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Preparing for the BJCP Certification Exam

07/27/2012

North America’s only recognized judge certification program provides a structure for mastering the essentials of beer judging and an exam that recognizes accomplishment in expert beer evaluation.

Master the Essentials of Beer Evaluation-

How to Prepare for and Pass the Beer Judge Certification Exam

by Scott Bickham

 

As exam director of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), I am often asked what it takes to become a certified beer judge. Unfortunately, that question has no single answer because potential judges represent such a wide spectrum of knowledge and experience. Prospective judges, for example, can learn about beer styles by tasting, reading, brewing, or by a combination of these approaches. Most examinees are home brewers or professionals who recognize that their palate and style knowledge will improve through judging. Some no doubt also enjoy the friendly competition of seeing how well they stack up against friends and colleagues who have taken the exam.

This article presents some general guidelines for individuals and study groups preparing for the BJCP exam. It is intended for the large percentage of readers who are either interested in judging or who enter homebrew competitions on a regular basis and want to know more about the credentials of the judges.

About the BJCP

The BJCP is a membership organization that was founded in 1985 by the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) and the Home Wine and Beer Trade Association (HWBTA) to recognize people for both their judging ability and their knowledge of beer styles and brewing processes. Because judges need to translate their knowledge into practical evaluations of beer quality, communication skills are also important. Hands-on brewing experience, while helpful and recommended for beer judges, is not essential for passing the exam.

Judging levels are awarded on the basis of scores on a standard exam combined with experience points earned from judging, stewarding, or organizing BJCP-registered or AHA-sanctioned homebrew competitions. This system gives organizers of homebrew competitions a reliable method of objectively rating the abilities of those who volunteer to judge in their events.

It is anticipated that this certification system could also be used to provide qualified judges for commercial competitions, especially since many professional brewers are also members of the BJCP. The program currently serves over 1,500 active judges, with another 300 to 400 taking or retaking the exam annually. In many areas of the United States and Canada, these numbers represent barely enough growth to keep pace with the increasing number of competition entries.

The Exam

The BJCP exam itself is closed book and comprises an essay portion worth 70% and a tasting portion worth 30% of the total score. The essay portion includes 10 questions covering beer styles and brewing techniques. The style questions typically ask for descriptions and comparisons of related beer styles, including information on the style’s historical development, ingredients used, style parameters, commercial examples, and the brewing process. The box “Answering with Style — A Sample Question and Answer in the Styles Category” on page 47 provides an example of the content that is expected for the highest scores on a beer style question. The brewing techniques portion focuses on the relationship between the finished beer and the ingredients and the brewing processes behind it. Additionally, because judges represent the BJCP, 5% of the essay score is based on a summary of the purpose and levels of the program.

Although the current exams are formed from a large pool of essay questions, the BJCP exam committee is currently investigating the feasibility of replacing some of these essay questions with multiple choice questions.

The tasting portion requires that examinees judge four beers as if they were at a competition. Score sheets are evaluated on the basis of scoring accuracy, perception, descriptive ability, quality of feedback to the brewer, and completeness.

Exams are graded by volunteer national and master judges whose scores and comments are reviewed by both an associate exam director and the exam director. These reviews ensure that the scores from different exams and graders are consistent with the criteria for the various judging levels.

Although the combined essay and tasting format has proven effective at evaluating depth of knowledge as well as ability to communicate that information to brewers, it should be noted that it is more difficult to measure other desirable qualities such as perception and scoring skills. The graders use information from the proctors’ score sheets and those of other examinees, but it is impossible to make a completely objective assessment without tasting the beers at the same time as those taking the exam. For this reason, the current BJCP exams weigh the tasting portion less than the essay portion, but alternatives are being discussed by the exam committee and by readers of JudgeNet, an internet mailing list.

Although the system contains obvious room for improvement, a statistical analysis of several sets of exams using a multifaceted Rasch model has shown that the essay exam is providing an outstanding measure of examinee proficiency (1). We are therefore confident in its ability to at least measure judging potential, with the hope that judging and tasting experience will correct any deficiencies in sensory and scoring skills.

