As the year’s end draws closer and the days grow shorter, thoughts begin to turn to trips to relatives, turkey dinners, holiday lights and presents. But for the homebrewers in the St. Louis area and its surrounding counties on both sides of the river, something else is on their thoughts. That something else is the St. Louis area’s homebrew competition season.
St. Louis is home to two homebrew competitions in the wintertime. One is the Happy Holidays Homebrew Competition hosted by the St. Louis Brews Homebrew Club in December, the other is Champion of the Pint hosted by the Garage Brewers Society in January. Both are considered American Homebrew Association (AHA) sanctioned competitions, meaning they have set standards and rules that need to be followed by judges and entrants alike. Unlike a People’s Choice Award at commercial and homebrew festivals, beers are bottled and submitted a week or two in advance and are tasted, deliberated, and scored by beer industry professionals and fellow experienced homebrewers who’ve received a necessary certification and education in tasting and evaluating beer (and yeah, there’s homework when working on that certification: drinking more beer!).
Justin, Tim, and Sarah are all members of the Certified Cicerone program, which is a certification held in high regard in the commercial beer industry. There’s also another certification available, albeit geared more towards the homebrewing side of the aisle. That certification is known as the Beer Judge Certification Program, or BJCP, something I’ve been working on getting this year and hope to have my exam results soon. The BJCP, like the Certified Cicerone program, teaches beer drinkers the key points to certain beer styles and how to identify any off flavors in a beer. Each has their strengths, the BJCP’s being its training is more guided to providing homebrewers anonymous feedback when entering their beers, meads, and ciders in a sanctioned competition as well as give advice on how to fix any issues it may have. The BJCP Style Guideline is also what the industry uses as a baseline for what each style of beer, cider and mead should smell, taste, look and feel like when drinking it. Granted it’s not perfect as not everyone brews to style, and some styles like the NE IPA haven’t made it in yet, but for homebrewers and commercial brewers who want to test themselves, and possibly pick up a medal or two in the process, it can be the road map to success.
Two area BJCP judges holding a National rank, Jeff Muse and Chris Rahn, were happy to answer some questions on how they got involved in judging and a few things homebrewers can do differently to find competition success. Both have been judging homebrew competitions since before the craft beer and homebrewing movement really took off in St. Louis and are heavily involved in educating prospective judges.
Chris Rahn’s first time judging was in the cellar at the Schlafly Tap Room nine years ago. “I judged meads with Jim Yeager. That was literally the first time I had tasted mead, but Jim did an amazing job explaining to me what I was tasting and how to judge it. After that night, I had a pretty good understanding of meads and went home and planned my first mead making experience.”
Both Muse and Rahn decided to become judges as they felt it was a good way to learn more about brewing and become better brewers, and feel that entering BJCP competitions will help homebrewers improve as well. “Entering competitions gets you anonymous feedback” says Muse. “The judges don’t know who you are and while they’re not going to be rude or mean, they also aren’t trying to spare your feelings by telling you your beer is better than it is, either. Face-to-face, people are inclined to say “yeah, that’s good beer” even if it’s not, because they want to be polite. If you’re going to enter a beer in one competition, enter it in two or three, so you can look for patterns. If one judge says you have diacetyl (buttery taste created by fermentation problems), they could be extremely sensitive to it, or maybe confusing it with a caramel flavor. If four judges across three competitions say you have diacetyl, then you know it was present in that beer.”
“Entering your beer in competitions is a great way to get real feedback from real people that know beer” said Rahn. “In my circle of friends, the best feedback I could really get was a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Entering competitions helped me figure out what I could do to make better beer. Even more important than entering your beer in competitions though, in my opinion, is offering to judge a competition. If you’re at all serious about this hobby, and in my case now, career (Rahn is the head brewer and owner of Stubborn German Brewing in Waterloo) it’s absolutely necessary to able to drink beer critically. When I first started homebrewing, it was enough for me know that I made a beer that had alcohol in it, was fizzy and cold. After a while though I wanted to be able to diagnose my own beers and be able to make them better.”
