I’m going to share a very private, intimate experience with all of you, and I hope you don’t mind that I do so with complete candor.
I lost my professional beer judging virginity two weeks ago. While I’m still not certain I was 100% ready, I honestly don’t regret it at all. I’d been studying my style guidelines, I’d read about it, I’d asked my friends about their first times, and I knew deep down that I wanted to do it – I was just scared because I wasn’t 100% confident.
I was worried I’d be horrible at it because I’d never done it before and I was really nervous I’d get called out on not knowing what I was doing.
When I signed up to take my BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) exam I knew it was going to be a big challenge and a fairly serious commitment but it’s even more intense than I’d thought. A beer judge needs to know the different styles, brewing processes, and troubleshooting tactics inside and out and they need to be able to take that knowledge and use it to provide homebrewers with constructive feedback and a fair score.
Considering I’ve spent years saying slightly more than "I really like it" or "that’s too hoppy – it’s not my favorite" I was feeling a lot of pressure.
I’m the first to admit that I have a lot to learn, and much to experience, so I decided to dive right in and get involved with the Amber Waves of Grain Homebrew Competition here in Buffalo, Embracing my lack of experience, I headed over to the official competition headquarters (a very accommodating Knights of Columbus hall) on that momentous Friday evening to see if I could help.
I was placed with a local homebrew club president to co-steward my first flight, which just so happened to contain 37 Belgian Strong Ales. Luckily, the steward I worked with was incredibly helpful and I knew both of the judges I was assisting. They were kind enough to share their thoughts and let me taste some of the beers as they scored them. I got a really good idea of how things go down.
Saturday morning I arrived bright and early and found out that I’d be judging as a novice, instead of stewarding again. With a record-breaking 635 entries entered, they needed all of the judges they could get and there’s no better way to learn something, than to do it – right? I kept telling myself that but I was still slightly terrified as I sat down at a table full of English Bitters and IPAs. Fortunately, they’d paired me with an exceptional nationally ranked judge named Ed D’Anna.
Ed was incredibly kind and very patient. We filled out our comments, and assigned our scores individually and then Ed would encourage me to share what I thought about the beer first – what was good, what wasn’t so good, and what could have been done to make it better. He helped me identify off flavors and made me feel so much more comfortable with my palate and my assessments. The more beers we judged, the more confident I got.
Each time Ed noted that he agreed with my observations and thoughts, my level of nervousness faded away a little bit more. I only had to adjust my score for two of the 12 beers we judged to stay within the required five-point range, and that in and of itself was pretty cool feeling.
I judged the Specialty Beers category as well and that was a bit more tough considering the style guidelines aren’t as clear, but all things considered I’d say I had a pretty successful first time.
I would like to publicly apologize to any brewers who didn’t appreciate my attempts at being witty on my score sheets. I was generally pleased with how I did but I should probably keep the smart-ass writer in me in check next time. (In the "overall impression" section for a BPA made with brett, I wrote "wild – but not too crazy" – heh…)
Like many "firsts" – I’m glad it’s over because I’m already feeling more self-assured and I know I’m ready to go again.
My exam on the other hand, that’s another story.