Preparing for the Exam

Recommended reading: Several tools have been developed to help potential judges study for the exam. The most notable are the study guides written by Chuck Cox (2) and Greg Walz (3). Cox’s guide was assembled in the early 1990s with the help of readers of JudgeNet and consists of an outline of the information and terminology needed to pass the exam. Walz’s guide is a more verbose discussion of ingredients, brewing procedures, and flavors as they relate to beer styles and judging. The outlined Cox version is valuable because it encourages independent study; however, the verbose Walz version was used as the foundation for the BJCP Study Guide because information about beer styles and the judging process could be added and updated without radically changing the presentation format. The original version was modified by removing extraneous material that was too heavily focused on brewing and by updating the sections on the BJCP, beer styles, and the judging process. These changes condensed the Walz study guide to a more manageable size of 60 pages. It should be used as a supplemental resource to the recommended reading (see box, “Recommended Reading”).

Recommended Reading

Styles

Jackson, Michael, Beer Companion (Running Press, Philadelphia, 1993).

Jackson, Michael, The New World Guide To Beer (Running Press, Philadelphia, 1988).

Jackson, Michael, The Simon and Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994).

Smith, Gregg, The Beer Enthusiast’s Guide (Storey Communications, Pownal, Vermont, 1994).

Basic Home Brewing Techniques

Miller, Dave, Dave Miller’s Homebrewing Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Make Great Tasting Beer (Storey Publishing, Pownal, Vermont, 1995).

Papazian, Charlie, The Homebrewers Companion (Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colorado, 1996).

Advanced Reading

BrewingTechniques magazine (New Wine Press, Eugene, Oregon), especially the regular column on “Brewing in Styles.”

The Classic Beer Style Series (Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colorado). All volumes.

Fix, George, Principles of Brewing Science (Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colorado, 1989).

Noonan, Gregory J., New Brewing Lager Beer (Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colorado, 1996).

zymurgy magazine special issues (American Homebrewers Association, Boulder, Colorado).

While the BJCP Study Guide is useful as a review of information, it is not a substitute for reading the basic material on beer styles and brewing techniques. In fact, if used by itself or even in conjunction with tasting sessions, the reader will have difficulty answering the essay questions in sufficient depth. It has been distributed over the past six months through downloads from the BJCP web page (4) and to those who request hard copies.

Study groups: The next step in helping judges pass the exam is to organize study groups based on a syllabus of material that parallels the material covered in exams. This format may also be used for individual study, but it is easier and cheaper to taste several commercial examples as a group. The box on page 48, “Sample Study Program — Commercially Available Beers and Technical Study Topics,” shows a 10-session course that has been effective in preparing judges for the BJCP exam in the past. Many homebrew clubs have run classes with similar formats, but the example syllabus can be refined or adapted to meet members’ needs, especially those of members who are new to the process. The following describes the method we have found to be the most effective in organizing and managing BJCP study groups.

Answering with Style — A Sample Question and Answer in the Styles Category

The following is an example of a high-scoring answer to a BJCP exam question. The answer was written in less than 15 minutes; nevertheless, it contains a wealth of descriptive and technical information.

Q: Describe and differentiate Abbey and Trappist beers. Give commercial examples of each.

A: The primary difference between Abbey and Trappist beers is that the latter is an appellation that restricts its production to the six Trappist monasteries in the Low Countries. They are Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvletteren in Belgium and Schaapskooi in The Netherlands. Abbey beers on the other hand, are either brewed at monasteries in Belgium or by commercial breweries to which abbeys have licensed their names. Commercial examples of these include Affligem, Leffe, and Grimbergen.

