Friday, September 30, 2016

My path to becoming a BJCP beer judge


In my previous blog, I described the process one takes in order to become a BJCP certified judge. That was actually meant to be just a sidebar for this post, but it ballooned to over 1,000 words so I thought it should be its own separate entry. In this post, I want to tell you about my path to the BJCP. It’s a story eight years in the making, so let’s start at the beginning.
I uploaded this review on October 11th, 2008
I uploaded this review on October 11th, 2008

Origin Story….

I posted my first video beer review to YouTube in October of 2008 to only a handful of views, but I eventually grew to become one of the most popular “BeerTubers” by 2010. Of course, with all this attention came plenty of scrutiny. People wanted to know what my credentials were. Was I a BJCP or a Cicerone? Did I homebrew? Could I pick out common flaws and did I know what caused them? What was my standard for rating beers? I was taken aback by some harsh criticism from jerks that took beer way more seriously than I did and vehemently disagreed with my reviews.

I had never claimed to be an expert (and still don’t), and though I never stated it outright, it was pretty clear that my reviews were to my own personal taste. Of course, that’s what a “review” is – it’s inherently subjective, personal, hedonistic, and capricious. There’s no such thing as an “objective” review because objectivity is based in facts and is non-biased. A description is objective but a review is subjective. This is something certain viewers and readers can’t differentiate and I still get comments along these lines all these years later.

Snobs take it to another level and say there are correct and incorrect opinions. So that when Beer X by Brewery Y on Beer Website Z has an average rating of 99/100 that makes it a fact that that beer absolutely is World Class and anyone who disagrees is wrong. I always refer to these types of people as “The Beer Review Police” and made this video a few years ago to expose how asinine they are:



There’s no such thing as a correct or incorrect opinion; but some opinions carry more weight than others. That’s why certain people can make a living via punditry; they have the knowledge and experience to put their insight into context and make a convincing and/or entertaining argument. It’s also why I decided to start on the path to becoming a BJCP. I knew that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a beer critic I’d need some credentials to back it up. I’d also need to know a little about the actual science behind brewing (a.k.a. zymurgy), so in 2011 I began homebrewing.

My first batch turned out surprisingly well, so I decided to keep going. As soon as I ran out of bottles of one homebrew, I would make another. I also had viewers and readers send me their homebrew to review, which was fun and educational. In 2012 I joined the Albany Brew Crafters homebrew club and was even elected to an officer position. I also entered and judged my first homebrew competition that year. I thought it was quite fun, though surprisingly challenging.

Judging beer at a major BJCP sanctioned competition.
Judging beer at a major BJCP sanctioned competition.

Some of the other members of the homebrew club were BJCPs and I was always fascinated to hear their insight into homebrewing and zymurgy in general. If we judged a beer together they would tend to pick out little details I couldn’t find or didn’t know how to describe. I was envious of their abilities, so I kept pressing on by homebrewing regularly and reviewing beer on a near daily basis. I picked up plenty of books on commercial beer and homebrewing to study zymurgy. I judged homebrew competitions whenever I had the chance and entered many competitions (I even won a few).

Cut To: The Present…

You might be wondering why I’m just now becoming a BJCP judge. There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, other things in my life have taken always taken a higher priority. When I first started beer reviewing I was busy as a full-time college student and also worked part-time in the Navy Reserves. Of course things like relationships, friends and family, and my other hobbies have also occupied my time. But the biggest factor has always been my career. I’ve had a few different employers in recent years, and then in 2015 I moved from New York to Florida. It was impractical to schedule an exam when I didn’t know where I’d be living or what I’d be doing at exam time. And speaking of scheduling an exam…

BJCP exams are not exactly the easiest events to RSVP for. You can’t just go to a testing center and take it whenever you’re ready. Depending on where you live, the closest exam might be a few states away and might be happening in the distant future (check the exam schedule on their website to see what I mean). Each exam is limited to only a dozen registrants, which means you’ll probably end up on a waiting list. When I lived in Albany, I could never find an exam within a reasonable drive away that hadn’t already been booked up. I figured it’d be easier if my homebrew club just hosted our own exam, but when I contacted the BJCP to schedule it, I was told it would take upwards of two years for this to happen! Ironically, I had better luck finding a seat here in Florida than in New York. In fact, I’m amazed I was able to take the exam at all since I was #8 on the waiting list.

