This spring I took the BJCP tasting exam to get certified as a judge. To sit for the exam, a limited opportunity, I attended a class over a couple of months where we went over styles and tastings and other things to ultimately help us pass. Whether or not I pursue judging as a regular hobby, I learned a lot from the process.
The class was a drinking-fest. We met at a bar and worked our way through the BJCP style guidelines talking about each style and trying to have an example of that style to taste. This particular class in NJ was full of homebrewers so there was some homebrew tasting as well. This is particularly useful since the whole point is to judge homebrew that may or may not be within the style guidelines it claims to be. Still, it led us down a lot of tangents as we discussed brewing techniques and fermentation.
The off-flavor kit helped understand mistakes better. We worked through a bunch of them -- adding a vial to a pitcher of Miller Lite. Picking up the flavor or aroma in the tame macro lager is a lot different than trying to detect it in a more complex ale, but at least it got us familiar with the off flavors, and the reasons for them.
What I found most interesting was my new appreciation for beer styles I’d previously dismissed. When you’re focused on the components and the level of hoppiness and the flavors you’re getting from the malts, it’s easier to understand the nature of the beer, the brewer’s intent, and how they all play together.
Stone’s Arrogant Bastard, an American strong ale, stood out for me. Well actually it’s just Arrogant Bastard know, since Stone has spun it off into its own company, but same idea. The recent adjustment of the style guidelines in 2015 pretty much used Arrogant Bastard as a textbook example, and if you check out the leaderboards there really aren’t a ton of them labeled this way. It’s a good beer -- a wonderful interplay of some darker malts and grain character but with plenty of hop bite to it. I actually went out and bought a six pack of Red IPA cans shortly after the class.
We discussed how to phrase your evaulations for the exam, and plenty of focus on making sure you discuss each of the key points of the five categories: Aroma, Appearance, Taste, Mouthfeel and Overall. The rest is just practice.
Verbally discussing what you taste in a beer with a group helps you identify tastes and understand what’s in the glass. This doesn’t need to be an official class though, you can do this with anyone, even non-tasters. You might be surprised how often just someone asking ‘Is that grapefruit I taste?’ makes you taste the grapefruit you might otherwise have missed.
What is important is being able to attribute an actual taste to a descriptor. People who don’t routinely discuss taste may scoff when people describe beverages with words like ‘shoe-leather’ or ‘horse-blanket’, but it’s a useful commonly agreed upon word for a flavor that everyone may taste a little differently. Drinking and enjoying beer can be extremely subjective, and you may not call a beer with diacetyl buttery the same way someone else does, but once you recognize the flavor you can both correctly identify the flaw in the beer even though your tastes vary.
The tasting exam itself was an interesting experience. The class helps you prepare, and as long as you hit all the requirements you limit the damage you might do by completely missing on one of the six beers. In each of the categories (aroma, appearance, taste, feel and overall), you need to mention certain things, like balance, or hop character. If you hit them all, and are verbose, there is only so bad you can do.
So going in I knew with a not-horrible palate and the focus to hit all the marks in each section that I shouldn’t be that worried, but it ended up being tougher than I thought. For one, it’s probably been 13 years since I took a written exam and this one probably caused me to write, by hand, more than I had in those 13 years combined. The writing combined with the lack of practice with pacing led to still having some to write on the first beer as the second came out, and still some to write on the second as the third came out. As I spent time really smelling and tasting the beers and trying to put them into words, I was falling behind.
These were the beers on the exam:
- A Czech Premium Pale mixed with a German Pilsner
- Dark Mild
- Saison that was sour
- Belgian Strong Dark
- Founders All-Day IPA
The first was submitted as a Czech Premium Pale. We didn’t know it’d been blended and that is a somewhat subtler change. I described what I could and was trying to tie it together when the Dark Mild came out, and hadn’t caught up by the time the Saison showed up either.
That’s where I resolved to just go with my gut, not overthink it, and play catchup. It’s a fairly wide category and I took that to mean I didn’t have to think too hard about how well it fit. I noted a bunch of tart fruit notes and some other sour-adjacent type descriptions, but totally missed the sour. I knew it was flawed, but I missed the forest for the trees. I figure this is what will make or break my exam.
I wasn’t spot on on the other categories either, but was close enough that I don’t think I’ll lose significant points. I described a session for the last beer without ever saying session or recognizing it as such.
The time really killed me. The lesson I learned here is to smell it, taste it, and then sit back and ask myself ‘What is this?’ and go from there. I was trying to reconstruct the beer from the pieces and often missed the complete picture.
It was an interesting experience though, and a fun one. I am actually going to judge a contest later this month, as a provisional judge, since I won’t have my results for another couple of months. I learned a lot about how I, and how others, taste and approach beer, and that’s a useful tool for writing about beer.
Michael can be found on Twitter and Untappd and wants his test results back already. You can also email him at email@example.com.