How To Judge Beer
Sniff, stare, sip, swish, savor, swallow. Simple.
Throughout the United States—indeed, throughout the world—homebrewers have been holding competitions for over 20 years. Of course, in order to have a winner, someone has to judge the beer. An organization formed in 1985 by the Home Wine and Beer Trade Association and the American Homebrewers Association trains and certifies homebrew judges. This group, now an independent nonprofit organization, is called the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), and it has over 2,500 members throughout the United States, Canada and many other countries.
To become a beer judge with the BJCP, an individual must study for and pass a written test comprising 10 essay questions that cover the history of beer, the many styles of beer, the chemistry of beer, and the techniques for brewing beer, as well as a practical tasting and evaluation of four different homebrewed beers using the official BJCP score sheet. The test takes three hours to complete.
According to BJCP guidelines, the task of judging beer falls into five distinct categories of evaluation in a 50-point scoring system. Here’s how you can judge a homebrew following this system.
Bouquet/Aroma (10 points): Immediately after the beer has been poured, take a sniff while the sniffing’s good. In less time than you think, the volatile esters that make up the beer’s aroma will be gone. What you’re looking for are the dominant aromas of the beer. Is it sweet, sour, roasty, earthy, herbal, flowery, citric or any one of a number of other aromas? A strong malt presence will be sweet. Sourness and tartness often, but not always, are a result of an infected beer. Roasty aromas derive from roasted grains, such as the highly roasted, unmalted barley used in an Irish stout. Different varieties of hops impart earthy, herbal, flowery and citric aromas. Ales are often fruity. German wheat beers and many Belgian ales are yeasty and spicy.
Appearance (6 points): Is the beer clear? Most beers are filtered and should be clear. Or is the beer cloudy? Unfiltered wheat beers are supposed to be poured so that the yeast on the bottom of the bottle is roused and poured into the glass. What color is the beer? Each beer style has its own color parameters: golden for pilsners, amber for most pale ales, orangey-reddish-amber for Oktoberfests, black or near-black for stouts. Does the beer have a nice foamy head and good head retention, or is the head weak and anemic? Does beautiful lace cling to the sides of the glass or does the beer wash down the inside of the glass like dishwater?
Flavor (19 points): Here you’re looking for a number of characteristics, many of them similar in definition to the bouquet/aroma characteristics. Is the main flavor one of malt (sweet or roasty) or hops (earthy, herbal, flowery, citric)? Does an added fruit take over the flavor? Is the beer tart or sour? Wheat beers are often pleasantly tart. Many Belgian beers are tart or yeasty or spicy or something totally different. How does the flavor change from the first impression into the middle and to the finish? Is the finish a slam-bam “That’s all folks!” or does it linger with a particular taste?
How do all these flavors play off each other? In beer-judge talk, that’s called “balance.” Is the balance good, or does one flavor drown out all the others in a nasty show of brute strength? How well is the beer “conditioned,” by which beer judges mean the age of the beer and how the flavors have all come together? Is the level of carbon dioxide pleasant or overpowering?
Body (5 points): What’s the mouthfeel of the beer? Is it thin and watery (like a standard American lager) or full and chewy (like an Imperial stout)? Does the beer sparkle or is it flat and dull looking?
Drinkability & Overall Impression (10 points): Finally, beer judges make comments about how they perceive the beer as a whole, adding kudos where appropriate and constructive criticisms when necessary: “This is a great example of an American pale ale, full of malt body and lots of fresh, lovely Cascade hops aroma and flavor.” “This was entered as an Irish stout, but there’s almost no roasty malt aroma or taste, and the color is brown, not black.”
One thing must be clear from the above examples. In order to judge beer, you have to know beer. Beer styles. The BJCP lists 26 main categories of beer styles with many more subcategories. Study these by buying and tasting as many commercial examples as possible and you’re on your way to becoming a knowledgeable beer judge.
The BJCP website (www.bjcp.org) will be a great help in learning the definitions and characteristics of all the beer styles you’re ever likely to encounter. Have fun studying.