My First Semester at Beer College
“You’re a beer judge?” “Yes.” “So, you judge beer?” “Yup.”
This is roughly what it sounds like when I’m on a plane, or at a wedding — or sometimes on a plane going to a wedding — and the topic of work and my job at the Brewers Association (BA) comes up. The next part usually goes one of three ways:
- The Overexcited: “Dude, that’s awesome!” I’ve even received a few high fives. Then I explain that’s not really what I get paid for. “I do HR for the BA. But, yes, I love my workplace.”
- The Sarcastic: (With varying degrees of jest) “So, you just drink beer all day?” My short answer is, “No.” Long answer: “We at the Brewers Association are, on the whole, a beer passionate bunch. We regularly taste, discuss and compare beer at the end of the workday. BA employees also work hard and often well beyond the standard work week to bring you the Craft Brewers Conference, SAVOR and The Colossus American Beer Festival.” (I’m pitching the rebrand of the Great American Beer Festival).
- The Enlightened: Occasionally, I will run into a true beer aficionado: the devoted soul who has studied the craft and savors its intricacies. His favorite brewery is in Portland and he homebrews; he’s still tweaking his IPA recipe. Or maybe she owns a nano-brewery in DC that produces only barrel-aged sours. Someone who knows that funk in beer can be a good thing.
Since studying for and passing the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) exam, I look forward to these chance meetings. It’s like watching a baseball game with a fan who notices the way a batter diagnoses a curveball and holds up rather than swinging over the top of it. He knows that if you miss the details, you miss the point. If you commit to understanding the nuance, the satisfaction is almost endless.
Of course, you can go too far.
The Joey Baseball Scenario
You’re at a party, your date wanders off to greet some old friends and you’re left making small talk with Joey Baseball Guy. He’s the guy who quickly admits in something halfway between a brag and a confession that he’s wearing his 2004 Red Sox World Series Championship t-shirt as an undershirt. He named his dog David Ortiz. He proceeds to talk about Manny Ramirez’s O.P.S. (a complicated baseball stat that non-baseball nuts shouldn’t care about) in the 2004 ALCS and you get lost in a sea of statistical acronyms definitely delivered with Rain Man accuracy, definitely. If your enthusiasm for the sport doesn’t match his, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation.
When it comes to beer fandom, I’m not that guy. (Baseball is another story.)
A Well-Balanced Beer Lover
I still enjoy a super cold activated macrobrew at the ballpark. I happily pay a buck fifty for whatever is on happy hour. I don’t even turn my nose up at a citrus-infused lager on a scorching summer day. I have not lost my taste for the cheap and enjoyable, like a well-respected movie critic who admits to enjoying Michael Bay’s latest series of explosions — straightforward and kind of delicious.
Given the choice, of course, I prefer something more complex, more layered. I’ve learned a lot about beer, pairings and the brewing process since I started at the BA in 2007. Before joining the BA, I had some experience in the restaurant industry (do you know a 20-something English major who doesn’t?), but I had limited knowledge of craft beer, and even less of a palate for it.
Out of 60 or so staff at the BA, about a third are judges. I can’t walk to the copy machine without bumping into a refined beer palate. They have offered plenty of knowledge, mentorship and discarded beer. They used to hide leftover light lager near my desk like it was Smirnoff Ice.
That all changed when Craft Beer Program Director Julia Herz advocated for a group of BA employees to take the BJCP exam. Julia is both a Certified Cicerone™ and a BJCP judge. Her motor runs at 5000 RPMs and the craft beer market is the racetrack. She dared us to commit to three months of weekly study sessions followed by directed tastings of each BJCP style. I accepted along with a dozen others.
The Beer 101 reading list includes the BJCP Exam Study Guide and the BJCP Style Guidelines. These two documents are the skeleton of the information you’ll need to be successful; you could probably pass the exam if you mastered these alone. If you want to put some meat on those bones, look into Gordon Strong’s “Mastering the BJCP Exam.” He lets you know what to expect when you sit for the exam, and provides a list of resources that will take you to the next level.
Our class of 12 met once a week for two hours to review. We took turns researching the day’s subject on our own, teaching lessons to the group, and of course providing that day’s beer. It was just like college: flash cards, too much coffee and … beer. We talked about appearance, aroma, flavor and mouthfeel. Our web designer explained that a style exists that requires the aroma of a barnyard. Pour a Gueuze out for my homey, Lindsay Husted.
I also expanded my vocabulary. While before I would say a beer’s foam was “really effing thick,” now I can say that the head is “rocky.” I reached the point in my studies where beer permeated my everyday thoughts. I started to assign beers to friends like a cheesy personality quiz.
“You’re a Kölsch: delicate, well-balanced, easily confused for something less refined.” “You like stouts, which shows you have a big heart.”
The BJCP Exam
After three months, it was time to take the test. Picture SATs, minus the scantrons and add beer. The entire exam is written, so if you haven’t had a hand cramp in a while, brace yourself for some jazz hands. I saw many around the room on exam day.
After the essay portion, the test administrator pours a series of beers into unmarked tasting cups and tells you what style each beer should be judged against. Experts recommend not brushing your teeth on the morning of the exam as the residue can hinder your palate in the tasting portion. Once again, college routine. Simple enough.
Remember, in the BJCP, you are not simply judging the quality of a beer, but judging how closely that beer adheres to its style guidelines — think Westminster Dog Show. A German Shepherd, no matter how big, strong or elegant will never win the purse dog category. The greatest stout on earth will receive a poor score in the pale ale category. As a judge, it’s imperative to know each style’s guidelines inside and out. A great judge has both the knowledge and the palate to diagnose a beer and determine how well it matches the guidelines.
The exam takes about three hours in total. It includes 10 essay questions (70 percent of the grade) and four beer tastings (30 percent). The time flies by. I scrambled to get everything down on paper in time. If you’re blanking on an essay question, I’d recommend moving on quickly. No time for daydreaming.
We waited a little over six months to receive our results. If you can’t wait to get involved, fret not: the BJCP welcomes any aspiring judge to assist at competitions as a steward. You won’t get to judge, but you will get an inside look at how a competition works.
In fact, you don’t even need to go to competitions to get involved. During the long wait, I stopped thinking about whether I’d passed or not. And honestly, I stopped caring. I enjoyed tasting beer with friends and sharing observations about the beer that I’d never appreciated before. That’s what it’s all about.
When the notice finally arrived, the nerves returned with it. I opened the letter and learned that I’d passed, not quite with flying colors, but I wasn’t going to be forced to take extra classes over the summer either. Most of my classmates earned their beer stripes too, so we properly toasted our success at the BA office.
So, what’s next? Once I amass some more judging experience, I’ll be a Certified BJCP Judge. Then I’ll travel the world judging beers and sharing my passion with all the other Joe Six Packs out there who got stuck with the aisle seat or out in the right field bleachers. I hear they are serving some pretty good beer in baseball stadiums these days.
Ryan Farrell is the HR Manager at the Brewers Association. He earned his degree in English at the College of William and Mary and has been with the Brewers Association since 2007.