Introduction to Beer Judging, Tasting, and Evaluation
How do we go about tasting a beer? What do we look for in
the beer? How can we rank beers in terms of quality?
How do we tell a "good" beer from a "bad" beer? These are
all questions addressed by the various documents and resources
in the Tasting, Judging and Evaluation area on the Brewery
Perception and communication are the twin skills needed by
every good beer judge. Perception is the ability to see, taste,
smell, and feel different elements in the beer, and to be
able to recognize them for what they are and what they tell
a brewer or drinker about the beer in the glass. Communication
is the ability to describe these perceptions to another brewer
or knowledgable beer drinker in a meaningful way.
How to Taste Beer for the First Time...
The basic process of tasting beer can be picked up in a few
minutes. Mastering it can take a lifetime. Generally:
- Pay attention to the beer as you open it and pour it. What
do you see? What do you hear?
- Smell the beer. Many of the aromas that may flag brewing
problems are subtle or fleeting, so judges smell before tasting.
- Look at the beer. What color is it? Is it clear? Do you
like the way the head looks? What size bubbles do you see? What
happens when you tilt the glass? Do you see fingers of liquid
clinging to the sides, or do you see thin delicate wisps from
the head cling to the sides? These are some of the things that
judges look at.
- Smell the beer again. What stands out? Do you smell hops?
Do you smell caramels? Do you smell fruits? What kind of fruit
would you think smells like that? Have you ever smelled anything
quite like this beer before? What was it?
- Taste the beer. Swirl it around your mouth. What is the
major flavor? Sweet? Bitter? Sour? All of these are possibilites,
and you may taste them at different times as you move the liquid
around your mouth and then swallow.
- Take another taste. Try to narrow down the flavor you taste
a bit more precisely. If you taste sweetness, what is it like?
Is it like a malted milkshake? Is it like caramel candies? Is
it like molasses? If you taste bitterness, what kind of bitterness
do you taste? Have you experienced something like it before?
Maybe something like the juniper taste of gin, or a taste that
reminds you of fresh-cut pine trees, or a drier, more grassy
sensation? Perhaps you taste a tartness, like lemon, or a
sweet fruitiness, like apple or banana. What exactly is it that
- Swirl the beer around in your mouth. How does it feel? Is
this a light beer that you could drink from a big glass on a hot
summer day? Is it a heavy beer that you'd want only a small
taste of? Does it feel dry?
- Think for a minute. Did you like this beer? What things
impressed you, or what things about it would make you hesitate
to drink another?
- If you know styles, or have a style guideline handy for
reference, how closely does what you just experienced match
the descriptions in the style guidelines?
Good beer judges are perceptive people. They pay attention to
what they experience, and they look for details that a more
casual drinker might miss.
Most people do not pay attention to what they experience. They
do not see, taste, smell, or feel all that is there to
experience. They miss complexity and they miss subtlety.
The first step in becoming a savvy beer drinker is to learn to
pay attention to what you sense, and to learn what to look for.
One of the tools here that can help you with perception is
the beer score sheets, which provide clues and reminders as to
which elements are important, and which provide a framework for
consistency and training. Another invaluable tool is the beer
flavor wheel, which describes some of the common tastes and
aromas possible in beer. Looking at this can open your eyes to
the myriad possibilities in aroma and flavor. No longer will you
be content to just say "tastes great"!
While perception is a critical skill for any beer judge, it does
little good if you can not then meaningfully tell another brewer
or beer consumer what it is that you like about beer. When a
good beer judge tells you about a beer, you can almost taste
it yourself. It's no different from reading a book by a master
storyteller where events and places are described in such detail
that they spring to life, becoming images in your mind. Communication
is the key to effective judging.
Some of the tools here that can help you develop communication
skills include the beer style guidelines. These guidelines define
a framework for the language of brewers and beer judges. By
understanding the guidelines, you understand the shorthand by
which brewers describe their beers to savvy consumers, and the
reason why brewers of mis-labeled beers can be regarded as
either lacking knowledge or as deceptive hucksters, or worse.
Another valuable communication tool is the score sheet. A good
judge fills out the score sheet so completely that he runs out
of room, using margins for extra space. A scoresheet that's
nearly empty, or that contains useless comments such as "OK"
or "tastes good", are signs of an inexperienced judge.
Homebrewers who are active in judging, especially in the competition
setting, should consider becoming certified through the Beer Judge
Certification Program (BJCP). This program, established in the
mid-1980s, recognizes beer evaluation expertise as demonstrated
through a combination of scores on a 3-hour standardized test of
style and brewing knowledge and experience points garnered by
judging in established competitions.
Any person who can pass the examination, even at the lowest levels,
has a fairly high level of beer knowledge and has demonstrated a
minimal level of competence in both perception and communication
skills. Judges have ranks in the program, and higher-ranking
judges can be assumed to have more experience, although many of
the lower-ranking judges are very knowledgable and perceptive,
but have simply not yet been in the program long enough to have
advanced in rank.
Tying it Together....
Judges learn what to look for in a beer, and they learn what
aspects of beer are commonly associated with different types
of beer, or different brewing regions of the world. They often
use any of a variety of scoring methodologies as a tool to
help them better communicate to others (and understand for
themselves) which beers are "better" than others. There is not
a single right or wrong way to score beer. As long as one system
is used consistently for one purpose, and is rationally defined,
the system will have some value as a communication tool. The reviews
available on the net use different scales. David Brockington's reviews
use a 5-star scale, made popular by noted beer author Michael
Jackson. On this scale, 3 is a good score and 5 is a world-class
beer that can truly be regarded as outstanding, while 1 is simply
an average beer---a commodity product for the mass market. Other
beer judges use a 50-point scale, such as the BJCP method. Some
authors, such as James Robertson, use a 100-point scale. In any
case, the scale is a tool. It reflects relationships among a
group in the view of one judge: nothing more.
All of the resources available on this web page are intended to
help you better learn to perceive beer qualities and communicate
those qualities to other knowledgable beer drinkers and brewers.
Some people take beer judging more seriously than others. The point
is to enjoy beer and to have fun with it. Knowledge and perception
can help you get more out of your beer and judging can be a lot
of fun (even it does take some studying and some work).
Mark Stevens, firstname.lastname@example.org
10 April 1997