Judge for yourself

Fifteen years ago I did first year law at university. It was more out of curiosity than any childhood dream to be a suit. To be honest I do not remember much of the content of the course besides an argument for precedence in the legalisation of marijuana for religious reasons.  I am not sure why that case study stuck in my memory.  I do remember getting a good grasp of law and how it works through endless filing and retrieving of case law, setting out arguments based on precedent and understanding that the law is essentially a guideline, robust as it is, that can be manipulated.

Well I never continued law and have never worked in a suit but I also never became a Rastafarian, so I feel I found some middle ground.  If you had told me all those years ago I would become a judge, I probably would have laughed in your face and bought another R5 beer at the student bar.  Well lo and behold, I did become a judge.  Just not the one you are thinking.

After three years of on-and-off studying, I have finally become a beer judge through the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). It’s a non-profit organization that encourages the advancement of education of people who are concerned with the evaluation of beer. The BJCP certifies and ranks beer judges through an exam and monitoring process. It’s an internationally recognised program that allows those that pass to drink beer and have a credible opinion. Yeah that’s pretty flippant but not totally wrong.

So what’s the point?  Why get ordained with a credible opinion?  So you can be a smart arse?  Some might, but it’s much more than that.  Judges of law are in their positions to look at cases on their merits and base decisions on case law and then apply judgement on a case by case basis.  They are not smart arses but rather guardians of law who are always looking to improve it.  Much the same for a beer judge.  BJCP was created so that people with credible opinions and trained senses could help home-brewers improve and make better beer. Beer Judges are guardians of beer and are vital to improving the category.  BJCP is now applied to commercial competitions and is thriving in the USA, the hot bed of the beer revolution.

There are currently 5,846 active judges in the program worldwide, with 805 holding the rank of National or higher.  America with the vast majority of 4806 and South Africa growing steadily with 66 judges. To put it in perspective, SA has the fifth most judges in the world which is a healthy position to be in considering we only really 5 years into our revolution. This is largely due to the program been facilitated and encouraged by home-brewing associations South Yeasters (CT), Worthogs (JHB) and training and sensory programs provided by The Brewster’s Craft.

So how do you become a judge?  It’s little harder than I thought and took a lot of application.  It’s not binge drinking, which I perfected while studying case law at uni.  Rather it’s learning a new language while retraining how you understand your senses.  You have to prove you have an organised filing system of perception.  Then you have to articulate this in language that will aid brewers to make improved beer.  You do this through an online exam based on technical brewing processes and beer styles based on the BJCP Style Guide * which has 34 beer categories with over 100 styles of beer, all with 9 subsections, including perception categories of aroma, appearance, flavour and mouthfeel.  It’s a paid for test and you have 60 min to answer 200 multiple-choice questions.  It was probably the most intense test I have ever done and I wasted my money the first time I attempted it.  It’s open book but they push you for time so searching for answers in your guidelines will not get you through.  I was blown out of the water by the technicality of the test especially in the brewing process section.  I suppose that’s the point.  They want you to file that knowledge in your beer brain so you can use it for the betterment of beer.

Once you pass that rigor you then have to book in for the Tasting Exam.  You have to smell, taste and analyse six different beers chosen by a BJCP registered test administrator.  They present the beer as certain style and you have to judge them according to style as you would in competition. This is where it all gets very real.  Now you have to rely on your senses’ ability to retrieve aroma, taste, appearance and mouthfeel files that you have carefully packed away.  Then you translate this perception into beer language.  You score the beers and leave comments and observations.  You then get scored on your perception and your ability to articulate these perceptions.  You are then graded depending on how accurate you are in your ability to pick up subtle nuances and potential faults and then subsequent trouble shooting and feedback you would provide the brewer.  The case law exists in the BJCP Style Guidelines and you must use that as precedent to evaluate a beer by using your senses and ability to recognise and articulate application of the law.  Being an expert in identifying aromas and flavours of biscuit, caramel, chocolate, citrus, pine, butterscotch, baby puke and nail polish are just examples of the range of files you need to identify.

Depending on factors such as perceptive accuracy, descriptive ability, feedback, completeness scoring accuracy, you are then evaluated against two Proctor judges who sit the exam with you but with open books. The exam is then sent to the States where it goes through further extensive evaluation. You are then scored and ranked.  After you receive your rank of either Apprentice (50% or less) or Recognised (60% and above) you need to then start to accumulate Experience Points (EP) through helping organise or judging at sanctioned competitions. Once you accumulate enough EP you can rise to the rank of Certified.  Depending on your original exam result (80% or above) you can then accumulate more EP and climb to rank of National Judge which only 10% or all judges achieve.

I knew after taking the tasting exam that I had been able to recall most files and had articulated myself well in my new-found beer language. I was confident however it was going to be a long wait for the results, due to the overwhelming amount of this kind of test being written around the world and the small amount of BCJP members that evaluate the test.  It took almost 6 months to get the results.  By then, to be honest, I was not very confident anymore as it had been such a long time. The result was what I had hoped for but did not expect.  I scored a national judge rank score of 81. I was marked down heavily to appentice level for one beer. My favourite of the test. It was a saison and one that I was very familiar with. It’s no secret that it’s one of my favourite styles beers. I got it right after a chlorophenolic ( medincinal) tainted beer so the Sasion tasted world class. I marked it us such but failed to  realise that my senses can be influenced by personal preference and tainted by previous faulty beers. My score never the less allows me to start my next journey to become a national judge. It will be a long road however I am excited to continue my educational journey through beer land.

I can’t pin that score to one thing, but rather to multiple influences that have got me to this level. First of all, my time in London got me excited about beer.  My job is beer, so I am always surrounded by it and continuously learning.  Beer folk of Cape Town have influenced and helped me immensely. Before I wrote the exam I did some judging with already qualified judges.  Names that come to mind that I had the privilege to learn from are Tim Godfey, Mary Lou Nash, Lucy Corne-Duthie, Christoff Marais, David Savage and Rob Ambler-Smith who all left an impression on me. Thank you all.

I have also two staff members at Beerhouse to be proud of and grateful to: Candice Rollings, former manager at Beerhouse, who is now heading up Jack Black’s Tap Room and Bevan Newton who is our Stock Manager.  When they first joined us at Beerhouse they hardly knew the four key ingredients in beer, they took the plunge with me and are now beer judges and part of elite group of beer lovers with credible opinions. Congratulations guys, you pushed me all the way.

BJCP has its limitations and challenges. Some brewers argue that brewing to BJCP style guidelines is inhibitive and stifles creativity and new innovative beers.  I believe the organisation has taken this into account and has created catch-all categories such Specialty Beers and is continuously looking to update the style guidelines to take into account new entrenched styles born out of modern techniques, ingredients and minds.

I can only recommend taking the plunge and taking on this exam. After all, it’s drinking beer and educating yourself.  Anyone that works with beer and manages any part of the supply chain from brewery to glass should invest in themselves and/or their staff for the betterment of the industry they work in. We need more guardians of beer for our industry to thrive and for quality to survive.

Perhaps I have convinced you to take the plunge.  If so, take a look at what’s required here.  Get in touch with  South Yeasters, Worthogs and Brewster’s Craft for details on training courses and exam dates.

Cheers for the beers.

BJCP Results

BJCP Judge Growth

To see list of judges per country click here 

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