And if you want to become a judge, Muse has the perfect solution. “Attend one of the classes we do from time to time. You’ll get to taste 60+ styles over a period of several months, and we discuss what makes each style unique. We do off-flavor training, go over the brewing process, and talk in depth about ingredients. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
For homebrewers looking to become one of now 7,000 active BJCP judges across the world, there’s a couple steps involved. The first one is passing the timed online entrance exam, consisting of 200 multiple choice questions to be answered in under an hour. Fortunately you don’t have to answer all the questions as it’s a pass/fail exam, but budgeting your time is critical. After that you have to shell out another $10 the next day if you failed. Once the online test is passed, the next step is the tasting exam, where you have 90 minutes to taste and score six homebrews or commercial beers with off-flavors, some intentionally. The scoresheets filled out are then checked by the BJCP for completeness, then compared against scoresheets filled out by two to three National Rank judges for accuracy. A score of 60 or better makes you a judge, and depending on how many competitions you’ve helped judged previously, you can skip a rank from a Recognized Judge to Certified Judge if you score 70 or higher. After that, when you’ve judged enough competitions and scored an 80 or higher on the tasting exam, you can take the written exam to test for the National Rank, which is held by only 861 members worldwide. Even fewer members hold the rank of Master Judge or Grand Master.
As for how the certification process has evolved, Muse noted a lot has changed since he started judging in 2011 and got his National Rank. “When I started we didn’t have a good understanding of how the exams were graded. Since then, the BJCP has released a guide to grading the tasting exam that shows potential examinees exactly how their work will be evaluated. That’s helped those of us who teach judging classes make sure that people are prepared for the exam. There isn’t a similar guide for the written exam yet, but we’ve gotten some good guidance from graders that has proven helpful. Now I’d say the biggest challenge to making National is the sheer number of styles that might appear on the written exam. There are 80 or more styles in scope, and for six of them, you’ll need to write a full description of aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel. For another, you’ll need to write a recipe. That’s a lot to prepare for.”
One thing seen nowadays is that not all beers fit into a certain category, which does lead to some questioning of the BJCP’s usefulness, as well as if and why should someone bother brewing to style. When asked about if there are some misconceptions about the BJCP, Rahn had this to say: “I always get the feeling especially from relatively new brewers that “brewing to style” isn’t cool for some reason. I don’t know if that’s because they have had a hard time doing that previously or what, but for me, I’ve always thought that if I can make a beer that tastes exactly how the guidelines describe it, and can do that consistently, then I can make any kind of beer that I want- to style or not. At that point it’s just about adding whatever odd or crazy or innovative ingredient that you want.”
Both Rahn and Muse felt local homebrewers are turning in some good beers consistently for competitions, however they do see some preventable mistakes. “Of the flaws we do see, I’d guess 75% of them are fermentation related. Maybe the brewer didn’t pitch enough yeast, or they weren’t healthy, or they needed to oxygenate more, or they fermented too warm or too cold” said Muse.
Rahn agreed and listed out three areas he consistently notices issues with during competitions. “Yeast pitch/health,carbonation, and oxidation. I must write down at least a dozen times throughout a competition the phrase “pitch more healthy, active yeast and oxygenate well”. Carbonation is something that is now so easily controlled by using a Blichmann Beer Gun or just properly bottle conditioning and has such a huge impact on the overall enjoyment of a beer, I just always feel like there isn’t a good excuse for improperly carbonated beers. Oxidation is another one that seems to be common among homebrewed beer. Tasting it isn’t always like chewing on paper or wet cardboard, a lot of times it’s a just a muted hop presence or a muddled or non-descript flavor profile. All of that can be the result of the exposure to oxygen over any period of time. The only time it’s OK to expose ingredients/wort/beer to oxygen is when the wort is cooled, at the time of pitching yeast.”
“I do think entrants might do a better job timing their entries” added Muse, “You want to make sure the beers get to the judging table in peak condition, and that doesn’t always happen. This is something we see in the final round of the National Homebrew Competition. People get their beers through the first round in March or April, and the final round is in June. A lot of styles won’t hold up that long, even if stored cold. Try to get your beer there as late as possible. You don’t know if your entry will be stored warm or cold once it is out of your hands, so submitting your bottles early is a risk.”
Both offered an inside track on how to do better in competitions if a homebrewer’s goal is to win medals. For a homebrewer to advance to the Mini Best-of-Show, where the medal winners of that category are determined, their beer normally needs to score in the mid to high 30’s (out of 50 possible points total for aroma (12), appearance (3), flavor (20), mouthfeel (5), and overall impression (10) as appropriate for the style being entered under) at minimum to be considered for advancing. Once in the Mini Best-of-Show, experienced judges compare the beers and determine which one meets the style it was entered under best. The one winning gold in the category goes on to the Best of Show round with the other gold medal winners from each category to determine the best beer of the competition. For a better chance at making it that far, Rahn and Muse both emphasized sending in beers as freshly brewed as possible to competitions, as well as properly packaging them (right amount of carbonation and avoiding oxidation, no markings on the bottles or caps, competition labels attached by rubber band), but Muse also felt that really taking a long look at what you brewed and how you brewed it plays a factor.
“Enter your beer as it is, not what you intended it to be. The first time I tried to make an English brown ale, I overdid the dark malt and wound up with a fairly decent porter. I entered it as such and it placed, but if I’d said it was a brown ale it would have gotten dinged quite a bit for being too dark and roasty. Evaluate your beers and give yourself actionable feedback. I like to sit in front of Beersmith while drinking my beer and asking myself “how could I make this better next time?”. To make this work, you have to have thorough notes on your brew day and fermentation. Other people like to take tasting notes and refer back to them when they brew the same beer again. It doesn’t matter which approach you take, but you need to have a way to identify and execute improvements. Another good way to identify opportunities for improvement is to pour your beer next to one of the classic examples listed in the BJCP guidelines. How do the two compare, keeping in mind that the commercial example may not be in the best condition?”
And as for the question of BJCP vs Cicerone Certification?
Rahn: “The Cicerone program focuses on the same beer style issues as the BJCP, but expands upon that to gear it more towards beer industry professionals. Extra topics include food and beer pairing, storage of beer, the pouring/serving of beer, how to set up and clean a draft beer system. For homebrewers that don’t have a desire to be in the industry, stick to the BJCP. It’s all that’s really necessary. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the BJCP because of the doors it has opened for me personally, by meeting new people, trying new beers, helping people get through exams, etc, but I did recently take the Certified Cicerone exam and should have my results back in the next couple days.” (At time of publishing, Rahn informed us he had scored a 90 on the exam. Well done, Chris!)
Muse: “I’m not a Cicerone, so I can only speak based on what I’ve read. My understanding is that where the BJCP is geared towards style definitions and support of competitions, the Cicerone is a more commercial venture geared towards distributors and retailers. In particular, they are concerned with ensuring the quality of beer getting to their customers, and making sure that any retail staff interacting with customers is educated with regard to beer styles and food pairings. I think there’s some overlap but they have different goals and program content.”
For more information on the Beer Judge Certification Program, visit www.bjcp.org.
*Writer’s note* One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received for wining awards, along with Chris and Jeff’s, was given to me by Justin Bradbury of Schwerpunkt Brewing. Really research the style you’re looking to make by reviewing the BJCP style guideline for it, and then do more written research on it. For example, Stan Hieronymous’s Brew Like a Monk holds crucial information if you want to brew excellent Trappist-style beers, whereas Greg Noonan’s Brewing Lager Beer will help you understand what goes into making a pilsner.