BJCP exam

Nine Months Of Preparation…

So I finally took the tasting exam last weekend at Aardwolf Brewing in Jacksonville. Though I had been cramming for it ever since I was offered the seat (less than a month out), I had been passively preparing for it since January of this year. That’s when I decided to ditch my approach of reviewing commercial beer to my own personal preferences and start reviewing everything to BJCP specs using BJCP scoresheets. My plan was to become as familiar with the guidelines as possible because I knew you couldn’t use them at the in-person tasting exam. Reading them almost every day, even just a few pages at time, was a good way to study.

I spent the last month cramming all these texts!
I spent the last month cramming all these texts!

The nice thing about reviewing beer with a BJCP scoresheet is that you don’t have to take a journalistic approach like you would with a normal blog. In fact, you don’t even have to write complete sentences; blunt descriptions are perfectly acceptable. That made the actual review-writing process quicker and easier. I have the guidelines in front of me; I see how well a beer compares to the description; and I score it as if I were judging a homebrew at a competition. But with this technique comes a few caveats:

iPhone 2016 125Firstly, judging beer to style guidelines means beers with otherwise bad reputations can actually garner a pretty high grade because they hit on every note for their style. A good example of this is PBR: a beer I personally think is only okay at best, but had to score remarkably high because it fits the style description so well. Conversely, I find myself scoring a few beers I personally enjoy rather low because they don’t fit their guidelines well (i.e. too simplistic; too boozy; poor head retention, etc.). Southern Tier’s Pumking is a good example of this. There are also beers that are marketed as one style, but are clearly another. So they in essence fail as the former, but succeed as the latter (Carton S.S. Cream Ale is a perfect example).

Secondly, commercial beer is higher in quality than homebrew. Most of what I review tends to score in the mid-30s to low 40s. Rarely does something rate above 45 or below 28. This is a bell curve effect for sure, but one that’s deviated from the center.

Thirdly, since I am only reviewing commercial beer, it’s quite rare I encounter brewing flaws like diacetyl, DMS, etc. I do come across plenty of handling flaws like oxidation, lightstrike and heat damage. Those faults are due mostly to wholesalers and retailers, yet I have to penalize the beer if I’m going to judge it the BJCP way. Identifying flaws is something every BJCP is expected to do since they are much more prevalent in homebrews. I will say that after eight years of tasting beer with a critical palate, I can and do recognize off flavors when I taste them; but my sensitivity is not as keen as some of the more seasoned judges I know.

What sucks is I won’t find out my score, and therefore my rank, for a few months at least. I’m hoping (and assuming) I scored at least an 80% on the exam, though I would settle for 70%. Either score would enable me to start out at the “Certified” rank, but this depends on how many credits I’ll receive for judging and stewarding BJCP events in the last few years. At the very least I’ll be a “Recognized” judge and eligible to take the written proficiency exam someday to move up to the “National” rank (the way BJCP’s promotion system works is rather convoluted – I wish they’d streamline it).

bjcp.org
bjcp.org

Where Do I Go From Here?

Something I’ve been pondering for the last week is what I should do about my beer reviews. I could go back to writing them the way I had been for years – in a journalistic fashion and grading beer to my personal preferences using the RateBeer.com rubric. Or, I could keep using the BJCP method since it’s quicker and easier, but also a bit futile since BJCP specs are meant to judge homebrew rather than commercial brew. I’m in a bit of a pickle, since I want to keep reviewing commercial beer, but I also want to hone my skills as a BJCP. Hmmm….

Ideally, the best way for me to become a better BJCP would be to judge homebrew on a regular basis. I should probably join a local homebrewing club and ask other members if they’ll give me bottles to practice on. But there’s still a key component missing – how do I know if I’m judging correctly? I’m sure I’m going to get feedback on my tasting exam, but that is unlikely to happen until sometime in 2017. And I do have the option to re-take the exam, but there’s probably a good year-long wait until that opportunity occurs. Getting feedback once every 18 months really wouldn’t be all that helpful. So I guess what I’m saying is I need a mentor – a veteran BJCP willing to critique my reviews and offer insight on how to improve as a BJCP judge (a beer critic critic).

So, what do you think, dear reader? Should I stick with writing beer reviews the BJCP way or back to a journalistic approach? Also, how do I know if I’m even reviewing beer to BJCP specs right in the first place? Let me know what you think.

The BJCP also has guidelines for mead and cider, but they're MUCH shorter than the beer guidelines!
The BJCP also has guidelines for mead and cider, but they’re MUCH shorter than the beer guidelines!

P.S.


I’m going to try to brew a mead and a cider next. I know little about these beverages, so it would be fun to delve into them. Now that I know what it takes to become a beer judge, I’m going to apply that knowledge to becoming a cider and mead judge (though that might be a few years down the road).