For most people, drinking beer will give them all the education they ever need to know about the beverage. It’s easy enough to experiment and discover your likes and dislikes by sampling different styles and different breweries. But, if you are a homebrewer or are more serious about your interest in beer, chances are you are always looking to learn more about various aspects of the beverage. Books are a great way to learn, as is getting into homebrewing to learn the process of how beer is made. But, another great way to learn about beer is to become a part of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). This program will not only help you learn about evaluating and judging beer, but it concentrates on learning the details of the brewing process, the history of beer, and even some of the science behind how beer is made. Becoming a recognized member of BJCP means passing a comprehensive, challenging exam covering both a written knowledge portion and a tasting portion. It’s certainly not an easy task, and you’ll have to dedicate time and effort into becoming a certified judge.
Beyond personal education, once you are a member of the BJCP you become a part of the development of the craft beer industry. The majority of professional craft brewers started off as homebrewers, and many of those homebrewers entered their beers in competitions that were evaluated by BJCP members. These competitions don’t happen magically; they take months of planning and multitudes of volunteer judges to pull them off. I just took part in the 2012 Puget Sound ProAm/Cascade Cup judging this past weekend, which had over 500 entries that needed to be evaluated, which is no small task. But, the effort is worth the results. Competitions help homebrewers get valuable, impartial feedback on their beers and suggestions for how to improve them. Homebrewers that are continually successful at competitions are often the ones that entertain their dreams of becoming a professional brewer and eventually move up the big leagues.
While you can study for the exam on your own if you wish, I highly suggest trying to find others to study with. I recently took part in a 10-week study course, for which about 10 of us met once a week for 3 hours to go over the exam curriculum and evaluate beers, while discussing everything along the way. Our leader, established Master BJCP Judge Steve Antoch, was an indispensible resource in making sure that we had the necessary knowledge to pass the exam. Out of those that took the exam recently from our class, all of us scored a minimum of 60 points overall on the exam, which earns you the respectable rank of “Recognized” in the BJCP. Most helpful during these classes was the tasting portion where Steve led us through flights of various styles of commercial beers discussing the pros and cons of each example. We also sampled beers “spiked” with off-flavors in order to single them out and help us identify them. Steve also gave us a lot of tips on what information is most important to study, as well as some advice on how best to prepare for the exam.
Personally, the process of studying for the BJCP was extremely helpful and informative. I’m in the minority in that I am not an active homebrewer, but the course and exam were just as helpful to me. I feel that I have developed my tasting skills beyond where they were before, and taking part in my first BJCP competition this weekend was another learning experience. After the test, judging competitions pairs you up with other knowledgeable judges, which can further expand your skills.
If you are interested in taking the BJCP exam and possibly signing up for a class, visit the BJCP website and look for class information at the Washington Homebrewers Association, or through a local homebrew club. Starting in April 2012, the BJCP will be rolling out a new introductory exam that you’ll be able to take online and earn limited judging ranking status.