Primed with coffee early one Saturday morning, Mick and I gathered with the other prospective beer judges, literally waiting for beer o’clock. Just one short morning of beer and the judging exam would be over, but the whole process of becoming a beer judge took much longer than that.
Becoming a recognised BJCP beer judge
With some unexpected time at home in 2020, we wanted to skill up. What we decided was to both sit the BJCP practical beer-judging exam in roughly eight months’ time. Founded in 1985, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) is a worldwide certifying organisation for judges of beer (and related fermented products such as cider and mead). In order to be ready, we needed to learn an awful lot about beer beyond our expertise in home brewing.
One thing we already knew – home brewing takes up a lot of space
We started by finding out that there are 26 main styles of beer. Each of these styles has sub-categories. For example, the first style, “1. Standard American Beer”, is divided into 1A – American Light Lager, 1B – American Lager, 1C – Cream Ale and 1D – American Wheat Beer, and they are distinguishable from each other in ways you should know if you are to be a judge.
You need to know what defines each sub-style of beer – the main characteristics such as colour, alcohol and bitterness contents, levels (and descriptors) of flavour and aroma, but also more subtle characteristics such as clarity, carbonation and mouthfeel.
There is a large list of “off-flavours” you also must recognise. Some are acceptable in some styles such as diacetyl (which is a fake butter flavour) in English style beers or Czech lagers (because, well, “history”). If it’s not acceptable within the style, you need to be able to give advice to the brewer on how to reduce this off-flavour in their next brew. This is really hard to get right (ask a brewer when was the last time they gratefully took advice from a beer judge).
To study to be a beer judge, you must learn a tonne of facts, be able to recognise a bunch of subtle flavours and become knowledgeable about the many different brewing processes and techniques – all whilst getting quite smashed. It’s not easy, but it’s also a lot more fun than being at school.
The entrance exam
There are two exams you need to take in order to become a certified beer judge. If you believe that years of experience drinking beer will be sufficient, I encourage you to sign up right now for the first, the BJCP Beer Judge Entrance Exam. This 180-question exam must be completed in 60 minutes.
The questions range from the reasonable...
Diacetyl is acceptable in Czech dark lager but never in an oatmeal stout. (T/F)
... to five-in-one questions like this:
Check all that apply. Which of the following are true regarding German Pils and Kölsch?
- In appearance, both may be light gold and very clear
- Hop flavour can be moderately high and exhibit a floral, spicy or herbal hop character
- Both can trace their heritage to Czech Pilsner
- ABV may range between 4.4–5.2%
- A very low background note of DMS is acceptable
This is an open-book exam, but you need to be FAST. Our strategy was to blast through the questions and first answer the ones we definitely knew. Then we did a second pass on those we thought we knew and so on, until we ran out of time.
The exam costs US$10 to take, and if you are really confident, you won’t need to sign up for the three-for-two offer that is three tries for US$20. You can take a practice exam on the Beer Syndicate Blog and also use their Beer Style Compare-O-Matic tool for the exam.
The practical exam
After passing the entrance exam, you are eligible to sit the practical, which is held only once or twice a year in Hong Kong (spaces are limited). You will be given 15 minutes for each beer (90 minutes in total), and you will need to fully complete a scorecard for each entry. Our practical exam was held at the incredible – and sorely missed – Second Draft in Tai Hang in mid-2021 (psst... we did hear it has a new home in Causeway Bay).
In Hong Kong, we have only two national-level beer judges – Belle Leung and Chris Wong – so they are both required to be the proctors at every exam. National-level judges have scored very high on the practical exam, have judging experience and have also passed a more intense, third exam that looks very, very hard.
Our goal was simple: to get as close as possible to the two exam proctors both in score and description of the beers! The preparatory sub-goal was to try to drink a lot of beer with them in the months prior to the exam and recognise what they recognise, at the same levels as them. Note that it is possible, though unlikely, that the proctors are both outliers in their judgement, and this will become evident if a percentage of the exam participants agree on the differing points of view.
Signing up for the HK Brewcraft BJCP certification program prior to this exam is incredibly useful in two ways. First, HK Brewcraft takes care of the road map of your beer-learning journey, from the initial delivery of a large variety box of beers that you will drink together (over Zoom, mostly) to the fat binder of study materials to read.
Arguably more importantly was the opportunity to attend tasting sessions with Belle and Chris. It's not cheating, but it is definitely a significant advantage.
The beers on the exam
The beers we were tested on were:
- 4A Munich Helles
- 18B American Pale Ale
- 21A American IPA
- 11C Strong Bitter
- 23D Lambic
- 20C Imperial Stout
There were various faults planned (as we found out later), like butyric acid and trans-2-nonenal being added to the strong bitter, the stout being a porter (but it had to be judged as a stout) and the pale ale being a curious blend of two home brews.
No one expected a lambic (in which we were actually served a gueuze). We do love this style of beer, but lambics are a bit unique for use in an exam, so we certainly didn’t study them. At the time, we didn’t recall that the difference between them is that a gueuze is highly carbonated and a lambic isn’t. We know now though!
