I have been judging beer since 2005, and I will be the first to admit that I probably don’t have the most sophisticated palate around, nor am I the best judge. But I’m honest and put forth the best effort I can each and every time. Up until recently I never really had any interest in increasing my rank from Certified to a higher National rank or even Master rank. But last year, I heard that some competitions are seeking out higher ranking judges more so than certified or recognized. I don’t know how much truth there was to that, but either way I didn’t want to limit the competitions that would contact me to judge, I also thought if I went up to National or higher I could give back and teach some classes and even score some exams. I also really enjoy judging Best of Show at competitions and it seems that as of late those chairs tend to be reserved for National or Master judges. I made the decision around August last year I to try to retake the tasting exam. After the exam, I felt I did very well but had to wait for the results (which is common for the exam). After about 3 months (again, that is the average turn around time to get your results back), I received my score. A 90, I increased my score from a 71 the first time I took the exam in 2005 to a 90. What I wanted to do is share the path I took, in the hopes that it will either inspire someone to retake the exam if they scored lower than they feel they should have, or help someone break through a barrier they have hit. There is no denying that a part of the exam is based on some luck of the draw, in particularly nailing the proctor scores and comments dead on as well as getting styles that you know fairly well. The good news is that some consideration is taking by looking at your fellow test takers comments. So if half the class mentions an attribute in the beer, but it’s missed by the proctors, you do get credit for listing it. That is one thing that not everyone realizes. So here are 11 tips to help you ace the tasting exam.
- Make sure to utilize the scoresheet information. Under each category like Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouthfeel, and Overall; you will see a list of attributes to talk about. For example, under aroma it says “Comment on malt, hops, esters, and other aromatics” so make sure you talk about each and every point. Talk about the Malt aroma and what it smells like…or doesn’t smell like if there is no malt aroma. Just make sure to mention malt. Talk about what the hops smell like, are they piney, grassy, citrusy, spicy, etc. Note any esters…or lack of esters, and be sure to mention at least one other aromatic. If you detect any flaws, this counts as another aromatic. If the beer is flawless, saying something like “no diacetyl in the aroma, or no DMS” Counts. Do this for every section. Make sure you mention every attribute listed on the scoresheet. This is probably the biggest oversight on most people’s exam. They fail to mention all the attributes.
- Fill whitespace. If you follow rule number 1, this should not be a problem. There should be no white space on your sheet. This could be challenging for some beers but if you make a solid effort to not only talk about things you detect, but also lack of things you expect, you shouldn’t have an issue.
- Be honest. Don’t seek out things you expect, but rather evaluate the beer as you see it in front of you. If you don’t detect DMS, don’t say it’s there because you expect it to be there simply because the style traditionally uses Pils malt. Only write what you detect, I think you will be surprised at how accurate you really are if you don’t make things up. Plus guessing or forcing it rarely works out in your favor. It’s common for some people to try to guess off flavors because they expect that a sample or two will be flawed intentionally. This is not always the case. Not every exam doctors beer, and remember they are not trying to trick you. So just relax and evaluate organically.
- Score Realistically. This is one area of the exam that will be out of your control. Your score will be compared to the proctors score and you will lose points the further you are away from them. One thing I know people do, based on conversations I have overheard recently, is to try to score like the proctors because they know them personally. For example, these people know that Proctor X tends to be tough on Belgian styles so when they get one on the test, they score it lower than they feel they should. I also heard these people were having a hard time breaking through a score they want to attain, and it’s because they are trying to guess what So-and-So would put for that beer. This is probably a bigger problem for sites where you have a large portion of the test takers and the proctors are all from the same club/area. Score it as you see fit. Because if your score does not meet what your comments say, you may be dinged for that as well. If your comments point the beer being middle of the road, but you score it a 40, it doesn’t fit.
- Never assume anything, ever. One of the big no-no’s in judging is to make an assumption of an ingredient or process. For example, telling someone to use fresh extract is assuming the beer is extract. It’s OK in your comments to say “if this beer is extract, then seek out the freshest extract you can” But you should also give a suggestion for the all grain brewer as well. Other common mistakes is telling someone to use Belgian yeast, or a specific hop. This will all fall flat on the person if they did use Belgian yeast and it can tarnish your credibility. Instead, say “If you used Belgian yeast, you may want to ferment warmer than you did for this batch to produce more phenols and fruity esters. If not then think about changing your yeast strain “. That word “IF” can make a world of difference.
