Sometimes fate just calls your bluff. I’ve been saying for a while now I’d like to take the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) certification – for mead, and maybe beer – and probably the Cicerone training too, eventually. Well, last week I got an email from Les White, the president of the Free State Homebrew Club Guild. He’s starting up a BJCP (beer side) class starting this Sunday, did I want in? Well, never one to let moss grow under my feet – more like someone prone to make impulsive leaps and figure out the work load later – I said yes, thank you, I’d like eleven weeks of gruelling training in a field I have some idea I don’t really know all that well. Sure I would.
What’s the BJCP? It’s the U.S.-based standard for beer judging and competition standards. All the mundane (non-SCA) competitions I enter are BJCP-sanctioned. It’s run as a non-profit organization devoted to promoting beer literacy and evaluation. According to their website, he BJCP exam covers:
- Technical aspects of brewing, ingredients, brewing process and possible faults.
- World beer styles, including characteristics, history, ingredients and brewing techniques.
- The purpose of the BJCP and the criteria for the judging ranks.
- Judging procedures and ethics.
Now, according to the BJCP there are something like 179 styles of beer. I’ll learn the differences between how to make each style, what they should taste, smell, and look like, what can go wrong and what it tastes and smells like when it does, and probably a great deal about where they’re made commercially. Like a lot of folks, I’ve focussed on learning beers I tend to like to drink. I make very ordinary wheat beers, but the more complex and dark and malty it is the better a beer I can produce. That isn’t going to matter. I will learn about them all equally.
At the end of eleven weeks of hard study (probably interrupted by Memorial Day, and definitely St. Patrick’s), I will be eligible to take a 200-question timed online Entrance Exam. My passing score on that gives me a rank of Apprentice, Recognized or Certified provisional judge. Assuming I do pass it I can sit the tasting portion of the National Exam (6 exam beers in 90 minutes, what does that tell you?).
If I pass that with an 80 or higher and have accumulated 10 judging experience points, I can take the written portion of the National Exam. That has 20 true-false questions and five essay questions to answer within 90 minutes. If I pass that I go on a national register of judges and begin to work my way up the ranks by experience – how many events I’ve judged (and maybe what quality or how large the event is – I’ll worry about how that works when I get to that level).
I haven’t seen a process this comprehensive since I sat for my teacher’s certificate with the Royal Scottish Dance Society. For those of you who don’t know Scottish education, it can be painstaking and very thorough. Scots are very determined people. So am I.
I’m also just a little self-competitive. If I’m going to go through this program, I’m walking the examination trail.
There are currently 4,275 registered judges in the BJCP program, but only 644 have the rank of National judge or higher. There are 122 sanctioned competitions coming up, and more every day. Clearly there’s some room for more judges, never mind the ones with enough experience to proctor the exams. This process will surely make me a better, more discerning brewer – some folks will take the course just for that.Am I nervous? Oh yeah. The friends I’ve had go through this have all talked about how challenging it is. There’s going to be tons of new material for me to learn and not a whole lot of time to learn it. Exam opportunities are not frequent, so I’ll have to try to get myself judging gigs pretty regularly to work my way up to the tasting exam whenever it’s available. My fascinating grasp of brewing history isn’t going to help; no one in modern brewing cares what they were doing three thousand years ago. I’ve got some work ahead of me.
I’m probably completely wrong, but I am under the illusion the mead judging portion will be much simpler. Fewer styles to juggle, for one thing. I’ve been making meads a lot longer than beer, so they’re much more familiar to me. I’d hoped to take the mead portion first because it seemed more attainable, but that’s not how the opportunities have presented themselves.
Here we go….