The Making of a Beer Judge (Cambridge)

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The first time I judged a beer competition I was paired with Judge #1. As in, he wrote the original BJCP Beer Style Guidelines that are still used around the world, including at a brown ale competition I eventually judged at Baladin Brewery (above- you may recognize some of the other judges) in Piozzo, Italy. (My number, to give you some perspective, is F0264. It had arrived in the mail with my passing score the week before).

That judge, Pat Baker, taught me a lot in one flight of beer judging. But at the time I had no idea who he was. It’s normal to match a newbie with a veteran at competitions. He was old. That’s all I really noticed. I was telling him about my recent BJCP exam experience in Savannah, Georgia while looking down at my score sheet. I told him that I had studied for months, attended a series of style-sample-Sundays at Bob Sandage’s home (who now owns Wrecking Bar Brewery in Atlanta), that it was way harder than the bar exam. That’s when I looked up from my score sheet and saw that his eyes were welling. He didn’t cry- but I’m telling you- they were red-rimmed and pooling. He put down his pen (Pat only uses pen to judge, while us mortals all use pencil) sat back, and told me the story. He said the test was written so that anyone from a high-school graduate (remember when the drinking age was a reasonable 18?) to a- well, a lawyer- would be evenly challenged about the making and appreciation of beer. About the five stages of yeast and the flavors they impart, understanding the impact of boil length, decoction mash temperatures, what can be done during the brewing process to make a hefeweizen yeast lean more towards banana than clove, name three styles (and historical locations) with high bicarbonate content in the water and how it impacts final flavors, dryness, and other properties… Lordy. The exam, he explained, was meant to be an egalitarian yet challenging and serious threshold to a meaningful credential to judge beer. A bar in its own right, if you will.

I am not exaggerating about the relative difficulty to the bar exam- especially for a non-scientist such as myself. (It’s the time management that kills the engineers- they often don’t finish the first time they take it.) Hey- you try answering ten essay questions in three hours while being interrupted four times to taste and evaluate a beer! And the questions- name three beer styles with a starting gravity over 1.070 and provide details: history, SRMs, IBUs, OG, FG, describe the aroma, the flavor profile, the mouthfeel, compare the malt bills, the hops, the yeast- oh and write an all grain recipe for one of them. It’s wicked.

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A few years later, with dozens of competitions under my belt and a confident palate for evaluating beer, Pat and I were paired again at a regional Sam Adams Longshot competition (above). It opened with a calibration beer. We didn’t speak- we just sniffed, sipped, wrote, and exchanged score sheets. We had both given the highly visible, successful commercial beer a 21 and 22 respectively (out of 50). He smiled. “You’ve come a long way [grasshopper]”. (The beer was perfectly drinkable, but not to style- which is what we’re supposed to judge.)

I was reminded of all this because I’m preparing to teach a class this Friday (August 9, 2013) at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education: Belgium v. Germany. (NB: I waive any compensation for teaching- I do it for passion alone. And fun!)  We’re going to be sniffing, tasting, comparing, contrasting- with the aid of maps and history books- some of the finest examples from both countries. (Including some that I brought back in my suitcase because they are not available in the states.) I’m told they will make room for few more- join us!

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