Monday, May 16, 2011

We Took the BJCP Exam

So last Saturday we headed down to Plant Chicago to take the Beer Judge Certification test. We'd been part of a study group, which met around once a month since last December. The study class, led by National Judge/chemist Steve McKenna and organized by our homebrew club, HOPS!, was key. In the class you don't just just learn about beer styles, ingredients, processes, etc. - but you learn how to take the test. 3 hours may seem like a long time, but you need to cram *a lot* into those three hours. Many people don't even finish the test, so you need a strategy going in.

As part of the test is judging, we learned about identifying not only what's appropriate (or not) for a given style, but we also isolated off-flavors to help us identify them. This typically involved doctoring a bunch of Bud Light. This was kinda funny - here we were, supposed beer people, bringing cases of Bud Light to a beer meeting.

We also sampled classic examples of various styles, and each-other's homebrews.

The test itself consists of 9 essay questions, judging 4 beers, and filling out a scoresheet as if you were tasting a classic example. Part of what made the test so difficult is that it pulls from a large pool of possible questions. For example, there's an ingredients question. It might ask you about hops, or mashing, or malting, or water, or yeast. To get a good score on the question, you gotta know your stuff. If you get mashing, you need to talk about what happens during mashing - how the malt's enzymes convert starches to sugars, etc. - there's chemistry of some sort in every answer. To our dismay, we got malting - one of the longer and more difficult questions to answer.

It boils down to about 12 minutes an answer. Even with a watch, it's tough to manage your time. You'll be cruising along on a question when an administrator plops a beer down in front of you to judge. So you gotta stop what you're doing, get out a scoresheet, and judge. The admins can be tricky too - and give you a beer that perhaps is said to be one style, but would actually fit better into another style - and hopefully you can pick up on that.

When the three hours were up, my hand was killing me - I think Meg and I each wrote 20 pages or more. Even with all our prepping, our last couple answers were rushed and not stellar, but hey, we finished. After that, we hit the bars and got ripped like we just finished finals.

This is the last year the test will have this format. Starting next year, you'll need to pass an online, pre-test of sorts before you can even take the full test. The tasting and written portions will be held on separate days. This sounds like a good format, but I was also glad to kick it old school.

I went into the test just wanting to learn things to help me become a better brewer. I certainly got that, but also met some really cool people and got to know some folks in my homebrew club even better. And some of those elusive styles and off-flavors aren't so elusive anymore. Worth it? Totally. Major props to HOPS! - especially Mr. Corey and McKenna for devoting so much of their free time to organizing everything, and to the good folks at New Chicago Brewing for hosting the exam.


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