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Learning to become a beer judge over two weekends at Boscos in Memphis

February 11, 2011 By: jeff Category: Beer learnin', Competition, Events, Homebrew, Memphis

The following is a group effort to recount our recent beginning beer judge training. All of us didn’t make each session and at least one of us was hungover each day. That happens when beer judge training begins at 8:30 a.m. two Saturdays in a row at Boscos.


In preparation for the 2011 Bluff City Brewers Extravaganza, which is Memphis’ homebrew competition, our home brew club sponsored two separate beer judge training classes. The first one focused on identifying off flavors in beer, and the second explained the mechanics of actually judging a beer.

We were excited about these classes because this is a great way to start  thinking objectively about our own beers and see how they stack up against the BJCP style guidelines. And if you can identify what tastes off about your beer, you’ve made a huge first step toward fixing it the next time around. Also, it’s a great way to fine tune your beer vocabulary and use it to help you describe things you like and don’t like about a particular beer.

The first session was run by Phil and Jody Kane and focused on off flavors. The Kanes used PBR as the control beer, and added off flavors to each sample, which we were expected to discuss and identify.

Not gonna lie — first coupla samples of off flavors may have been a bit lost on us, but once hair of the dog kicked in we learned quite a bit. Mike may have nearly died from the one that was flavored by almond extract, but that’s why we’ve got epipens stashed all over Midtown. And hophead or no, Grant actually had the most trouble finishing the sample flavored with hop oil.

What was especially interesting about this session was not just identifying the off flavors by their proper names, but learning possible reasons for these flavors; this will be especially helpful for our future homebrewing endeavors. For example, a plastic or phenolic flavor could be caused by too high of a fermentation temperature.

We also discussed yeast quite a bit, which is something we’re going to start exploring more now beyond just making our own starters. Phil suggested this book for anyone who wants to get more into yeast farming.

They also supplied a nice little chart, reproduced below, outlining possible off flavors, and a one-page summary of beer faults. BJCP also supplies flash cards for learning all the possible problems. (Actually, they supply a helluva lot of stuff that’s worth taking a look at.)

Off flavors in beerThe class that focused on the mechanics of judging was lead by certified beer judge, Phil O’Regan. Phil did a great job of providing an overview of the whole process of preparing for and  filling out a score sheet on judging day.

Tips on ways to prepare yourself and your palette included:

Don’t:

  • smoke before you arrive to judge,
  • wear cologne that will interfere with your sense of smell, or
  • shred your taste buds by arriving after drinking a sixer of a hopped up IPA (although he did say that drinking a little just to wake up the taste buds would be helpful.)

Beers are judged on a point scale from 0-50 and are broken up into 5 categories: aroma (12), appearance (3), flavor (20), mouthfeel (5) and overall impression (10).  It’s our job as judges to compare the beer to the style guidelines and then describe in detail how we feel it compares.

Phil did a good job of stressing to us that it isn’t enough, to say for example, that the beer has a nice malty aroma. We need to go one step further and describe it as caramel, bready, roasty. Same thing when dealing with hops — they can be herbal, grassy, citrus, spicy — and mouthfeel — warming, silky or watery.

During the class we judged five different commercial beers of varying styles. We filled out the score sheets individually but tried to discuss our thoughts with the other judges at our table so we could come to somewhat of a consensus. This was a great exercise because Phil had a rough number in his head where each beer should come in at. Which gave us the chance to see how we were doing.

Overall I think we stayed objective and fell within an acceptable range from Phil’s number. Maybe some of us were mistaken by rating Michelob’s Dunkel Weisse a little too highly. But, I think we made up for it by picking up that Sierra Nevada Porter was out of style when he told us to judge it as an American stout.

When we judge for the competition, which begins Sunday, we will each be paired with a more experienced judge. This is comforting because regardless of how much we learned in class, we’re certainly still newbies and glad to not be solely responsible for delivering feedback on a homebrew some dude poured his soul into.