Tackling the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Exam - Part One

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) has been around since the 1990s with a purpose of defining  and distinguishing between various beer styles throughout the world and providing the common vocabulary necessary to describe the differences in the taste, smell, mouthfeel, and appearance of those styles.  Thus, it provides a standard framework upon which brewing competitions may be based when comparing the quality of various beers produced by both hobbyists and professional brewers.  In this series of two posts I will discuss my experience in preparing for the BJCP exam which enables individuals to participate as qualified judges in BJCP-sanctioned brewing competitions.  In this first part I will discuss the preparation for and completion of the online portion of the exam ("Entrance Exam") and in the second part I will discuss the tasting portion of the exam.

5 Things to Know about the BJCP Entrance Exam Content

  1. You have 60 minutes to answer 200 questions.
  2. Questions are a combination of multiple-choice, true-false, and multiple-choice multiple answer.
  3. The content of the exam covers knowledge of beer styles, beer characteristics and the brewing process.  This material largely comes from the BJCP Style Guidelines publication (2015 is the most recent version).
  4. There are also a selection of Judging Procedures questions that are taken directly from the BJCP Judging Procedures Manual.  These are True-False and the pool of 124 questions is provided in the BJCP Beer Exam Study Guide.
  5. The final score is either pass or fail so it is unclear how many questions you must answer correctly in order to pass.  Many prospective judges don't make it through all of the questions and still pass.  
 I put together notecards for (nearly) all of the BJCP styles based on their Style Guidelines.  I tried to include distinctive ingredients and comparisons with other styles that set each apart from one another.  Not that I memorised them all, but the act of writing them down definitely helped with the preparation.

I put together notecards for (nearly) all of the BJCP styles based on their Style Guidelines.  I tried to include distinctive ingredients and comparisons with other styles that set each apart from one another.  Not that I memorised them all, but the act of writing them down definitely helped with the preparation.

As seen in the caption above, I spent considerable time preparing for this exam - probably because so many people had warned that it was more difficult than they thought.  The truth is that you'll probably never feel totally prepared but there is some point when you just need to go for it.  I will admit that it was a difficult exam and I don't feel that I did a great job on it, but it was enough.  Here's a few pointers on preparation for the exam:

5 Tips for Preparing for the BJCP Entrance Exam

  1. Skim the Judging Procedures portion but have a copy of it ready to reference when you take the exam.  The exact questions are provided so it is only a matter of looking them up in your Study Guide.  No one should miss these questions.
  2. Read through the entire Style Guidelines.  The material gets repetitive but the importance is picking out what distinguishes one style from another.  I would write down notes for each style to help you remember it.  I didn't reference my notecards during the exam, but I did use a spreadsheet that compared all of the styles in terms of gravity, alcohol, and the presence (or lack thereof) of various esters and phenols.  Majority of the questions are about these style guidelines.  It is tedious, but they actually do care if you know if the body of an Altbier is medium-low or medium- high, if smoked malt is appropriate in a Wee Heavy, or if the color of a German Pilsner is straw or gold. 
  3. Try to think of "bigger picture" ideas that link together styles.  For example, what are differences between Czech lagers and European lagers?  What characteristics do British Bitter beers have in common?  What about the yeast character of German wheat compared with Belgian Ales?  You want to be building a mental picture of a map that distinguishes all of these styles.
  4. Don't memorise OG, FG, ABV, or SRM.  Put it in a spreadsheet, print it out, and have it ready.  In general you want to know comparatively the difference between ABVs of different styles (i.e Strong American Ales vs. Pale, Amber, and Brown American Beer), but you shouldn't waste space in your brain to know the exact gravities or percentages for each style.
  5. Read through the Study Guide to have a general idea of the brewing process, raw ingredients, and the potential flaws and off-flavors that come from these.  Remember that this exam is preparing you to be able to judge beer typically made by home brewers and to be able to identify possible areas of improvement in their processes.  That being said, you should also be able to identify certain styles where there are acceptable levels of esters, phenols, and fusel alcohols.  
 My station for the exam.  You know that 200 questions in 60 minutes only gives you 18 seconds per question.  That's not enough time to look everything up but you will want to have some resources handy.

My station for the exam.  You know that 200 questions in 60 minutes only gives you 18 seconds per question.  That's not enough time to look everything up but you will want to have some resources handy.

 If you are successful with your online exam then you simply get a "PASS" for your score.  You cannot review the questions or see what you've gotten wrong.

If you are successful with your online exam then you simply get a "PASS" for your score.  You cannot review the questions or see what you've gotten wrong.

The 60 minutes flew by and I definitely started out too slow.  I didn't trust myself to go with my gut so I had the habit of looking up questions to make sure that I was correct before moving on.  There just isn't enough time for that so I eventually got to the point where I put my materials away and decided to just answer each question with my first gut reaction.  That's the only way to get through all of the questions in time.  You can star questions and come back to them but I figured that I wouldn't have time to come back so I didn't use that feature.

I passed the exam on the first try.  It was very difficult, but you know that it's not easy to assess how difficult without seeing an actual score.  Due to the time constraints I think the exam is particularly difficult for non-native English speakers.  Apparently there is an option to apply for an extended time version if English isn't your first language.  Either way, with the Entrance Exam completed, I am considered to be a Provisional Judge which doesn't mean a whole lot.  I'll have to take the tasting portion in order to be a Recognised Judge.  That exam is only in a few days so I'll follow up with another post after that has been completed and assessed.

-- Mr. Jackson