I know, I know, I have grossly neglected my duties as your correspondent. It has been months and months since I posted to the blog. It’s not that the Beaker Peoples have faded even farther into history, it’s that I was studying to be a beer judge.
Perhaps that sounds like I’m pulling your leg, or perhaps that sounds like a fantasy job, but what *is* is the Beer Judges Certification Program, henceforward the BJCP. To become a BJCP judge requires a great deal of study to pass a couple of remarkably difficult exams. Studying for the exams literally took all of my time and energy, or at least all of my beer-related time and energy, and then afterward I was totally burned out. It wasn’t too long before I started taking notes again, but it’s been two and a half months more since I’ve had the energy and willingness to sit down and write up those notes. Let’s just say that I now have a lot of material.
I will also write about the experience of the tests and of becoming a BJCP judge. As for the test, they told me to expect results in FIVE MONTHS, and only half of that time has passed, so I don’t actually know how I did. Nevertheless, I started judging, once a week before the exam, and once yesterday. I’m a “Rank Pending” judge.
There are, of course, many many breweries that aren’t available in New Jersey or New York, but the one that I most anticipate is Deschutes Brewery from Bend, Oregon. At present I only get it when I visit my cousins in Pennsylvania, so close and yet so far. Since they are building a new brewery in Virginia, I assume they plan to expand East Coast distribution. In the meantime…
Amber Ale Brewed with Sage and Thyme – a collaboration with Harpoon.
Savory beer! Herbs arrive as the cap comes off! This is more of a savory blend than it is individually sage and thyme. There’s a medium high light tan head with good persistence. It’s a cloudy dark amber, almost opaque. The aroma is of rich bready malt with restrained sweetness and caramel, accompanied by medium low earth and spice hops. Then a wave of caramel candy comes in. The flavor starts with medium high malts of bread and caramelized cake, followed by a wave of herbs, then a break to medium earth, spice and floral hops with medium low bitterness. The herbs and hops combine to nicely balance the malty sweetness, drying out a little while leaving malt in the driver’s seat. This lingers long. The body is medium full, a little chewy, with creaminess and a little spice tingle across the roof of the mouth. Don’t sip too gently, this rewards the whole palate. 7.4% ABV
So that’s what my notes look like, tinged by beer judging. The main change is trying to give a magnitude to each characteristic. It’s one thing to say that a beer is malty, and another to say it has “medium high malts of bread and caramelized cake.” Is that overkill, or does that give you a better idea what a beer might taste like? I hope the latter.
But that’s not “judging” a beer, that’s not a Beer Scoresheet like the ones used in competitions. The first thing is that each beer is placed judged against a somewhat arbitrary defined “style” and specifically against the Style Guidelines of that style. It isn’t just whether it’s a good beer, it’s whether it’s a good example of that style, for example a good American Pale Ale. Then the judging is systematic, focusing in turn on Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouthfeel, and Overall Impression. Then scoring points are assigned to each of those, with a possible perfect score of 50. So here are my notes on specific beers, made while preparing for yesterday’s competition.
Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale
Aroma: Medium gentle hops, flowery & citrus. Medium low grainy bready malt. As head dissipates, hops build to medium high. There’s a tangerine note with stone fruit from a combo of hops and esters. No phenolics. [Those would be spicy things like cloves, or nasty things like band-aids! These are “fermentation characteristics” usually from the yeast used.] (9/12)
Appearance: Almost clear gold with a medium off white, bubbly head. Good retention [meaning that the head hangs around for a while, the standard “good” being that the head persists for at least a full minute.] (3/3)
Flavor: Fruity mouthful starting with citrusy hops, tangerine not grapefruit, and fruit not peel. Medium high hops. Malt is secondary but balancing, bready. There is a bit of stone fruit, perhaps from esters [fruity elements, often from yeast.] Medium bitterness at the finish, nicely dry, with both hops and malt lingering on aftertaste. Balanced toward hops [as opposed to toward maltiness.] (16/20)
Mouthfeel: Body just on the light side of medium. Carbonation is medium. No alcohol warmth. Only slight creaminess. Also slight astringency of the drying sort, not unpleasant. (5/5)
Overall Impression: Very nice, restrained and balanced pale ale. The hops are the leader but not strongly bitter. Excellent beer! Might be even better with 10% more hops for flavor and aroma. Please repeat this! (8/10)
Total: 41/50 [which places this in the Excellent range, defined as “exemplifies style well, requires minor fine-tuning.”]
Okay, now *that* is overkill for purposes of this blog. Gruesome detail and numerical scores are a bit much, I think. One thing is that judges are expected to provide suggestions for improvement, except in the exceedingly rare case of a 50 out of 50 beer. (I’ve only had one or two of those out of all the commercial beers that I judged while preparing for the exams.) That’s my weakest area as a judge. On the one hand, who am I to provide “suggestions” to professional brewers? It’s like the old cliché, teaching granny to suck eggs.
But homebrewers who submit beers in competitions want to know how to improve their beers. Yes, they would love to get gold, silver or bronze medals to acknowledge their efforts, but mostly they want to make better and better beer. Meanwhile here am I, having brewed precisely four batches of beer. Yes, I can read remedies for specific flaws, and I can give suggestions for things like improving head retention or clarity, but it’s hard for me to give recipe suggestions like increasing character malts that influence color and sweetness, or altering the hop profile. It’s a learning process.
So here’s one more “scoresheet,” this time for a flagship beer of a fine brewery. It’s important to note that a pro brewer is not obliged to brew to *any* specific style guideline. Their concern is to brew a good beer, NOT a good “American Porter.” The same could be said for home brewers, but if they are to compete on a fairly level playing field, they have to be judged against *something* and hence the style guidelines.
Deschutes Black Butte Porter
Aroma: Medium high malt showing chocolate and caramel, lightly burnt caramel with roasty notes. Medium low earthy hops are a nice accent. Faint red berry esters. (10/12)
Appearance: Clear dark brown, with ruby highlights when held up to the light. Medium bubbly yellowish-tan head. Medium retention. (3/3)
Flavor: Medium high dark malt, lightly sweet, then cocoa and a hint of coffee. Low earthy hop flavors. Medium bitterness. Faint red berry fruit persists. Finish is dry, almost dusty, then some sweetness comes back in for a balanced aftertaste, firmly malty. (18/20)
Mouthfeel: Medium full body, moderately high carbonation, quite creamy, a little astringency from the roastiness, appropriate to style and quite nice. Faint alcohol warmth. (5/5)
Overall Impression: Outstanding porter, rich and complex with layers of flavor that unfold on the palate. If I were to change anything, I might suggest a tiny addition of caramel malt to accent the flavor. (9/10)
Total: 45/50 [which places this in the Outstanding range, defined as a “world-class example of the style.”]
I will NOT be giving such gruesome detail going forward, and I don’t plan to be giving numeric scores, partly because I don’t want to work that hard when mostly I want to enjoy beer! Speaking of which, cheers!
In case you’re curious (or a glutton for punishment, or at least for eyestrain) here is the scoresheet for the Black Butte Porter: