Tackling the BJCP Exam - Part Two

In the previous post I talked about the online entrance exam portion of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP).  If you pass that grueling 200 question exam in 60 minutes then you earn the title of "Apprentice" beer judge.  You are able to assist in BJCP-sanctioned brewing competitions as long as you are accompanied by another more senior judge.

In order to earn the level of "Recognized" judge, "Certified" judge, or "National" judge you must complete the second portion of the exam:  the tasting exam.  I was one of around 20 participants in Hong Kong's first BJCP Tasting Exam held at Second Draft in Tin Hau.  In this post I will tell you a little about my preparation for the exam and the exam itself.  At present I don't have the results so I can't tell you if my preparation paid off but this should at least give you an idea if you are considering taking this exam.

Each station had blank scoresheets, places for the six samples, crackers to cleanse the palate, and a spit bucket.  

Each station had blank scoresheets, places for the six samples, crackers to cleanse the palate, and a spit bucket.  

Here are five tips that I have for the tasting exam preparation:

  1. Study with a Group - I signed up for HK Brewcraft's first BJCP Exam Prep class that took place over an 8-week period where one night per week we met in a small group to talk about various aspects of the brewing process, ingredients, and off-flavors.  The most invaluable part was in systematically tasting beers each week, writing down notes on aroma, flavor, appearance, and mouthfeel and then discussing our notes with the group.  If you don't do anything else, you absolutely must taste beer with friends and calibrate your senses to get an idea of what smells and tastes you tend to pick up and what you miss.  
  2. Build Your Vocabulary - It's also critical to start building a vocabulary for describing what you taste and smell, which you may not be used to.  For example, before this course I would tend to describe beers as "malty" or "hoppy".  However, you will find that you can do much better than that.  Is that malt that you taste kind of grainy like Pilsner malt or is it biscuity, bready, or toasty like a pale malt?  Is that "hoppiness" earthy and resiny or is it floral and spicy or is it citrusy?  What type of citrus?
  3. Taste Home Brew AND Commercial Beer - We mainly limited our tasting to commercial beers since you can cover the range of styles more easily.  The problem is that you are almost always dealing with oxidation to some degree so it's difficult to know what the beer should taste like when it is fresh (oxidation can take the "life" out of the beer and make it taste papery or add sherry-like characteristics when it's more extreme).  However, if you are trying to become a qualified beer judge then you will more often be tasting home brews so it would make sense to try to include home brew in your exam preparation.  Home brewers tend to have different challenges compared to commercial brewers.  While oxidation can still be a significant issue, home brew can also include flaws related to sanitation, uncontrolled fermentation temps, and improper carbonation levels.  I think it's helpful to get experience in identifying a variety of flaws, which leads to the next point...
  4. Know your Brewing Process - The main goal of the BJCP competitions is for brewers to receive feedback that will help them to make better beer.  If you can identify a flaw, but have no idea what they might have done wrong then you won't do as well on the exam and that brewer won't be able to improve.  The study guide offers some guidance on this, but it is best to familiarise yourself with basics such as milling, mashing temps, sparge temps, hot side aeration, fermentation temps, and packaging.
  5. Time Trials - For the tasting exam you have 90 minutes to taste 6 beers, so 15-minutes per sample.  The goal is to fill up that scoresheet and leave no blank lines, remembering to tick appropriate boxes related to aroma or flavor characteristics and to total up your score at the bottom.  Fifteen minutes passes by surprisingly fast as you try to scribble away and if you don't have a systematic approach you will likely not be able to sufficiently complete that score sheet.  
The aftermath....they bring out one sample at a time but you are allowed to go back and finish writing about previous samples at any point.  Our line-up included:  American Lager, English Bitter, German Hefeweizen, American IPA, Belgian Tripel, and American Stout.

The aftermath....they bring out one sample at a time but you are allowed to go back and finish writing about previous samples at any point.  Our line-up included:  American Lager, English Bitter, German Hefeweizen, American IPA, Belgian Tripel, and American Stout.

It's fairly common to conduct sensory training with expensive off-flavor kits, but you will want to share the cost with a few people and organize a time to try them out together over a few sessions.  Keep in mind that the off-flavors will taste different depending on the base-beer that you are spiking.  The other point to note is that the concentration of the off-flavor will taste & smell differently, so if you have enough try to compare different concentrations.  

So back to the exam..........we started at 9:30 so that our senses would be heightened.  I probably brushed my teeth a little too closely to when I left home so I needed to eat a few crackers before beginning to neutralise those minty notes!  Definitely eat a solid breakfast - drinking before noon can do a number on you if your stomach is empty.  I definitely had to take a nap afterwards!  

Having completed a mock exam the week before, I was ready to endure the back-to-back barrage of six beers.  There was no extra time as I was just able to complete each sheet as the next beer arrived.  I did my best to jot down the aroma and flavor as the beer warmed up and pick out minor flaws to be improved, while focusing on the all-important question:  "Is this beer to style?"

The small group conversations between participants after the exam included questions of "What beer do you think #5 was?  Which beer scored the lowest?  Did you think that Hefeweizen was to-style?  Did you get that DMS/diacetyl/oxidation/acetaldehyde/insert flaw here in #2?"  Of course you can second-guess yourself, but at the end of the day I had a good feeling about the exam.  It's over and I hopefully at least passed.  We shall see...

--Mr. Jackson