For a few years I’ve secretly aspired to become certified beer judge. Some of you might think I’m already qualified to judge beer, but regular readers of the column will know better. The challenging part, aside from knowing what you are talking about, is to land a spot on one of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) tasting exams. There are only a handful given in Ohio each year, and each exam typically accommodates a dozen people. Getting into one of these exams is harder than scoring a ticket to the annual Studio 35 Big Lebowski Beer Tasting extravaganza (back when it was only a one night event), so when I saw the homebrew club in Dayton (D.R.A.F.T.) was holding an exam on July 22, I contacted the organizer immediately. I was pleasantly surprised to find out seats were still available.
At breakfast the next morning I told my teenage children about my aspirations of becoming a certified beer judge. Their response was predominantly quizzical indifference, accented with a touch of please don’t tell that story when my friends are around. What kind of qualifications do you need to drink beer, my 19-year old son asked? I see people do that all the time at Ohio University and it doesn’t look that complicated to me. I tried to explain that judging beer was qualitatively different from doing a keg stand. My daughter wanted to know what extra benefits would come my way should I pass the exam. She went onto point out that when I finished the Columbus Ale Trail last year at least they gave me a deck of cards. I retorted that I was simply trying to become a better person, to reach my full potential so to speak. After she stopped laughing, she asked me if preparing for the exam would mean drinking more beer? Now that you mention it, yes it will. You know what they say, life is a journey not a destination.
The long and winding road
There are multiple steps to becoming a BJCP certified judge. The first step is to pass an online exam that tests your knowledge of beer, primarily the characteristic features of various styles of beer. The BJCP refers to this exam as the Entrance Exam. The 60-minute timed exam consists of 180 true/false and multiple choice questions (some questions with multiple correct answers). For the modest fee of $10 you can take the exam at your convenience. For those who want to hedge their bets you can pay $20 for three attempts. To pass the exam you must score higher than 80%, otherwise you have to pony up another $10 and try another day.
I decided to take the online exam last August to prepare for a podcast with Mike Byrne of Lineage Brewing. I opted for the 3 for $20 option, thinking that the first run through would be a good trial. I surprised myself when I passed on the first try despite the complete lack of studying. To be honest I’m a little vague on the questions, but a good knowledge of the characteristics and distinctions of beer styles is critical, and some homebrewing experience is very useful. Even though it’s an online exam, when you only have 20 seconds per question it’s impossible to look up the answers to more than a handful of questions. Having said that I would strongly recommend that you have the BJCP style guidelines handy while taking the exam. You can download the BJCP app and have it handy on your smart phone for the tricky questions. After all what how many people really know the answers to questions like “True or false, an English Best Bitter typically has a higher starting gravity than a Munich Helles?” I do recall an inordinate number of questions on German Lagers and British Ales, styles that tend to be overlooked by American craft brewers and drinkers alike. Of course, in the end it’s a multiple choice exam so on some questions you just narrow it down as best you can and then make your best guess. You can take a 20 question sample version of the online exam for free. It’s worth noting that if you don’t sit the tasting exam within one year of passing the online exam you have to start all over.
Passing the online exam is just the first step. It’s kind of like being a fraternity pledge, but cheaper. Here is what the BCJP has to say about your status once you pass the online exam:
Those that pass this exam are Provisional judges – this is not a BJCP rank, no BJCP ID is assigned, and those who pass are not yet BJCP members! Provisional status simply means that you have a valid certificate from the entrance exam and are permitted to sit for the judging exam.
Notice the exclamation point when they point out you are not yet qualified to judge beers.
The next step is to complete the tasting exam or to use the proper parlance, the Beer Judging Exam. It consists of judging six beers in a 90 minute time span and comparing your evaluations with those of qualified judges. You are graded on five criteria:
- Scoring accuracy: How close are your scores to those of the certified judges who also rate the same beers during the exam. You want to get within 7 points of the certified judges on as many of the six beers as possible (BJCP uses a 50 point scale).
- Perception: How well can you detect the key attributes of each beer. If there are off flavors are you able to detect them.
- Descriptive ability: Are you able to put your perceptions of the beers into words that others can understand.
- Feedback: If there are flaws in the beer what advice can you give the brewer to improve their beer next time around.
- Completeness: As best you can comment on all relevant aspects of the beer. In other words don’t leave a lot of blank space on the scoresheet.
Each of the five criteria is equally weighted (20 points each), and there are various levels of qualifications depending on your score.
- < 60% = Apprentice judge
- 60-70% = Recognized judge
- 70-80% = Certified judge*
- > 80% = National judge*
*To achieve the rank of certified judge you also need to gain five experience points from judging sanctioned events. To achieve the rank of National Judge you need to have 10 judging experience points and pass a 90 minute written exam, consisting of 20 true-false questions and five essay question.
99 Bottles of beer on the Wall
Drinking beer on a regular basis is not the same thing as possessing an intimate knowledge of the different styles of beer, so to start my exam preparations I downloaded the BJCP style guidelines and made a list of the different styles and substyles in a notebook. I was a little taken aback to realize that the BJCP recognizes 99 different substyles of beer, and that’s before you get to the specialty beers, things like coffee beers, pumpkin ales, cucumber beers, and beers made from quinoa fermented with organic yoghurt and yeast harvested from the skin of a kumquat.
Even though I’ve reviewed hundreds of beers as a blogger, and consumed orders of magnitude more beers than I’ve reviewed, there were still a few substyles that were new to me. What the hell is a German Leichbier and how is it different from the similar sounding Polish Lichtenhainer? It turns out the former is basically the German take on Coors Light (made with no adjuncts, because Reinheitsgebot), while the latter is a sour, smoked, low-gravity wheat beer. There’s an unfilled niche in the crowded Ohio craft beer scene if there ever was one. Then there are styles that are vaguely familiar, like Tropical Stout, Australian Sparkling Ale, Kentucky Common, and Piwo Grodziske. Maybe I read about them somewhere or possibly tried one or two at some point in my life, but I could no more explain the differences between a London Brown Ale (Category 27) and a British Brown Ale (Category 13b) than I could tell you the airspeed of an unladen European swallow.
Then you get into distinguishing between styles that on the surface seem pretty similar, like picking out the Czech Dark Lager (Category 3d) in a field of International Dark Lagers (Category 3c). It wasn’t until I started reading the style guidelines that the thought of purchasing a St. Pauli Girl Dark ever crossed my mind. While I’m at it, does anyone know where I can track down a bottle of Kout na Šumavě Koutský tmavý speciál 14°? If like me you feel that differentiating stouts and porters is a fool’s errand, imagine how it feels to be tasked with differentiating English Porters (Category 13c), American Porters (Category 20c), Baltic Porters (Category 9c), and Schwartzbiers (Category 8b).
Obviously, I’ve got my work cut out for me. I’ll report back toward the end of the month with my exam prep strategy (spoiler alert, it involves drinking beer). In the meantime if anyone has good advice for preparing please send it my way, and remember me in your prayers.