Early on in my beer journey with LA Ale Works I decided to start studying for the Beer Judge Certification Program (or BJCP). I knew it was not a replacement for brewing school, but I was looking for something affordable and fun that would rapidly increase my overall beer knowledge. Looking back it has been the single most educational undertaking in my beer career. How serious is the exam? Well, it’s not the bar exam, not even close, but it’s much more than appreciating the fancy beers at bevmo – it was the first time beer became work instead of fun.
The BJCP is a volunteer-run organization, and recently they have changed the test format to accommodate the sharp rise in people anxious to take the exam (prior to moving to an online format, exam results were taking up to 6 months!). When I took the exam it was a 3.5-hour written/tasting exam. The half dozen or so essay questions were without a doubt the most daunting part of the exam.
The question topics could range from beer history, beer geography, style guidelines, recipe formulation, and general brewing knowledge. Some questions are very specific, i.e. “Compare and contrast a Northern English Brown Ale and a Southern English Brown Ale.” Other questions are very vague and open ended: “Explain why water is important in brewing.” Each answer was typically a page in length. At three points during the exam you are interrupted to judge a beer. These beers are concurrently judged by three proctors whose judging sheets later become the key for the off site test graders.
Studying for the exam was time consuming and very rewarding. Personally, I found the history of beer styles to be the most exciting part of the curriculum. For example, nearly all classic beer styles were heavily influenced by the mineral characteristics of the city’s water supply. Pilsner from the Czech Republic? Couldn’t be done without the city of Pilsen’s soft water. Pale ale from England? Couldn’t be done without Burton-on-Trent’s hard water. Very fascinating stuff, even if the finer points of water chemistry still manage to escape me.
I took my exam in 2010 and was awarded certification in 2011. I would have struggled more with the test had my local homebrew club not offered BJCP prep classes. These 12 sessions focused on beer history, tasting practice, judging practice, and reviewing test format – and they were so valuable. I highly recommended them to anyone looking to take the test. The classes are yet another reason to support your local homebrew club; they really are fantastic groups!
In the next article I’ll talk about the tools of a beer judge and BJCP guidelines themselves…
BJCP website: http://www.bjcp.org/index.php
Additional photos provided courtesy of jeffreycrane.blogspot.com and www.betterbeerblog.com