Serious Eats: Drinks
How to Become a Beer Judge
The last beer you tasted was a beautiful and complex 40+ point brew that's in the running for Best of Show, but now you've moved on to an infected gusher that smells of butyric acid (vomit!) and receives a "courtesy score" of 13. You're seated with several other judges on the panel, a steward brings you bottles when you're ready. For each, you pour yourself and the other judges a few ounces. You sniff, you taste, you sniff again, you record your impressions on the scoresheet. You provide the unknown brewer with feedback that includes advice for how to brew it better.
Why judge beer? Because you love beer, and the camaraderie among beer geeks. Judging (and the training involved to get there) is a great way to improve your beer tasting and brewing abilities. It's also a great way to volunteer and give something back to the homebrew community.
As the founder and President of the San Francisco Homebrewers Guild, I receive emails every week from folks asking me what they need to do to become a beer judge. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) literally can't keep up with the demand for testing wannabe judges—thanks to growing interest there aren't enough high level judges to grade all the exams!
Below, I outline a step by step approach that you can follow to become a beer competition judge and join in the fun.
1. Make beer and decide if BJCP is right for you
Presumably, you're already into homebrewing if you want to be a beer judge. Making beer is an important first step, after all, it's impossible to give a brewer technical feedback if you don't know how the flavors and aromas in beer get there.
If your motivation for training as a judge is to learn a ton about beer or burnish a beer focused resume, you'll find that the online study courses I mention below provide excellent training even if you don't go on to take the BJCP exam. And it might be that not taking the exam is the way to go.
These training courses will also help you prepare for the Certified Cicerone exam, which is the more appropriate test to prep for if you're focused on training for positions in the beer industry, whether that's selling beer at a bar, restaurant, bottle shop, or doing sales for a distributor or as a brewery rep. BJCP style training focuses on homebrew and on analyzing and describing aroma and flavor. The Certified Cicerone test is very difficult, but it isn't as intense in its testing of a person's ability to analyze flavor and aroma and doesn't require a deep knowledge of brewing technique. It covers a broader swath of beer knowledge that the BJCP doesn't, such as beer and food pairing, how to operate and clean different tap system types, what is the proper glassware and how to clean it, and how to properly pour.
Keep in mind that if you're just taking the test to get a line on your resume, it takes a limited testing opportunity from someone who would give back to the homebrew community.
Certified BJCP judge Gail Ann Williams points out that it's important to go into judging as a way to give back to the community: "I've talked to some smart beer geeks who are considering taking the BJCP exam as a challenge, or for bragging rights. It takes a lot to bring people into an all-volunteer program like the BJCP, so I am more encouraging when people are clearly motivated to give back to the homebrewing community." I couldn't agree more with that sentiment.
2. Steward some competitions
An early step you should take in becoming a beer judge is reaching out to local homebrew competition organizers to ask about stewarding upcoming homebrew competitions. Stewarding involves bringing the judges their beers, making sure scoresheets are complete, and checking scores. As a steward, you'll get a tableside view of what beer judging is all about. If you let the judges know you are interested in judging, they may pour some of the more interesting beers for you and talk to you about what you're tasting. By stewarding, you'll see whether you want to make the commitment to become a judge, plus you'll make important contacts in the local judging community. Finding out about stewarding opportunities is easy if you're an active member of your homebrew community—if you aren't, then it's time to join your local homebrew club!
3. Take a training course
The best courses are in-person classes with local BJCP Master Judges. These classes are occasionally organized by local homebrew clubs. If your local club doesn't organize such courses, request that they set one up and consider offering to help coordinate the classes as a way to get to know local homebrewers. Involvement with a local homebrew club is key for staying in the loop about upcoming judging and training opportunities.
Don't have an active homebrewing club near you? Don't despair, there are online training courses such as Better Beer Scores. For the online classes, you'll wear a headphone with a mic to interact with the teacher and class. I took an online course from Better Beer Scores in 2012. It was one night a week for three months and covered darn near everything you need to know for the BJCP exams (and most of the Certified Cicerone exam). Here's a list of other online beer courses.
If you put in the effort and study time, you'll learn a ton about beer in these courses. The teachers will take you through a variety of brewing techniques, ingredients, common off flavors, aroma and flavor descriptors for the BJCP's recognized beer styles, plus how to properly fill out a scoresheet. One of the coolest parts: you'll get to taste unfamiliar beers and discuss them with experienced judges—there's no substitute for this method of learning about beer. Lee Shepherd, a Master BJCP judge, says that "everyone can learn to identify flavors and aromas and to associate names with them, it just takes practice to actually do it. It is helpful to have someone who already knows what those flavors and aromas are named, and what they are, to help you build that vocabulary."
4. Take the entrance exam and sign up for the tasting exam
The BJCP testing process has two parts. When you pass the initial online BJCP entrance exam, you'll become a "provisional judge" and will have one year to take the in-person tasting exam in order to become a true BJCP ranked judge. You can see the schedule for upcoming tests on the BJCP website. Tests tend to be booked for up to a year in advance, so the sooner you pass the online test and sign up for the in-person exam, the better.
Once you've passed the online entrance exam, local competitions will happily have you as a judge. Actually sitting across from an experienced judge and judging in a competition is one of the best ways to prepare for the in-person BJCP tasting exam—do it!
5. Go forth and judge while you wait to take the BJCP tasting exam
Bummed to hear that there's a year-long wait to take the BJCP tasting test? Here's a hint. Pass the online BJCP test as soon as possible and reach out to the folks who run the tests in your area (their email addresses are here).
Let them know you passed the online test and are ready for the in-person tasting exam and ask them to notify you if someone drops out of an upcoming test. Then, stay active on the judging scene by stewarding and judging whenever you can. You'll end up running into those test organizers at competitions—remind them who you are and that you need a testing slot. It's entirely possible that you'll end up getting a test far earlier that you may have otherwise. Plus, when you get that email that says, "someone dropped out of a test that's in four days, are you in?," you'll be able to respond with a resounding, "Hell yes," because you've been actively judging and honing your skills.
6. Crush the exam, be a great judge
Once you've passed the exam, you can really benefit the homebrewing community by volunteering your time as a judge. It may sound silly to the uninitiated, but beer judging is serious business. Homebrewers spend lots of time, energy, and money making the beers they submit to competitions. They deserve to receive great detailed feedback in return. Honing your skills through the steps above will help you give brewers useful technical suggestions to help them improve their brewing.
Have any additional questions about becoming a BJCP judge? Email me or leave a question in the comments.
About the Author: Chris Cohen is a Certified Cicerone, beer consultant, and is founder and President of the San Francisco Homebrewers Guild. He recently left his gig as an attorney to work toward opening SF's next great beer bar.