Unlike wine, you need to swallow at least some of the time when judging beer in order to determine the mouthfeel. We didn’t drink all the beer they served us (except for number #5 – we finished that one), but we were quietly buzzed by the end of the exam. We had a noodle lunch at Chin Jor Fan Tong next door after the exam, where we ordered a couple of DEADMAN Hop Robbers too, as you do.
The exams were sent to the USA to be assessed, and six months later, we were notified we had both passed, with Mick having scored very high in some beers and I in others.
We need to accumulate judging points if we are to think about sitting the national-level exam. The Hong Kong Homebrewers Association holds an annual competition, and even if you’re not a judge, you can volunteer to help – and earn the right to try the leftover entries after the competition. Worth it!
When travel is back on the cards, we’re going to visit breweries by the dozen, starting with Wildflower in Sydney (we will move to Sydney later this year, so Australian breweries will probably feature prominently in our lives).
What we learned
The two main outcomes of studying for this qualification are:
- The recall of beer knowledge, historical and practical
- The gradual, focused training of the palate in order to recognise flavours and aromas
Combining the two, we can deduce what a beer is like and how it came to be that way. For example, if we sense a beer is tropical or citrus in aroma, the source is probably from the late addition of hops. If it smells like banana or pear, the aroma likely comes from a yeast by-product or if it smells of green apple, we can likely detect a compound called acetaldehyde, which is from incomplete fermentation.
But there was a great deal of secondary knowledge we picked up too.
- Craft beer is so, so variable.
Craft beer is not made in macro, large-scale factories with proprietary farms and a stable ingredient line. It can be spectacular and it can be off. Now we’re usually able to identify the issue in an off beer, but we can also better appreciate the unique gift that is a stellar craft beer.
Buying tip: high-alcohol beers, dark beers and sours are usually safe to purchase at a supermarket, whereas you probably should get hoppy beers such as IPAs and pale ales as fresh as possible, with good cold-chain logistics. If you buy from those who are passionate about beer, they usually care a great deal about how it gets to you.
- Brewers are patient, down-to-earth people.
From our first visit to Yardley Brothers when we didn’t even know what a sour beer was (but founder Luke Yardley did not laugh at us) up until now, we’ve never met a brewer who scoffed at a stupid question (and we’ve asked a few). We’ve never met a HK brewer you could call a beer snob.
- Sometimes feedback from beer judges just fills the scorecard.
Many judges have never brewed in a production brewery and are doing their best to recommend practical brewing advice that makes sense because they are required to. They are aware that professional brewers “review sanitation procedures” quite often, but what else can a judge recommend for a likely infection? It’s lucky the brewers are patient (see point above).
Mick developed the recipe for Ronin’s Hazy with Aki (of SMASH Beers) over many months, and they discovered that the excessive astringency problem that appeared early on had nothing to do with any of the advice we would have given as judges.
- We really love wild ales.
These are beers that are usually fermented with a yeast (from the kingdom of funghi) called Brettanomyces (Brett for short), which is known for ruining wine. Our favourite wild ales are usually barrel-aged and blended to create something mellow, complex and wonderful.
- But lager is also a wonderful thing.
Enjoy a lager when your taste buds are tired and you want a crisp, clean, refreshing beer that you don’t need to think about. H.K. Lovecraft fills the gap if you want a lager with fresh and elegant German hops.
- There’s a whole world of beer-pairing possibilities out there.
The variety and levels of flavour in beer can be paired with food in so many innovative ways. We often see beer ingredients in food, but what we really love to see is creativity. There was the fabulous Blue Supreme beer-pairing dinner that saw a puckering Yardley Brothers Passionfruit Sour contrast and cut through a rich, creamy garam masala chicken liver pâté. And The Madhouse Taproom MK pairing of a stout with a century egg that put acid with alkaline and did crazy things to the taste buds.
We want more inventive ways to compare, contrast and complement great food with great beer.
Have we ruined our simple palate?
Prior to becoming <ahem> recognised beer judges, we quite liked Coopers Pale Ale. And Crown Lager and Asahi. And cold Coronas with a wedge of lime in the neck. We didn’t really know what we liked about them, but when we were drinking them, they seemed to be just right.
You might try a craft beer and there might be a flavour you don’t like. You wouldn’t know if it’s a mistake (an “off- flavour”) or something typical to the style (such as a salted sour beer or a funky wild ale). Now we know that stuff, so that’s good.
But have we ruined our simple tastes? Would we have been better off sticking to a case or two of Asahi during lockdown? It certainly would have been cheaper!
So much of what we all enjoy is more than just the taste. Mick and I still love sharing a big bottle of Tsingtao after a hike. This is not a time to critique beer but, instead, to appreciate how icy cold it is and whether there’s a hole in our glass. And a stash of everyday, economical lagers in the fridge does the job well.
But yes – one of our passions now is to spend too much money on great beers and enjoy them with friends. No regrets.