“The purpose of the Beer Judge Certification Program is to promote beer literacy and the appreciation of real beer, and to recognize beer tasting and evaluation skills.”
Everything the organization does is in an effort to advance one of these three goals. Since its founding in 1985, the BJCP program has administered the beer judge test to almost 7,000 people. To me that number is surprising low, but it serves to remind us how recent the new wave of homebrewing and craft beer appreciation really is. For example, never in the BJCP’s existence has homebrewing been legal in all 50 states (Okalahoma legalized homebrewing in 2010; in Alamaba and Mississippi it remains illegal). Taking that into account, the 7,000 number is not that surprising, and in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number doubles in just a few years as homebrewing continues to gain popularity (i.e., over 500 exams have been given over the first 3/4 of 2012 alone).
To strive for consistent and objective judging, the BJCP publishes what is often considered one of the definitive guides to beer styles. Aptly named the BJCP Style Guidelines (available here), the first draft was developed in 1995 by Tim Dawson as an interim measure while a more comprehensive style guide was completed. The first official style guidelines came one year later in 1996 and since then periodic updates have been released. The most recent edition is the 2008 Style Guidelines, and it includes 23 beer, 3 mead, and 2 cider categories (over 70+ specific styles). The beer styles are generally subdivided by yeast type (ale, lager, Belgian, sour, wild), geographic region, and beer profile characteristics.
Some homebrewers look at the style guidelines with a healthy dose of skepticism. Beer, and homebrewing in particular, is a uniquely creative process, and having a beer judged against a strict set of characteristics rather than broadly good or bad can be unsettling. It is my opinion that once the role of the BJCP and the style guidelines are fully understood they can be seen as an overwhelming positive thing. What better way to address these concerns than directly from the source? Here are a couple of FAQ excerpts from the BJCP website:
Why have style guidelines?
Styles are a convenient shorthand for discussing beer. They allow all those who are tasting and describing a beer to use a common framework and language.
The style descriptions are based on currently acknowledged world class examples, historical references to styles no longer brewed, and writings of noted beer researchers and journalists.
Style guidelines assist competition organizers by grouping together beer styles of similar characteristic for judging purposes.
Who gave you the right to tell me what a given beer style is like?
One of the purposes of the BJCP is to promote beer literacy, which includes understanding more about the world’s great beer styles.
Without beer styles, competitions would be nearly impossible to conduct.
This quote really sums up what is at the heart of the BJCP program:
You should always brew what you want. Just as reading a recipe book doesn’t force you to brew only those recipes, reading the Style Guidelines doesn’t mean you have to change your brewing habits. The BJCP Style Guidelines do help people learn about the many types of beer in the world and what makes them unique.
I encourage everyone to get familiar with the style guidelines: both homebrewers and beer lovers can benefit from learning more about the history, characteristics, and ingredients of the most popular beer styles. A fun way to “do research” is to pick a style or two and hit up your local beer retailer to to find some classic examples. Sit down and take the the time to taste slowly and methodically, reading along with the descriptions in the style guidelines. To ensure that you found a good example, the BJCP lists the best commercial examples in the style guidelines.
Here is a preview of one entry from the style guidelines (follow along with the web based style guide). I’ve chosen one of my favorite styles: Kolsch.
First we pick the category:
Category 6 – Light Hybrid Beer
Then the sub-category:
Next is a breakdown of the 4 major beer profile components (Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouthfeel):
Aroma: Very low to no Pils malt aroma. A pleasant, subtle fruit aroma from fermentation (apple, cherry, or pear) is acceptable, but not always present. A low noble hop aroma is optional but not out of place (it is present only in a small minority of authentic versions). Some yeasts may give a slight winy or sulfury character (this characteristic is also optional, but not a fault).
Appearance: Very pale gold to light gold. Authentic versions are filtered to a brilliant clarity. Has a delicate white head that may not persist.
Flavor: Soft, rounded palate comprising of a delicate flavor balance between soft yet attenuated malt, an almost imperceptible fruity sweetness from fermentation, and a medium-low to medium bitterness with a delicate dryness and slight pucker in the finish (but no harsh aftertaste). The noble hop flavor is variable, and can range from low to moderately high; most are medium-low to medium. One or two examples (Dom being the most prominent) are noticeably malty-sweet up front. Some versions can have a slightly minerally or sulfury water or yeast character that accentuates the dryness and flavor balance. Some versions may have a slight wheat taste, although this is quite rare. Otherwise very clean with no diacetyl or fusels.
Mouthfeel: Smooth and crisp. Medium-light body, although a few versions may be medium. Medium to medium-high carbonation. Generally well-attenuated.
These four components make up the objective portion of the judging. A judging sheet has space for comments on each of these components and the judge is expected to list exactly what he or she is picking up and perceiving as the beer is smelled, observed, and tasted (or “researched” if its being done for fun at home).
The next sections are the subjective parts of the beer style description. Great insight into the history of the style, and for brewers, the ingredients you want to use can be found here.
Overall Impression: A clean, crisp, delicately balanced beer usually with very subtle fruit flavors and aromas. Subdued maltiness throughout leads to a pleasantly refreshing tang in the finish. To the untrained taster easily mistaken for a light lager, a somewhat subtle Pilsner, or perhaps a blonde ale.
Comments: Served in a tall, narrow 200ml glass called a “Stange.” Each Köln brewery produces a beer of different character, and each interprets the Konvention slightly differently. Allow for a range of variation within the style when judging. Note that drier versions may seem hoppier or more bitter than the IBU specifications might suggest. Due to its delicate flavor profile, Kölsch tends to have a relatively short shelf-life; older examples can show some oxidation defects. Some Köln breweries (e.g., Dom, Hellers) are now producing young, unfiltered versions known as Wiess (which should not be entered in this category).
History: Kölsch is an appellation protected by the Kölsch Konvention, and is restricted to the 20 or so breweries in and around Cologne (Köln). The Konvention simply defines the beer as a “light, highly attenuated, hop-accentuated, clear top-fermenting Vollbier.”
Ingredients: German noble hops (Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt or Hersbrucker). German Pils or pale malt. Attenuative, clean ale yeast. Up to 20% wheat may be used, but this is quite rare in authentic versions. Water can vary from extremely soft to moderately hard. Traditionally uses a step mash program, although good results can be obtained using a single rest at 149?F. Fermented at cool ale temperatures (59-65?F) and lagered for at least a month, although many Cologne brewers ferment at 70?F and lager for no more than two weeks.
There is obviously a lot of info there and when you multiple that across 70+ specific beer styles contained in the guidelines it can become a bit of a daunting task to read the whole guide. The good news is that unless you’re taking the BJCP exam you don’t need to. So, grab a copy of the style guide, go get some beers, and get tasting! There is a whole world of beer out there!
Next in the series: Judging Day, a day in the life of a beer judge.