When I interview top brewers both for the blog and BeerSmith podcast, time and time again they mention the importance of being able to judge beer to become a better brewer. Knowing how to spot and correct the flaws in a beer is a critical skill if you want to compete or just make better beer for home consumption. This week we take a tiny peek into the surprisingly complex world of beer tasting.
For top beer competitors, judging beer is everything – as certified beer judges ultimately determine which brews make it to the winner’s circle. However even for the average brewer who does not want to compete, knowing how to evaluate a beer is the key to making it better. If you can’t make an objective evaluation of your beer including its strengths and flaws, you have no basis for improving it.
The Beer Judge Certification Program and Style Guideline
The BJCP (at bjcp.org) runs a program to “promote beer literacy and the appreciation of real beer, and to recognize beer tasting and evaluation skills”, and has about 3,900 active beer judges that evaluate beer competitions at all levels here in the United States, and also in many countries abroad. BJCP has a multi-level certification program which I’ve covered before in interviews with Gordon Strong both on the blog and podcast. If you are interested in becoming a judge I recommend visiting their site.
They also publish the very popular BJCP Beer Style Guide which is included in my BeerSmith software – it provides guidelines for various beer styles. These style guidelines can be very useful for judging a particular beer as they provide specific guidance on taste, appearance, color, bitterness, and gravity for the finished beer.
Finally the BJCP provides scoresheets in the competition center that can be very useful as a guide for judging your own beer at home. The scoresheet is very useful, even if you have never judged a beer before as it provides a framework for evaluating the beer and also explains many of the technical terms.
Judging Your Own Beer
Here’s the process I use for evaluating a beer for the first time. It follows closely with the BJCP score sheet, so I recommend you print a copy of it and follow along as you read this.
- I start by filling in the scoresheet header – including the information about the beer, dates, etc… I often will print out the relevant section of the BJCP style guide as well if I’m targeting a particular style since this provides excellent guidance on what the beer should be.
- Evaluate the bottle and external appearance – look for rings around the bottle neck (could be contamination) as well as the condition of sediment.
- I open the beer and pour a few ounces into the glass and try to immediately evaluate the aroma of the freshly poured beer. Many aromas are fleeting, so you want to capture them up front. I use the aroma section of the scoresheet to capture these.
- Next we look at appearance which includes color, clarity, head retention, proper carbonation and texture.
- Taste the beer, and focus on developing your initial overall impression from the first sip. You will usually let this sit for a few seconds before swallowing and note the finish (taste as you swallow it) as well as any aftertastes. For flavor we’re looking at malt, hops, fermentation character, finish/aftertaste and any other relevant flavors for the style. At this point I will also often scan the description definitions that are on the left side of the BJCP scoresheet. This contains a list of some 17 taste terms such as Metallic, Phenolic, Grassy, Astringent, etc.. many of which are undesirable and indicative of a problem. However in some cases the flavors may be appropriate – for example many English Ales have an estery (fruity) flavor from the yeast used.
- Move on to mouthfeel (taking additional sips if needed) and evaluate the body, carbonation, warmth, creaminess, astringency and overall palate sensation of the beer.
- Finally comment on the overall impression of the beer – including any notes for possible improvement. Do you like the beer? Would you enjoy drinking another pint of it? How could it be improved in the next batch?
- If you are scoring someone else’s beer, its best to try to be positive in your comments (even if the beer is pretty bad). Here the checkboxes and numerical scores can be very useful in noting major flaws in the beer, and you can still phrase your comments in a positive way “You could improve this beer by xxx” rather than “This really stinks”.
Surprisingly, sitting down and objectively scoring a beer only takes a few minutes. Yet if you do it properly you now have a guideline for how to improve the next batch. Many obvious flaws in a beer have a simple solution as outlined in my troubleshooting article. Others can be solved by adjusting the grain bill, changing the hop schedule or variety, or adjusting your carbonation.
Finally I should mention that I’ve only just touched on the basics of this complex topic. If you want to learn more I suggest visiting the BJCP website or reading Randy Mosher’s recent book on Tasting Beer (Amazon Affiliate Link). Have a great week, and don’t hesitate to subscribe to my newsletter or podcast for more free brewing info.
You might also enjoy these articles:
- Judging Beer with Grandmaster Gordon Strong – BSHB Podcast #6
- New BJCP 2008 Style Guide and BeerSmith Batch Sparging Release
- Grandmaster Beer Judge and BJCP President Gordon Strong
- Tasting Beer with Randy Mosher – BeerSmith Podcast #89
- India Pale Ale and Carrot Cake – BeerSmith Podcast #18
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