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How to become a beer judge

Being a beer judge sounds like a great endeavor, doesn't it? Just think of all the free beer you get to drink.

Well, if you want to judge homebrew, you had better be prepared to taste some really foul, infected beer. Beer that shoots out of the bottle like a rocket. Chunky beer. Flat beer. Beer with bathtub ring around the inside of the bottleneck. Beer so fiery it takes the skin off the roof of your mouth.

Yecch. Pass the Sierra Nevada.

Seriously, most beer judges judge beer because they enjoy it and appreciate finding quality products. "Professional" judges, those who critique at events such as the Great American Beer Festival, are usually veterans of the brewing industry. They're professional brewers, or honored beer writers like Michael Jackson and Fred Eckhardt, and/or homebrewers with decades of experience under their belts. And the beers they get to judge are usually of sufficient quality so as not to offend the taste buds.

But the rest of us, the plebes, can be judges, too. Beer judging can be as informal as sitting around with a group of friends and evaluating the aroma, appearance, taste and body of selected beers.

For those who want to get serious about it, there's the Beer Judge Certification Program. More than 1,250 people are currently active in the program, and, although the American Homebrewers Association split from the BJCP a few years ago, AHA homebrew competitions rely on the services of BJCP judges.

How do you become a certified judge? First, you have to pass an exam. BJCP tests are held throughout the year all around the country. The exam is three hours long and includes an essay portion, worth 70 percent of the final score, and a tasting portion, worth 30 percent. Participants are judged on their knowledge of the technical aspects of brewing, of world beer styles, and of how the BJCP works. During the tasting portion, candidates judge four beers, scoring and describing them as they would in a competition.

The BJCP categorizes judges based on experience and skill. A "certified" judge must score a minimum of 70 percent on the exam and earn five experience points, which you get by attending and judging at homebrew competitions. A "national" judge, on the other hand, must score a minimum of 80 percent on the exam and earn at least 20 experience points. There are also "master" and "grand master" judges.

The homebrewing competitions you attend must be registered with the BJCP or sanctioned by the AHA. Anyone who judges, stewards (helps out) or organizes a competition can earn points toward certification. Of course, one of the best ways to learn about beer is to drink it, so consider bar hopping a required part of your curriculum.

For those who don't want to take beer judging quite so seriously, the AHA is introducing a less informal, self-study program that will offer instruction on evaluating beers and on mastering beer styles.

One of the questions potential beer judges frequently ask is, "How much does it pay?" Sorry, Charlie, the answer is, "nothing." Beer judges do it for the love of the theoretical drink, no matter how vile the actual drink may be.

If you'd like to learn more about the BJCP, check out its website or contact Russ Wigglesworth, Program Administrator, P.O. Box 751271, Petaluma, CA 94975. Visit the AHA website or call 303-447-0816.

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