Judging Beer

Bev Blackwood - It's so much more than "Do I like it?"

I had the pleasure of judging with Beer Geeks Host Michael Ferguson the other day and as I searched through the style guidelines (GABF version, not BJCP) to identify what categories we were going to assign certain beers, I decided this would make a great introduction to me and my beer philosophy.I regularly teach beer judging for my local homebrew club, The Foam Rangers.We hold an annual competition that draws roughly 1000 entries every year.(This isn’t too big when you compare it to the Great American Beer Festival or World Beer Cup, but it’s pretty good sized for the homebrewing world). Our greatest challenge is getting all those beers judged and scoresheets returned to the entrants, while also giving them valuable feedback on what they did right and what they could do better.

At first blush, judging beer sounds really easy: Sit down, drink the beer and decide if you like it, right?That’s not so far off from what happens in the Best of Show round at any homebrewing competition, but there’s a big difference.Even if it’s a “beauty pageant” round, you still need to take the beer’s adherence to style into consideration.(Pausing to let eyes roll across the beer loving universe.) If the contest in question has a guideline they are using to judge beers, then absolutely style enters into it.If it’s truly a “best beer on the table” event, then not so much.I’ve got some beer blogging friends who consider the subdividing of beers into ever narrower cubbyholes of style something of a tragedy.I get that.Malt, hops, yeast and water are the building blocks of beer, but when you take those four simple ingredients and start picking them apart, the possible combinations are infinite. 

Think about that for a moment.Even a simple SMASH (Single Malt And Single Hop) beer can’t really be the same year after year. The grain will vary, the hops will vary, the yeast might mutate, even the water chemistry could change.The skill of the brewer is what makes consistent beer time and time again.
So how can you effectively judge any beer against another to determine which is better made?With guidelines: categories that group beers within a range of malt profile, hop intensities and yeast variations to enable you to select the most accurate (and delicious) from among similar beers. It’s a tool to reward consistency and skill at keeping a beer clean, hitting the right levels of hoppiness and having a particular malt profile.What’s been amazing to watch during the rise of craft brewing is how often new styles break out and become widely accepted. It’s sometimes best to look at styles from the other side, for that moment when something new crosses your palate and refuses to be categorized.That’s where the innovation that defines craft brewing resides.Within the guidelines are where skill and craft go to be rewarded.

The Author:

Bev Blackwood II enjoys educating people about the complexities of beer flavors, the nuances of beer styles and how to judge and appreciate beer.Bev is the Southwest Brewing News Contributing Editor for Texas and has been covering Texas beers for 17 years.An award winning home brewer, Bev has also brewed professionally at Saint Arnold Brewing Company and was part of the team that brought home Saint Arnold’s first Great American Beer Festival Gold medal in 2007. A long time member of Houston’s premiere homebrew club, the Foam Rangers, Bev teaches their Beer Judge Certification Program course and has also taught at Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. Bev produced Houston’s earliest beer & whisky documentary series, The Malt Show, which aired on public access in the late 1990’s.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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