Both Abbey and Trappist breweries are best known for the dubbel and tripel styles. The former is a tawny beer with an original gravity in the 1.060–1.070 range, 6–8% alcohol, and enough bitterness to balance approximately 20–25 IBUs. The color is generally deep ruby to brown and derived from both Belgian specialty malts and caramelized candi sugar. The flavor is dominated by a full-bodied malty sweetness reminiscent of plums, raisins, and black currants. Ester levels are generally subdued by Belgian standards, but some examples do have moderate bubble-gum or banana estery flavors. Tripels, on the other hand, are much paler in color at 3–5 °SRM, but have higher original gravities (1.070–1.090) and alcohol levels (7–10% v/v). The malts used are almost entirely Pilsener, with light candi sugar used to increase the alcohol content and prevent the body from being too cloying. Hop rates are again moderate at 25–30 IBUs, with some noble hop flavor and aroma acceptable. The ester levels are often more assertive in this style, while the increased alcohol content should be masked. Westmalle Dubbel and Tripel are classic examples of these styles.

Some Trappist breweries also produce beers that would better fit into the strong ale category because of their high ester levels or unusual brewing procedures. In the latter category are Chimay (Cinq Cents and Première) and Rochefort (6, 8, and 10) brews, which have very distinctive ester signatures from the yeast. Chimay also makes a drier example called Grand Reserve, which is more of an aperitif. One of the most unusual beers in Belgium is made by Orval, the only beer brewed by that monastery. It has a moderate gravity in the 1.055–1.060 range, is dry-hopped with East Kent Goldings, and is primed with a mixture of yeast strains that includes Brettanomyces. As the beer ages, the flavors become more complex, picking up leathery/oakey and even phenolic notes from the yeast.

One or two members of the study group are assigned to the task of collecting commercial and home-brewed examples of a given style. They also prepare and distribute handouts that outline the background and flavor and aroma characteristics of each style, as well as a technical topic relevant to the exam. All but one of the beers are then served blindly and discussed, with positive and negative attributes identified. After the tasting session, the group reviews a technical topic concerning ingredients, the brewing process, or beer flavors.

Finally, the study group takes a mini-exam made up of two essay questions taken from the BJCP question pool, and they judge the remaining beer using a beer judging score sheet. The exam questions should be correlated with the style and technical information presented in the class, with a 40-minute time limit, which is proportionate to the three hours required for the actual exam. The total time for each class should be approximately three to four hours, depending on the number of commercial examples and the depth of the presentations and discussions.

Sample Study Program — Commercially Available Beers and Technical Study Topics

Class 1

Light lagers: American Light (Budweiser, Coors, Michelob); Pre-Prohibition Pilsener; Bohemian and German Pilseners (Pilsner Urquell, Bitburger, DeGroen’s); Dortmunder Export (Stoudt’s Gold); and Munich Helles (Augustiner Edelstoff).

Technical topic: Malt

The malting process, malt types, adjuncts, kilning, and the styles with which various malts are associated.

Class 2

Amber and dark lagers: Vienna (Dos Equis, Negra Modelo); Oktoberfest/Märzen (Spaten, Paulaner); Munich Dunkel (Spaten); Schwarzbier (Köstritzer); Bock (Paulaner); Helles/Maibock (Ayinger, Fordham); Doppelbock (Paulaner Salvator, Ayinger Celebrator); and Eisbock (Kulmbacher Reichelbräu).

Technical topic: Water

Minerals, pH, hardness, adjustment, and water’s effect on the development of beer styles.

Class 3

Bitters and pale ales: Ordinary (Boddington Draught); special (Young’s Ramrod, Fuller’s London Pride); ESB (Fuller’s); English and American pale ales (Bass, Whitbread, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Tupper’s Hop Pocket); English and American IPA (Young’s London Ale, Anchor Liberty, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale); and California common (Anchor Steam).

Technical topic: Mashing

Mashing types used for various beer styles, mash schedules, and enzymes.

Class 4

Brown, Scottish, and strong Scotch ales: Light and dark mild (Grant’s Celtic Ale); English and American brown (Newcastle, Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, Brooklyn Brown, Pete’s Wicked Ale); Scottish light, heavy, and export (McEwan’s Export, Belhaven, MacAndrew’s); and Scotch (McEwan’s, Traquair House).

Technical topic: Hops

Hop varieties, IBUs, hopping schedules, and hops’ association with various beer styles.

