Queen City Drinks: Learn about beer through the Beer Judge Certification Program

In the world of beer there are a few organizations that focus on certifying folks on their knowledge of beer.

The big two are the Cicerone Certification Program (just called Cicerone) and the Beer Judge Certification Program (abbreviated BJCP). The primary difference between the two is in their focus.

Cicerones focus on restaurants and serving craft beer while BJCP focuses on judging homebrew competitions. BJCP is also an all-volunteer organization while Cicerone is a private for-profit company.

I’m proud to say that I was recently certified as a Recognized level Beer Judge. I wanted to take a few minutes to tell you about it while my certified Cicerone friend Lindsey from Love Beer, Love Food will have a guest post for us on that soon.

beer and sweat competition

As I said BJCP focuses on helping homebrewers by judging homebrew competitions. If you’ve made a bad batch of beer and can’t figure out what’s wrong with it judges can tell you what you did wrong and how to fix it. If you have a good beer and just can’t quite place what’s wrong they can pinpoint it out.

Best of all, if you have a great beer the judges will recognize that and you can win a competition. Homebrew competition prizes range from a medal or trophy up to having your recipe brewed by a professional brewery.

Goals of the Organization

The BJCP uses homebrew competitions to promote greater beer literacy among homebrewers and the general public. They do this through development and definition of style guidelines .

The style guidelines describe many items of the 80 beer styles covered including: aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, overall impression, history, ingredients, vital statistics (OG, FG, ABV, SRM ), and commercial examples. All these things give home, and commercial, brewers an idea of what they should be achieving in the beers they brew.

Of course there is some downside here in that as an all-volunteer organization the style guidelines take some time to update. There haven’t been revisions for 6 years.

This leads to some gaps between what is happening in homebrewing, commercial brewing, and the style guidelines. A good example of this is the lack of any Cascadian Dark (aka Black IPA) style.

beer and sweat competition

Getting Started in the BJCP

If you’re beginning to get interested and think this sounds like a fun group you want to be part of then listen up now. It’s easy to start getting into the BJCP, heck we’re desperate for people.

The best way to get started is to steward a homebrew competition. Stewarding means you’re fetching beer, crackers, water, pens, or paper for the judges. It also means that you get to listen, watch, observe, and best of all (usually) taste with the judges.

I say usually because it depends on how much of that homebrewers beer is available. At a competition like Beer & Sweat you always get to taste and listen in to the judges.

Once they’re done judging that beer you tally up their scores and can review their notes. The times I stewarded I learned a lot and fast. After a time though I got the itch to judge.

The road to judging is an easy one, you just ask. You’re first time out you’ll get paired with a higher level judges who will help you along and show you the ropes. Upping your game from there means taking the tests.

Get Your Learn On

You can learn a lot from stewarding and the first few times you judge but it doesn’t do enough to prepare you for the tests. Sure, you’ve got the concept down but there is memorization to master and detailed tastings to train your tongue on.

Some homebrew clubs offer courses on the styles and usually include a night of off-flavors. I went a solo route but Michael Stuart from Brew Professor had this to say on the homebrew club course:

“I’ve found the BJCP classroom training format to be extremely valuable." 

  • First, we sample a wide variety of beers, commercial and homebrew, which often cover opposite spectra of the style guidelines (and sometimes, out of style).
  • Second, the teachers (who are ranked judges) push us to be more descriptive with our assessments.  They help us expand our vocabulary and find ways to give meaningful feedback to the brewer.
  • Third, the group format allows you to see how other perceive different elements of a beer’s aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel.  This can help you expand your perceptions and think of different ways to approach your judgment.

"The class also practices calibrating your ratings as a small group – similarly to what happens in an actual competition.  There is also a fair amount of time spent on the brewing process and ingredients used.  Which would be especially useful for someone who does not homebrew."

"Overall, the approximately $100 class fee is a bargain for the experience and knowledge gained – oh, plus all the beers you get to sample."

beer and sweat competition

Doing it again I’d go the course route but I got by OK on my own. If you’re more an independent learner than I suggest you begin by printing out BJCP off-flavor clash cards  and BJCP Style Presentations . Get to

your favorite build your own 6-pack spot and pick up a few beers from a few styles then sit back and study the sheet for the style.

Reading the off-flavor cards will help a bit but you need to get to an off-flavor tasting to know when things are bad. Luckily I haven’t run into any tremendously bad beers when judging competitions but if one comes across your table you need to know what’s wrong and how to fix it.

Testing Your Tongue

There are two tests on the road to getting certified. The first one made me feel like I was being hazed out of the program. A multiple choice question about the OG (original gravity) of an E.S.B. is truly useless when it comes to judging a beer.

This test is online and timed with all multiple choice questions, most of which are relevant to judging. Lots of focus on style histories, flavors, brewing techniques, judging protocols and processes. It’s pretty rough, took me two tries, but is doable and you find out how you did in seconds.

After you pass the online test you reach the hardest part, finding a seat in a tasting exam . It took me 6 months of contacting people from Indy, to Lexington, to Columbus. Finally 3 days before a scheduled exam I was contacted by the exam proctor who let me know that a few spots had opened up.

I canceled my plans for that weekend and drove to Columbus. The format of the tasting exam is identical to a real homebrew competition, except you don’t get to talk to the other judges.

You get a beer and are told the style then you describe what you see, smell, taste, and feel. Do your best, use lots of descriptive words that you remembered from studying the style guidelines, and enjoy some beer.

beer and sweat competition

Now comes the wait -- the average turnaround time on getting your tasting exam is 5 to 6 months. Remember, these are all volunteers who are judging these exams after they work 40+ hours a week. I was lucky and got my results back in just over 4 months though I’ve heard of people waiting more than 8 months.

Hopefully this has enticed some folks to think about joining the ranks of the BJCP. There are more homebrewers entering more competitions every year but those numbers are going up a lot faster than judges and stewards.

The bottom line is this, do you enjoy drinking beer and want to learn more about it? Then find a local homebrew club and steward a competition to start going down the road.