It starts out innocently enough. A new home-brew supplies store opens up in your town. You stroll in there a few times. You think about how you used to home brew, long ago, in the late ’70s. That was right after home brewing became legal, when the easiest way to enjoy the hard-to-find English-style ales that you’d come to love while living in Europe was to brew your own. So you buy some equipment and you start to brew again…
Home brewing has come a long way since those early days. Back then I brewed with liquid extract that came in a can. I did use whole hops; I can’t recall which variety but there was probably only one choice, and it was probably Cascade. The beer I brewed was very drinkable, but I’d only brewed a few batches before good imported beers became easier to find and brewing no longer seemed worth my time. I gave away my equipment and didn’t think about it again for many years.
But then the home brew store opened, and CFL and I were intrigued. We joined the local home brew club, but it took us a couple more months to plunge in, buy the equipment, and actually brew. That was a little more than two years ago. From that point it was another ten months (and 20 batches) before we plunged again, bought some more equipment, and became all-grain brewers.
At first all I wanted to brew was English ales (mostly ESBs and porters) and all CFL wanted to brew was American Amber Ales. Neither of us cared for IPAs — they were just too bitter! But then the club decided to have a competition, and we were all asked to brew an IPA.
We tasted a few IPAs to try and get an idea of what they were supposed to taste like and why anyone would want to drink anything so bitter. We learned that they do have a refreshing “zing” that began to grow on us. We brewed an IPA, but it didn’t come out hoppy enough. So we brewed another. And another. Then Stone came out with their “Enjoy By” series and then somebody told us about an amazing beer called Pliny the Elder. Then we brewed a rye IPA and an imperial IPA and a black IPA. And then some more IPAs. Dang, these IPAs are addictive!
I found myself critically evaluating beers, discussing their relative merits with other home brewers, small craft brewers, and anyone else who would listen. Gradually I crossed the invisible line between beer drinker and beer enthusiast, and then I embraced my new identity as beer geek. PhD-holding, marathon-running, left-handed, vegetarian beer geek. Yeah, that’s me.
We heard about Hop and Brew School put on by Hop Union, the hop-processing cooperative that is the primary hop supplier to the craft brewing industry. We went to hop school in Yakima where we saw mountains of hops and our senses were overwhelmed by lupulins.
We came home with fresh Citra hops and we brewed a fresh-hop IPA.
Throughout this process I was using an app called Untappd to record, rate, and comment on every commercial beer I drank (you can find me on Untappd — I’m Slow Happy, of course). After a few hundred checkins I couldn’t help but develop a vocabulary to describe what I was tasting. CFL started to say that I had a great palate and I really should think about becoming a beer judge.
The American Homebrewers Association has a formal judge certification program called, you guessed it, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). I first learned about the BJCP because, in addition to certifying judges, they maintain the style guide which describes over 70 distinct styles of beer (not to mention a bunch of meads and ciders). Each beer style description specifies a given beer’s aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, history, ingredients, and “vital statistics” (ABV, gravity, and so on). As a home brewer, I prefer to brew specific styles and try to produce authentic, recognizable beers — as opposed to just tossing whatever I want into the kettle and calling it “beer.”
So CFL was urging me to become a judge, and I was reading and learning and thinking about all aspects of beer anyway. I’m always up for a challenge — why not study for the BJCP exam?
The BJCP program is structured and rigorous — it is NOT just about drinking lots of beer for fun! First I had to secure a seat in a judging exam. I sent some emails to exam administrators and was told, several times, that seats were usually reserved for the local club. Months went by before an administrator replied that he could fit me into an exam this past July. But I was getting ready for a three-week vacation in June and I knew I wouldn’t have time to study. So I asked to be wait-listed for a future exam.
I was offered another seat for October 25. I grabbed it! But to be eligible for the judging exam, I first had to pass the online entrance exam. This is a test of beer style knowledge. I spent weeks reading and rereading and rereading the BJCP style guide. The exam consists of 200 true/false, multiple-choice, and multi-choice-multi-answer questions that must be completed in 60 minutes. It was an intense, humbling 60 minutes, but on September 23 I passed it on my first attempt.
That left me a month to prepare for the judging exam. I got my hands on as many commercial beers representing as many styles as possible. This included styles I don’t enjoy like hefeweizens, Belgian ales, and (ugh!!) smoked beers. To find the more obscure styles, we made a few 150-mile round trips to a nearby city with a large bottle shop. CFL and I would come home with our goodies, sit down together, and open a bottle of beer. He’d happily quaff his half while I swirled, sniffed, sipped, savored, and filled out the judging sheet on my half.
Well, sometimes I just drank beer out of my shoe. We were camping and my hands got cold! Yes, that’s Fremont Interurban IPA — yum!
But mostly I was a serious student.
On October 25 we departed very early to drive 125 miles to the exam location for the 9:00 AM exam. I tasted six beers representing six styles and scribbled frantically for the 90-minute duration. I think I did fine for the first four beers, but my taste buds got a bit confused for the last two.
I won’t know whether I passed for three months or more! Because judging is, in some respects, a subjective exercise, the exams go through a rigorous review process by a panel of nationally-ranked judges to ensure that all judges nationally are doing things as similarly as possible. This process takes time.
I seized an opportunity to sit again for the next exam, on January 25. Most people actually do pass, but this way if I didn’t pass I’ll have another chance. If I did pass and I can improve my score in January, that will help me advance more quickly up the beer judging hierarchy.
As a new “rank pending” BJCP judge, I was encouraged to volunteer to judge at an upcoming local competition. I did just that this past Saturday! I judged stouts and strong ales — and had fun and learned a lot. There were 29 judges, most of whom were bearded males, many no more than half my age. Yeah, these are my people. CFL came along and worked as a steward, bringing fresh glasses and crackers, and whisking away our discarded bottles. He enjoyed it too.
So that’s how a home brewer becomes a beer geek and then somehow goes all the way down the rabbit hole and becomes a judge. Or so I hope. I’ll let you know as soon as I get the email that says I passed!
P.S. While I was writing this today, I received the email giving me my official BJCP judge ID. I haven’t yet passed the exam, but I’m officially a member of the organization. Say hello to BJCP member D1404!