Class 5

Stouts and porters: Dry stout (Guinness Draught, Murphy’s); sweet stout (Watney’s, Mackeson’s); oatmeal stout (Anderson Valley Barney Flats, Young’s); foreign and imperial stout (Sheaf Stout, Samuel Smith Imperial Stout, Victory Russian Imperial Stout); brown porter (Anchor, Samuel Smith’s Famous Taddy Porter); and Robust Porter (Sierra Nevada).

Technical topic: Yeast

Fermentation, characteristics of various yeast strains, yeast by-products, and yeasts’ relationship to beer styles. Special techniques such as the Burton unions, Yorkshire square stones, and spontaneous fermentation should be reviewed.

Class 6

Barleywines and old ales: English old ale (Theakston’s Old Peculier, Thomas Hardy, Hair of the Dog Adambier); and English and American barleywines (Young’s Old Nick, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Anchor Old Foghorn, Rogue Old Crustacean, Dominion Millennium, Victory Old Horizontal).

Technical topic: Brewing procedures

Sparging, boiling, fining, and carbonation methods. Reasons for each should be discussed, along with potential problems.

Class 7

German ales, wheat beers, and Rauchbiers: Düsseldorf and North German Alt (Bolten Alt, Fordham Alt); Kölsch (none currently available); American wheat (Pyramid Wheathook, Anchor Wheat); Bavarian Weizen (DeGroen’s, Paulaner, Victory Sunrise, Schneider Weisse); Dunkelweizen (Hacker-Pschorr); Weizenbock (DeGroens, Schneider Aventinus); Berliner Weiss (Kindl); and Bamberger Rauchbier (Kaiserdom, Schlenkerla).

Technical topic: Troubleshooting I

The first part of a discussion of how positive and negative attributes are perceived and produced, the beer styles with which they may be associated, and corrective measures. The flavor descriptors on the beer score sheet or the BJCP Study Guide should be split into two sections.

Class 8

Strong Belgian and French ales: Dubbel (Postel, Trappe); tripel (Affligem, Westmalle); strong golden and dark ales (Duvel, Chimay, Orval, Scaldis, La Chouffe); bière de garde (Jenlain, St. Sylvestre 3 Monts); and saison (Saison du Pont).

Technical topic: Troubleshooting II

Class 9

Other Belgian ales: Oud bruin and Flanders red (Rodenbach Grand Cru, Liefmans’ Goudenband, Liefmans’ Frambozenbier); gueuze and fruit lambic (assorted Boon and Cantillon lambics and De Keersmaecker’s Mort Subite); wit (Celis White, Hoegaarden); and pale ale (Corsendonk Pale).

Technical topic: Recipe formulation

The selection of appropriate hops, malt, water, yeast, and brewing procedures for various beer styles. This approach is the reverse of standard judging, which often involves tracing the flavors and aromas in a beer to errors in the recipe or brewing process.

Class 10

Dr. Beer (5) seminar: This is an informative and practical method of learning how isolated flavors taste in beer. A clean lager is generally doctored with near-threshold amounts of compounds that either occur naturally in beer or mimic those that do. Examples include artificial butter for diacetyl, sherry for sherrylike oxidation, vodka for alcohol, almond extract for nuttiness, grape tannin for astringency, hop oils for hop flavor and aroma, and lactic and acetic acid for sourness. It is recommended that those creating the doctored beer use a combination of amounts given in the literature and their own perceptions to determine how much of each flavor spike to add.

 

