The BJCP is a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering, educating and improving the homebrewing hobby. The organization is best known for its style guidelines which state how a beer of a particular style should smell, look, taste and feel based on traits found in top commercial examples of the style. These guidelines are intended to be a rubric for competitions so that judges all have a common reference from which to award points rather than going by their own personal/subjective/hedonistic preferences.
The BJCP is also concerned with teaching the basics of zymurgy – the actual science of brewing chemistry and biology. You don’t have to know the intricate minutia that a professional brewer would, but they expect you to have a good understanding of all the variables that go into making beer. For example, we all know beer is made from malted barley, but do you know what exactly malting is and what it does for brewing? Do you know the difference between well-modified and unmodified malts and at what temperatures they must be mashed to be utilized properly? Do you know the different types of mashes and which are ideal for which styles? Do you know how yeast actually turns wort into beer? Do you know what causes faults like dimethyl sulfide, diacetyl, and acetaldehyde (among others)? You’ll need to know these things if you want to become a BJCP.
In order to “join the club,” you have to pass two exams. The first is a 180-question online exam which concentrates heavily on the BJCP style guidelines and Zymurgy 101, with BJCP judging protocols and competition rules making up a minority of the questions. Though it’s technically an open-book exam, it averages out to only 20 seconds per question – hardly enough time to look up every answer (if you have to research all 180 questions then you’re not ready to become a BJCP, anyway). The questions are written a bit abstractly; you can’t simply Google them and find the answer as worded on the test. In fact, I’d say many of the questions are rather vague and use subjective terms which don’t have clear-cut answers. There is technically a syllabus from which the questions are supposed to be drawn, but I’ve found word-for-word questions and/or answers taken from third party sources as well as obsolete BJCP materials (the 2008 guidelines, for example).
All complaints aside, I will say the online exam definitely does separate the laymen from the more advanced beer enthusiasts. It’s also an excellent way for anyone to gauge their beer knowledge even if they have no interest in homebrewing or judging competitions. You’re told as soon as you finish the test whether you passed or failed. You don’t get a grade, though it will tell you which areas you missed a question on and you might be able to approximate your percentage based on this.
The second test is an in-person judging exam of six different beers. It’s essentially the same process as judging a competition; the major difference is you have to do this without the style guidelines and you’re not allowed to converse with anyone. This isn’t so much to test your intimate knowledge of every style, but rather to gauge your ability to judge beer objectively. You need to be able to document exactly what you smell, see, taste and feel – not whether you like it or not. Then, you need to be able to assess if these features are appropriate for that style. Of course, some of the beers may be doctored in such a way so that they have a flaw (either through off-flavor kits or, as was the case at my exam, blending them with other beers). You’ll have to be able to detect common flaws like DMS, diacetyl and acetaldehyde. These chemicals are acceptable in small amounts in certain styles, but you’d better know which styles so you don’t unfairly penalize a beer.
The way the tasting exam is graded is a bit tricky. There are three upper-echelon BJCPs who judge the same beers at the same time in the same room as the test-takers. They are expected to know how to rate the beer accurately, so examinees are graded relative to how close they are to the established judges’ scores and remarks.
What stinks is that your test isn’t graded there and then – it’s sent back to BJCP headquarters to be graded by another BJCP. From what I understand, it can take anywhere from three months to a year to receive your score back! In the meantime, you’re officially a member of the BJCP and you can judge BJCP competitions as a “rank pending” judge and receive points (you advance in rank based on earning “points” which are garnered mostly by judging and stewarding competitions).
If you’re enthusiastic about craft beer and/or homebrewing, I highly recommend pursuing a BJCP certification. You’ll be amazed how much there is to learn about beer beyond what it tastes like and which breweries and styles are “in” at the moment. When you learn to appreciate the science behind brewing, the work involved in perfecting recipes, and the chemical and biological reactions happening at a microscopic level – you’ll appreciate beer even more. The craft beer world needs more educated drinkers and less fanboys.