Some of us really love beer. Any kind of beer. And most of us don’t care if the flavors conform to anyone’s style parameters or fit any set of style guidelines. If the beer in our hand is good, we like it. Well, I’d say that’s a good way to evaluate a beer, that is, by personal preferences. But if one must evaluate a brew with regards to classic style characteristics — for example, if a homebrew is entered in a BJCP sanctioned homebrew contest — well, that’s another story.
The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) has developed detailed guidelines describing the world’s major beer styles, and quite a few minor ones. Currently there are twenty-three distinct beer categories in the BJCP’s “Style Guidelines for Beer, Mead and Cider” (available online at www.bjcp.org). Every category has many sub-categories contained within and the guidelines are growing. In the revised 2004 version of the guidelines, newly-added styles included Irish red ale, Baltic porter and imperial IPA. When you submit a beer to a BJCP-sanctioned homebrew contest, it is evaluated versus the characteristics of the beer’s style, as outlined in the style guidelines. In other words, if you submit an American pale ale, it is evaluated with regards to how well it matches the characteristics of an American pale ale.
I will discuss one category in this article for purposes of showing the reader how this evaluation system works. If you ever wondered what happened to your beer when you sent it off to a contest, this should help you understand. Likewise, if you are interested in becoming a judge or just learning the mechanics to evaluate your own beer at home, this article should help. These parameters were developed to be used by certified BJCP judges in amateur beer competitions, but they also can be used by the homebrewer and professional brewer to describe classical style characteristics. They’re also a great aid in designing your next classic style-inspired homebrew. For the purposes of this article, I’ll discuss how an American pale ale would be judged at a BJCP contest. American pale ale is a popular beer that homebrewers love to brew, so most readers should have some familiarity with the style. Using the revised 2004 BJCP style guidelines the following is an explanation of the important characteristics this style of beer should have.
Before any beers get tasted during the judging, there are a lot of preliminaries. Judges will write their names and the upcoming entry number on their scoresheets. They will also write entry numbers on their plastic glasses. (For light beers, it’s best to write the numbers as low on the glass as possible, so the aroma of marker pen doesn’t reach the judge’s nose. For dark beers, the numbers should be written just above the likely liquid level. (If the numbers are written below the liquid level, the judge would have to tilt the glass to read them.) Judges also usually read the style guidelines for the style they are about to judge, to refresh their memory.
At a homebrew contest, beers are served in flights, grouped by category. If there are many entries in a category, as is usually the case with American pale ales, there may be several flights, each judged by a different panel of judges. The steward will bring the beers to the judging table and the head judge will check to see if all the beers in the flight are present.
Opening the Bottle
Before the crown cap on the bottle is popped, the judges will inspect it and its fill level. If the bottle has a short or high fill, this may be noted on the scoresheet, although no points are given or taken away for abnormal fill levels. If there is a ring around the inside neck of the bottle, the judges will be aware that the beer may be contaminated — and take care not to get a beer shower when they open it. Some judges write down the type of bottle and color of the cap on the scoresheet. This can assure the entrant that the judges actually judged the bottle he sent in.
Aroma [12 points]
The first criteria on the BJCP scoresheet is aroma. A brewer can score up to 12 points for his beer’s aroma. It makes good sense to evaluate aroma first. When a beer is first opened and poured, its carbonation is at its maximum. Bubbles are pushing aroma up out of the glass and bubbles in the beer’s foam are bursting, releasing little bursts of aroma.
Individual judges have different styles of judging, but one way to get a good whiff of the aroma of a beer is to cup your hand over most of the top of the glass, put your nose right down in the glass and inhale. If you inhale slowly, the air will warm in your nose and you will get a good sense of the aroma. (Of course, you need to make sure your hands don’t smell.) You can swirl beer to release more aroma and sniff it again, if needed. A judge will be looking for off aromas as well as the aromas from malt, hops and yeast fermentation products, as appropriate for the style.
In the case of American pale ale, judges will be expecting the citrusy aroma from American hops. In this style, you should also expect low to medium malt aromas, with crystal malt notes; enough to support the aroma from the hops. Balance is key in this style, as it is in most classic beer styles. Fruity esters in low amounts are common yeast byproducts produced when using American ale yeast varieties, but the beer should not show English ale style fruitiness. Dry hopping adds a pronounced hop aroma, and maybe a hint of grassiness. Judges will also be looking for flaws, such as the cardboard-like aroma of oxidation.
