Beginning the BJCP
Every now and then, I'll offer training sessions in order to prepare brewers to take the BJCP exam. The first few steps are fairly straightforward and can be covered in this post. Before we begin though, lets go over what the BJCP is and, more importantly, isn't.
The BJCP is an entirely vounteer run organisation. That alone cuts them a lot of slack. The goal of the organisation is to train judges to evaluate and give feedback to amateur beer competitions. This means you're qualified to judge and give feedback on homebrewed beer. However, because the BJCP, and its sister training program, the Cicerone, are the only programs that exist for the general public to learn about common faults in beer, BJCP judges are sought out more and more to judge professionally brewed beer as well. Competitions such as the Alberta Beer Awards which use almost exclusively BJCP trained judges are much more well regarded than, say, the local morning radio show. As a BJCP-trained judge, your opinion becomes much more valuable than some random drinker who rates Pilsners as one star on Untappd because they "only like IPAs".
The BJCP groups beers into styles in order to make judging them easier. For example, a hefeweizen will be hazy and have clove phenols and banana esters - all faults if they exist in a Pilsner. It also gives the amateur brewer something to aim for and arguably, improves their skills as brewers. This has led to the criticism that the BJCP is too focused on styles - especially since their judges are sought out to evaluate commercial beer. Some feel that this restricts brewer freedom to experiment and move outside those style guidelines, which results in comments such as "the beer is what the brewer says it is". Depending on how far outside those guidelines you go, however, you may feel at some point that it becomes false advertising or simply, poorly brewed beer. These are not arguments you generally want to get into with brewers.
The other criticism of the BJCP is that more and more homebrewers are brewing professional quality beer. This becomes an issue when a brewer receives feedback that doesn't help solve his/her problem. For example, a judge can taste plastic and immediately conclude that the issue is chlorophenols. They give the seemingly helpful feedback that the brewer needs to dechlorinate the water and/or better rinse chlorine based sanitisers. However, a plastic off-flavour can have a multitude of causes, from styrenes - a yeast byproduct common in English and wheat strains, to oxidation. The BJCP trains judges to give easy answers to much more complex problems.
So here's what the BJCP training program will do for you; train you to recognise common beer flaws and the most likely way to correct them. Although it will help hone your palate to detect flaws in professionally brewed beer, it will not train you to correct them. The causes are likely much more complex and you will most likely need to do much more research, experimentation and probably take courses.
So without further ado, let's begin.
Step 1: The online exam
The online exam, which can be taken here, covers BJCP ethics, beer styles, beer history and basic faults. There are 180 questions that have to be answered in 1 hour. For those who aren't great with math, that's about 30 seconds per question.
If you know your stuff, the exam isn't difficult. You aren't expected to know the exact details of every style, but things like basic abv range, carbonation levels, differences between similar styles and the basic causes of faults. There's a list of recommended material on the BJCP Study Guide (one of which is the web page itself), including several books. These are fantastic resources, but as for their relevance to the exam, I would stick with the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines. Reading Principles of Brewing Science, by George Fix is awesome, but it won't add any new information to help you pass the online exam that isn't already covered in the Style Guidelines.
20 out of 180 questions have to do with BJCP exam format and judge ethics. Things like using mechanical pencils, not talking and the role of the head judge, for example. They're True/False, which means you can quickly and easily rattle these off, gaining yourself some time for the more challenging questions.
I recommend taking and passing this exam as quickly as possible so that you are ready to take the tasting exam. You have one year between when you pass the online exam and when you need to take the tasting exam. Currently, the tasting exam is scheduled for July 2020.
Step 2: The tasting exam
We'll go over the specifics of how to taste and evaluate beers in person, but it's important to know the format and how you'll be graded. You will receive 6 beers, some doctored, some not, each one 10 minutes apart. This effectively means that you have 10 minutes to judge each beer, which can seem fairly daunting, but we'll practice this together. In another room will be two National ranked judges. They will receive the same beers on the same schedule. Your judging sheets will be compared to theirs.
Some instructors advise that you bring your own glassware in order to enhance the perception of volatile aromatics. I strongly advise the opposite. Because your judging sheets will be compared to the National ranked judges, you want to be using the same glasses they are. In addition, I've seen cases where a dish detergent left an unknown residue on the inside of the candidate's glass and it greatly skewed their perception.
The greatest percentage of your marks are awarded for completeness. If you describe the beer, offer appropriate feedback, fill all the lines and check all the appropriate boxes, you'll walk away with at least 40%. To score higher, you want to use the quantity+quality combination of adjectives + what you're tasting for every aspect of a given category.
For example, under the Aroma section, it will helpfully tell you that you need to comment on the malt, hops, esters and other aromatics. You have four lines to do so and must write at least 7 words per line to get full points. If you detect some maltiness, you can write:
You won't get many points for that, however. We need to indicate how much malty aroma, or the quantity.
prominent malty aroma.
You'll get a few points for that, but you can do better. What kind of malty aroma are we getting?
prominent bready malt aroma.
Excellent. Lastly, we want to add whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Is this too high? Too low? Just right? Add more adjectives for even more points.
Pleasant prominent bready malt aroma. Perfect for a helles.
This is where practice comes in. Print yourself off a bunch of scoresheets and evaluate as many beers as you can in preparation. Don't worry too much if you can't detect everything just yet. Practice filling out those sheets until you can do it in fewer than 10 minutes. We'll talk more about developing your palate in person.
For questions or help studying for the online exam, feel free to contact me or any of the already certified BJCP judges at the meetings. Our goal is to help everyone pass and we'll be happy to help you prepare.