your efficiency, and at times it feels like you need to know everything there is to know about beer to pass these exams.
Start off by seeking out that exam administrator with which you’ve registered for the Judging Exam. Many exams are organized by groups that also run exam prep courses, and for the Judging Exam there’s nothing that will better prepare you than formal instruction about beer vocabulary, beer styles common on the exam, common remedies that you can offer as feedback for common faults, and more. It will also mean that you get “live” practice filling out score sheets. Most prep courses will spend about half of their time actually evaluating beer, which is outstanding practice for the exam itself. Most also offer a “sensory training” seminar, where you get to taste a wide range of flavors (deliberately spiked into beer samples) against a “control” beer that is “clean,” so you can train your palate to recognize flavors from the pleasant (geraniol) to the putrid (butyric acid). These are invaluable because every human palate is different, and you may never know that you’re blind to a specific flavor or compound — or that it presents oddly to you — if you don’t have this opportunity. For example, I perceive isovaleric acid — an off-flavor that smells strongly of dirty gym socks or old cheese — as a pleasant raspberry note. Lucky me! But now when I smell raspberries, I know to dig deeper for other signs of contamination.
If you don’t have a course in your area, or it’s held at an inconvenient time or location, or perhaps you’ve been offered a seat from a wait list and there’s no time, then you can look into online prep courses. Caveat emptor, here — before signing up, check the credentials of those offering the course, and see if you can find reviews of their previous efforts. Instructors should be highly experienced judges (you can use rank as a proxy — National or Master judges necessarily have long experience, but many Certified judges are also highly qualified), and the exam should cover the key elements of the exam. Obviously, you can’t all taste/evaluate beer in the same room, so that aspect of the course might suffer a bit, but the best online courses will utilize recordings or webinars with a pre-set list of widely available beers, so that you can compare the instructors’ impressions of beers to yours. They’re a great alternative when time, distance, or timing just won’t let you take an in-person course.
Another good option is to leverage your (or others’) homebrew club activities. Most club meetings involve tasting (either formal or informal), and many certified judges hang out at these events. Ask if you and a judge can sit down and write up a scoresheet on beers at the meeting — the brewers benefit from a robust analysis of their beer, and you get practice! It’s not a substitute for a prep course, but the more “reps” you get, the better.
If none of these are available to you, then the best advice I can offer would be to engage in rigorous self-study with the Style Guidelines. You’ll find, in each sub-style, a list of commercial examples that fit in that style. Work your way through the major style groups (lagers, wheat beers, Belgians, Americans/IPAs, strong ales, etc.) and write up a score sheet on each beer, comparing it to the descriptions listed in the style guidelines. Again, not perfect, but it will at least give you exposure to a variety of beers and practice in evaluating them.
The amount of time this takes is going to vary from person to person. The most significant variable is probably going to be your level of brewing experience, followed closely by how well you know your world beer styles.
New (or non-) brewers have a bigger hill to climb. Both the Online and Judging exams assume that you have a good working knowledge of the beer production process, the contributions of various ingredients, and the basics of brewing science. A thorough reading of a classic text like How to Brew by John Palmer will be time well spent. I would also strongly recommend working up flashcards with the overall impression of each beer style and spending time with them as you wait for the train, watch the news, and have a beer at the local bar while watching soccer. To prepare for the Judging Exam, I strongly recommend that you sign up for a prep course of not less than eight weeks to ensure that you give yourself ample time to both review the academic material and develop your practical skills. Total time investment is probably 2-4 hours/week for at least 12 weeks.
More experienced brewers (those who have brewed at least once a month for two years or more) and those with a chemistry/biology background will be in a better position to quickly review the brewing information necessary to pass the Online Exam and provide solid feedback during the judging exam. Those in this group can focus more on style knowledge and practical judging, and if time allows you can dive into some of the more-focused brewing books (Yeast, Hops, etc.). I still recommend the prep course, for the judging practice. Your total time is more in the range of 2 to 3 hours per week for about nine weeks, and an online course will be a perfectly adequate choice for you.
For very experienced brewers with a lot of beer style/history experience (and, as a litmus test, at least one vacation specifically planned around visiting a brewery), you’re going to mostly bone up on the BJCP approach to evaluating and describing beer. You’re probably in the best position to take advantage of an online prep course, especially if you’re looking at a short run-up to an exam date.
For all, there’s a high return-on-investment from any kind of blind tasting and score sheet completion you can do. Have a friend give you a beer sample to evaluate, write it up, then post-game it by comparing it to the guidelines. Repeat. You’ll quickly develop a process and awareness of what it takes to judge beer. And besides — it’s fun! You can also volunteer to steward for local competitions (and judge at them, in many cases — just tell the judge coordinator that you’re prepping for the exam!) to see how different judges approach the process. Imitation is more than a sincere form of flattery — it’s a way to take advantage of the collective knowledge and habits of beer judges, and can help you avoid simple (but not intuitive) pitfalls.
Beer judges provide an invaluable service to the local brewing community. Before, during, and after your exam, get out there and judge. There’s nothing that will develop your skills and knowledge base faster than drinking sample after sample of saison, double IPA, or stout. Besides, those points accrue right away, even before you get your scores! Finally, becoming a beer judge unquestionably makes you a better brewer. The level of intimate knowledge of the process and product that you’ll develop is like a brewing skill time machine. You’ll learn a lot of information in a fantastically shorter amount of time.
Speaking of time, one final step remains: Waiting for your results. The scoring process is a bit arduous, and your exam will be scored by two separate scorers and go through at least two levels of review beyond that. When everything runs according to plan, exam results can be returned in 8 to 9 weeks — I’ve even seen one exam that wrapped in just six weeks! However, if you’re unlucky, one of the volunteers in that machine might get a little sidetracked by real life. If that’s the case, the grading window can stretch out for what seems like forever. It’s very rare now, but my exam (back in the good old “Written and Judging Exam All in One” days!) took seven months to the day. Don’t worry about your score. Get out there and get judging. Your score will be whatever it is, and waiting won’t make you more likely to pass or better-prepared to re-take if that’s what you need/want to do — but going out and judging will!
Have fun, when you pass (and you can!) be sure to savor the moment, and do your best to be a productive member of a global community that’s several thousand-strong.
Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Resources
The Beer Judge Certification Program publishes all of the information that you need in order to sign up for and take their judging exams. The exam program consists of three exams:
1. The BJCP Beer Judge Entrance Examination, an online examination to screen prospective candidates.
2. The BJCP Beer Judging Examination, a practical tasting examination of six beers.
3. The BJCP Beer Judge Written Proficiency Examination, a quarterly written examination consisting of 20 True-False and five essay questions used to test skills and knowledge necessary for higher ranks.
You can find a full overview of the exam structure by visiting: http://dev.bjcp.org/exam-certification/exam-program-overview/bjcp-exam-structure/
To find an exam scheduled in your area, check the BJCP Exam Calendar and contact the Exam Administrator to sign up. Visit: www.bjcp.org/exams.php
You can download their Beer Exam Study Guide as a .pdf file to prep for your exams: www.bjcp.org/docs/BJCP_Study_Guide.pdf
Also, download the Exam Program Description, a detailed description of the BJCP Exam Program:
Once you have passed your first exam, check out the BJCP’s Membership Guide for judges: http://dev.bjcp.org/member-services/membership-guide/