In BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) class, one of the things I do is provide feedback on the score sheets that my participants fill out for beers we judge in class. Yes, it’s every bit as tedious as it sounds.Apart from deciphering the chicken scratches that pass for some people’s handwriting, I often have to try and figure out exactly what they’re trying to say.How tough can that be?It’s just beer, right?You’d be surprised! Consider that every brewer has his/her own brewing methods, every brewer has his/her own recipe, water chemistry, yeast strains, tanks, filtration, etcetera and while there are certainly consistencies from the fact they are all making beer and that process is pretty standard, it’s the differences where the beauty and complexity of beer is revealed.
Last Thursday was the 5th annual IPA Day, and I trust many of you celebrated (as I did) with a pint or two of hoppy nectar.Hopefully you compared and contrasted different IPA’s rather than just sticking with one favorite pint after pint. I’m a big fan of the style, but it also provides an opportunity to illustrate just how many words can be applied to a single ingredient: hops. You can start with the basics: grassy, vegetal, resinous, fruity, floral.All of which can broadly define a hop’s character.Drilling down though, what further defines the flavor?In fruity, we can have the white wine notes of Nelson Sauvin hops, the grapefruit of Cascade or Citra, the honeydew of Huell Melon, the apricot of Palisade.Now add the level of intensity - is it strong? Weak?Does it appear only in aroma but not in the flavor?And what about the other defining characteristic of hops - bittering?Now imagine what happens when the brewer uses multiple varieties for differing purposes. You can see how having a broad vocabulary becomes essential in describing all of a beer’s characteristics and (in homebrew judging) its flaws.
Would that it were as easy as drinking more beer to gain the words to describe it.The late Michael Jackson was a master at characterizing a beer’s flavors, distilling them into concise summaries that captured their essence.You could read one of his descriptions while sipping the beer and recognize exactly what he had found there.Reading about beer is a good start, listening to how our Michael describes the beers on Beer Geeks is another good step, but learning how beer is made, how the pieces fit together, will give you the best opportunity to understand the beer in front of you.
I pick apart the score sheets I get from BJCP class. That’s what I’m there for, to teach that “citrusy malt” really isn’t a thing, that the flavors are derived from a complex interplay of bitterness from hops, sweetness from malts and the magic power of suggestion that aroma can have on our taste buds. I do feel for the frustration my students can experience while learning how to properly describe the beers in class. Finding the words to describe how all that happens can be enough to drive you to drink, but then, isn’t that reason enough to have another beer?
Bev Blackwood II 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 St. 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.
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