- Fill out your scoresheet fully. If you noted any flaws that are listed on the left side of the scoresheet. Make sure you mark the checkboxes. I also underline the particular flaw as I perceived it. For example under Astringent it states “Puckering, lingering harshness and/or dryness in the finish/aftertaste; Harsh Graininess; huskiness”. If I got a puckering dryness I will underline puckering and dryness in the finish on the scoresheet. Also complete the checkboxes at the bottom of the scoresheet for Stylistic Accuracy, Technical Merit, and Intangibles. I also like to underline the range that beer was in on the scoring guide. So if I score a beer a 36, I underline the “Very Good” portion of the description. It may seem like overkill, but it helps. I should also note that I do this in competition as well, not just the test.
- Be Specific.When describing the beer, the terms “Malty” or “Noble Hops” will not cut it, but you’d be surprised at how many people use that as a particular descriptor. List what the maltiness is like. Is it cracker-like, sweet and honey-like, is there some toastieness or roastiness? Talk about it specifically. Same goes for hops. Saying “aroma of noble German hops” will not score you high points. You need to talk about if they are spicy, floral, citrusy, resinous, piney, tropical, and so on. Talk about to what degree. Is the flavor or aroma strong, moderate, or low. Does it linger or finish fairly quickly? Again, using these tips will also help with overall completeness.
- Give good advice. Unless the beer is perfect, you need to give constructive criticism and tell the brewer what they can do to improve the beer, even if it’s minor improvements. Giving one piece of feedback is good, two is much better. The feedback should be applicable to the issue. If you detected flaws, these should be fairly easy to talk about, but if the issues are stylistic inaccuracies, it may be a bit more difficult. If you are suggesting the entrant add more hops, be sure to specify where in the boil you want them to add more hops. Do you want more more bitterness, flavor, or aroma? Just saying “add more hops” is not good advice. But telling the entrant to add more hops during the last 15 minutes of the boil is much better if you are looking for more aroma or flavor. Also, refrain from talking about the beer being “not to style”, until the overall impression. If the beer happens to be out of style. If it is out of style, suggest where the entrant should have put the beer.
- Study! I put together a cram guide that I went over just minutes before the exam. What I did is I looked at every style in the guidelines and only read the “overall impression”. This was good as a recap for me on each style. If you are taking the tasting exam, you should be familiar with the styles in the guidelines. If this is your first run at the exam, you should know the styles well before attempting the exam, in which case reading the guidelines will be very beneficial. If you already are familiar with the styles, going over a recap right before the exam will help quite a bit. I felt it did for me. Especially for styles you don’t see every day.
- Taste, taste, and taste some more. For two weeks before the exam I was tasting classic examples of beers, and in one case invited a friend over to go over them with me and have a discussion about the beers. But leading up to that I wrote out scoresheets for beers and did many reviews of beers, in the style of a BJCP Scoresheet just like I do right here on this website. Do some home-made doctored beer labs (I put on one for our club every year, and once in a while I will do some flaws on my own at home, putting butter extract in a beer to see if I can detect it) or buy the siebel kit from the BJCP Website.
- Go Hungry. Generally it’s not a good idea to drink on an empty stomach, but you are only drinking six samples that are 2-3 ounces each….or roughly 1 bottle of beer consumed in 90 minutes. I basically fasted before my tasting exam for 12 hours because when you are hungry your sense of smell and sense of taste is heightened. It seemed to work for me, so it’s an option to consider.
- The last bit of advice is to read over what the graders are looking for. This information is right there on the BJCP website. The Exam Instructions may be a dry read, but it will let you know what is important. I don’t want people to train specifically for the test, because I feel that how you fill out a scoresheet for an exam is how you should fill out a scoresheet at every competition. But there is no harm in knowing what the graders are looking for specifically.
That is about all I have to offer as far as tips go. All I ask is that if you do pass the exam, and have done fairly well. Don’t quite there with the good feedback. Treat every scoresheet like you did on the exam. The entrant deserves it, if you don’t want to fill out scoresheets, then do not become a judge. It’s simple as that. The BJCP has a enough judges that just don’t care, we don’t need more.