BJCP Exam Schedule as of May 28,1997

Date

Location

Contact

Phone/e-mail

7/12/97

Richmond, VA

Scott Bickham

410/290-7721

7/17/97

NHC—Cleveland, OH

Scott Bickham

410/290-7721

7/97

Phoenix, AZ

Rick Drake

HARDROCKENGR@msn.com

9/97

Fargo, ND

Ray Taylor

libertyray@earthlink.net

10/97

Bellevue, WA

Mark Henry

206/882-9929

10/97

GABF—Denver, CO

Scott Bickham

410/290-7721

10/3/97

Morristown, NJ

Julianne Targen

201/993-3191

10/11/97

Syracuse, NY

Peter Garofalo

315/428-0952

10/11/97

Brighton, MI

Bill Pfeiffer

810/229-0727

12/6/97

Princeton, NJ

Bruce Hammell

609/393-2946

1/98

Raleigh, NC

Larry Matthews

919/362-9407

1/98

Anchorage, AK

Shane Docherty

907/345-4099

2/98

Brighton, MI

Bill Pfeiffer

810/229-0727

It is generally easy to persuade local beer experts to participate in the review sessions (bribery with free beer is very effective), but the work can also be divided among those studying for the exam. The commercial examples shown in the box on the opposite page are based on beers that are available in the Baltimore/Washington area, but a similar collection can be assembled in other geographic areas. The number of beers served in each class should be limited to 8–10, depending on the alcoholic strength and sample size, to prevent palate fatigue and to promote responsible drinking.

It is also recommended that a flat fee be charged for the class, payable in advance or at the first study session. The Brewers United for Real Potables (BURP) homebrew club (Alexandria, Virginia) set this fee at $50 for its most recent study course, and while this did not quite cover the actual expenses, the club gladly sponsored the remainder because of the intangible benefits of having an educated membership. This amount may seem a bit steep from a participant’s perspective, but keep in mind that participants are tasting as many as 100 commercial examples and picking up invaluable information about beer styles and brewing processes.

The material in these classes can be comfortably covered in a time frame of 10–20 weeks, depending on the needs and experience of the study group. Shorter courses have the advantage of keeping the material fresh, whereas longer courses allow more intensive reading and reviewing between classes. Note that the lead time required to schedule a BJCP exam is approximately three months, which is helpful to remember when planning the study sessions.

The next step after forming your study group is to send a request to the exam director (currently, me) to sponsor a BJCP exam. He will work with the contact person to schedule the date, location, and administrator (typically a national or master judge) of the exam. Note that a study group is not required to take the exam, but that a minimum of five exam participants is required to set one up. Because of the labor-intensive process of scoring exams, only a limited number of exams are scheduled annually, and the exam calendar is filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

General recommendations: The key thing to remember is to have fun, but to take the exam seriously! The exam is criterion-based, so if the essay questions are not answered correctly or do not contain enough information (a good rule of thumb is one page per answer), then it will be difficult to get a passing score on the written portion. Similarly, if the descriptions and comments on the beer score sheets are weak, it will be difficult to pass the tasting portion.

The best approach is to read the recommended materials before the study sessions and review them along with the BJCP Study Guide before the exam. The style categories outlined in the accompanying syllabus are based on the BJCP Guidelines (4), but those used by the AHA for its national homebrew competition are also acceptable. The exam questions are written and graded in a manner that is independent of the particular style guidelines used as a reference.

Go for Mastery

For more information about the BJCP or the exam, consult the information sources listed in the References section of this article or leave voicemail for the exam director at the BJCP hotline, tel. 414/299-9145. BJCP study groups and exams are usually organized through local homebrew clubs, so if you do not currently belong to one you might look one up in your area. Ask your local homebrew supplies retailer for information about local clubs. The accompanying box lists the current exam schedule, with dates, locations, and contact persons.

The BJCP exam provides a fun means of refining your knowledge about beer styles and brewing techniques and enables you to give something back to your fellow brewers through competition judging and ongoing teaching and training. Taken together, the examination, certification levels, and judging service that the program offers help set a standard for knowledge and accomplishment in brewing and enhances the integrity of the pursuit of high-quality, hand-crafted beers.

References

(1)   Edward Wolfe, personal communication.

(2)   Chuck Cox’s study guide is available on the Boston Wort Processors’ web page at http://www.wort.org.

(3)   The BJCP Study Guide is available on the BJCP web page at http://www.bjcp.org.

(4)   Dr. Beer is a trademark of Jay Hersh. Information can be found on his web page at http://www.tiac.net/users/drbeer/homepage.htm.

Scott Bickham has a Ph.D. in condensed matter physics and is developing large-scale computational models of amorphous semiconductors at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D. C. He plans to relocate to New Mexico in July to investigate plasmas, polymers, and other materials at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Bickham has been home brewing and judging since 1991 and is currently the exam director of the BJCP.

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