There are no set amount of points assigned for each little detail — presence or absence of hop aroma, quality of hop aroma, presence or absence of faults, etc. — the judge simply decides where the beer’s aroma ranks on a scale of 0 to 12. He should also write descriptive comments explaining the aroma score. For example, “Nice American hop aroma, but I detect a little hint of diacetyl (a beer fault).”
Appearance [3 points]
The next section on the scoresheet is appearance, which is worth 3 points. When the beer is poured, a good head should form and lively carbonation should persist. Some foamy head should remain throughout the beer’s consumption, though its retention slowly dissipates. (The judge may assess the aroma first, but he should make a mental note of how big the head was and how fast it collapsed.) A judge may also comment on the fineness of the bubbles and if the foam leaves lacing on the glass.
The color of the beer is compared to the range of colors allowed for a given style. Some judges even have ”color cards” — transparencies that show the entire color range found in beers with associated SRM numbers. For American pale ale, the style guidelines list 5–14 SRM as the appropriate range.
Clarity is also important for most styles. One measure of clarity is to see if you can read the words on a pencil through beer. (The beer needs to be light-colored, obviously.) Or, a judge can also shine a flashlight through beer and look for light scattering.
It’s usually pretty clear by this stage of examination if the beer has major defects. Problematic beers may have low or no head on pouring, or they may foam or gush. If a beer is a gusher and has off aromas, it is most likely contaminated. And, if a beer is contaminated, the beer may be set aside to sample at the end of the flight, so the judge’s palate isn’t negatively affected.
Per the BJCP style guide, the color of an American Pale Ale can range from pale golden, drifting towards amber. The beer should be clear, but some haziness from dry hopping is acceptable. It should also have a nice white head, as one would expect in most average-strength ales.
Again, there are no specific amount of “subpoints” for foam, color and clarity; the judge simply assigns a score between 0 and 3, based on his overall impression of the beer’s appearance. For the judge, this is a section of the scoresheet for which it is relatively easy to provide good feedback for the entrant. The color and clarity of the beer can easily be described, along with the characteristics of the head. (A good description here can also reassure the entrant that the scoresheet he is reading actually pertains to his beer.)
Flavor [20 points]
The most important parameter, of course, is the beer’s flavor, and this is worth 20 points at a BJCP contest. And typically, the description of a beer’s flavor in the style guidelines is longer than the description of any other element.
One thing to keep in mind when evaluating a beer’s flavor is that flavor intensifies with temperature. At homebrew contests, beers are served chilled, but usually not ice cold.
As with the judging of aroma, judging styles differ among judges. One way to get a good sample of a beer’s flavor is to take a small sip and let the beer warm in your mouth briefly before swallowing. You may want to swirl it around to coat your tongue. If a judge thinks he detects on off flavor, but isn’t sure, he may let the beer warm up (perhaps cupping the glass in his hands) before taking another sip. Many minor beer faults can “hide” in cold beer, but “pop out” at higher temperatures. If you think a beer might have a fault, let it warm up and taste it again.
For both aroma and flavor, a judge may use “beer terms” (like diacetyl) or “food/cooking terms” (like butterscotch) to describe various aspects of the beer. Without a shared vocabulary, it would be impossible for beer judges to communicate with brewers.
Beyond a familiarity with the terms used to describe beer aromas and flavors in general, the judge should be familiar with the beer style itself. Reading the style descriptions are one thing; actually having tasted classic examples of the style is another. (Even at larger contests, it can sometimes be a challenge finding judges who are sufficiently familiar with some of the more obscure styles.) For every beer substyle, the style guidelines list notable beers. In the case of American pale ale, nine beers are listed, including Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Stone Pale Ale and Full Sail Pale Ale.
A good judge will try to describe the beer in each section, and just declare it “to style” or “not to style.” There is only one way (or maybe a few ways) for a beer to be “to style,” but an infinite number of ways a beer can be “not to style.” If a beer, or some element of it, is judged to be “not to style,” the judge should help the entrant out by specifying why it is not to style. Entrants can become very frustrated if their beer scores poorly and they are not given any guidance with regards to how to improve it.
You are no doubt aware that beer contains alcohol, and this can affect how beers are judged. The more beers a judge samples in a flight and the more flights he judges during a day, the more alcohol is likely to impair his judgement. One way for a judge to guard against this is to keep his sampling to a minimum. To do this, the judge needs to be very focused, only resampling a beer when there is a reason. Alcohol is not the only character that can impair a judge’s abilities. Any strong flavor — including hop bitterness, darkly roasted grains or smoke — can make it difficult to detect more subtle amounts of that flavor in later beers.
When wine judges judge wine, they spit the wine out after each sip. In contrast, beer judges swallow. This practice is based on the old (and discredited) idea that bitter-detecting taste buds are more prominent at the back of the tongue, but shows no signs of changing. Many contests put bread on the tables so judges can take a bite between beers to cleanse their palate. This can be especially important if a beer has a serious off-flavor.
American pale ales should have moderate to high hop flavors featuring American hops. Cascade and Amarillo hops are very popular in this style, but many different varieties of hops may be used. The malt presence should be in balance with the hops, and may have caramel, bready, toasty or even biscuity characteristics. The basic malt bill for an American pale ale is 2-row pale malt and medium crystal malt, but other malts may be used in small amounts to add complexity. The crystal or caramel malt component should be fairly low, certainly not as strong as in some English pale ales. An entry that shows a lot of crystal malt or caramel flavors may be better off entered as an American amber ale, and judges frequently tell entrants if their beer would have scored better in another category. The balance in American pale ales leans toward hops and hop bitterness, but the malts should not be hidden. A small amount of grassy flavor may be detected in dry hopped beers, but this flavor should not be strong.
Mouthfeel [5 points]
Mouthfeel is related to flavor and includes body, carbonation and things like astringency and the detection of creaminess or silkiness. One way to judge mouthfeel is to let the beer sit on your tongue for a second, then slowly swallow the beer. A beer with full body means that it has sort of a full feeling in your mouth. A good description is that we can say fuller bodied beers seem thicker, fuller and more viscous than lighter bodied beers.
American pale ales fall into a medium light to medium body class. And, they should have moderate to high levels of carbonation. The finish should be smooth without any harsh astringency (mouth puckering) that could be the result of the increased hop bitterness level.
Lack of body and carbonation and the presence of astringency are commonly encountered faults at homebrew contests. In this or any section of the score sheets, if the judge notes a beer fault, he may also explain the likely cause. For example, astringency is usually from oversparging, but may also be associated with high hopping rates. If you receive a scoresheet that mentions a fault, but not the cause of that fault, consult the troubleshooting section of your homebrew text (or see the troubleshooting chart at byo.com.) Many beginning brewers enter homebrew contests not so much to have a shot at winning medals, but more to receive feedback to improve their brewing skills.
Overall Impression [10 points]
The final, and some would say most important section of the scoresheet, is the section pertaining to overall impression. It’s here that the judge can express his personal opinions about the beer being judged, and if it fits the parameters of the category. Here, the judge may express whatever he wishes, but I think he should do so in a way that presents positive feedback and constructive criticism. It’s here that the judge may suggest that the brewer attempt to modify his recipe or brewing technique, if he wants to meet the style parameters in the future.
Judges should keep in mind that the brewer may not have brewed the beer specifically for the contest, so a failure to be “to style” may not really be a failure on the entrant’s part. The brewer may simply have submitted a “house beer” in the closest reasonable category in the hopes of getting general feedback. As such, comments regarding levels of faults (if any), overall balance (irrespective of style) and general drinkability may be greatly appreciated by the entrant. The beer’s score, of course, needs to the reflect how well it matches the characteristic of the appropriate style.
Total [50 points]
Finally, the scores from each individual section and a final score is given. At the end of the flight, the two judges will give the beer a combined score. This is usually simply the average of the two judges’ scores, but doesn’t need to be.
Reading Your Scoresheets
When you read your scoresheets, you will want to take note of your score (obviously), the criticisms and suggestions for improvement. Never get too dejected (or elated) over the comments of a single judge. If you submit your beer to several contests, you should see a pattern emerge in the criticisms.
Paul Zocco has the rank of National BJCP judge.