Judging beer for the first time? These 10 tips will set you up for success.

bjcp certified cicerone Apr 01, 2024

Are you new to beer judging? The 10 tips below are great for first timers, but they're good reminders for judges with experience, too!

1) The organizers should sit you at a table with friendly and experienced judges. Hopefully, the competition organizer knows you're new to judging – a good organizer will definitely want to know that kind of thing so they can seat you with experienced, welcoming, and friendly judges! Let the judges at your table know it's your first time or that you're relatively new to judging. Let them know you're excited to learn and would like them to offer any tips. It's helpful to discuss each beer after assessing them and filling out the score sheets. Experienced judges will, hopefully, have great sensory insights for the beers that you can learn from. Even as an experienced National BJCP judge and Advanced Cicerone who has judged the Great American Beer Festival multiple time, I'm constantly learning from the folks I judge with. Note: The homebrew and judging communities are like any other, there are awesome welcoming people who give of themselves and there are people who gatekeep. I hope you have fun experiences with cool people so you want to continue judging! 

2) Try short quick sniffs, rather than long deep ones. It may seem intuitive that big, long, deep sniffs will get you the most sensory data. Weirdly, that's not the case. Short, quick sniffs is the go-to method for most experienced judges. There are are variety of sniff types out there, but the "short sniff' is the workhorse of sensory evaluation for most judges. It'll help you get loads of data from the beer without drying out your mucous membranes and aroma sensors. Most of "flavor" actually comes from aroma – tastebuds only sense sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami...the 5 basic tastes. Getting good sniffs is key to great judging!

3) When you need an aroma reset, smell yourself. Yes, that sounds odd. Don't stick your nose into your armpit. Put the inside of your elbow over your nose and take a few short sniffs. Your aroma is neutral to yourself and doing this seems to serve as a bit of a reset that gets a fatigued nose back into the game. The world renown sensory science PhD who founded Aroxa told me during a sensory training program that there's absolutely no science that supports the efficacy of this "reset," but I learned it early on in my own judging and I've been doing it for seems to help! Let me know if you find it helpful, too!

4) Download a copy of the BJCP Style Guidelines onto your phone. Keep it open while you're judging and refer to it often. The descriptors in it are very generic, but the BJCP info is key to understanding whether the beer you're judging has been made "to style." It's also a great thing to have when you're out and about drinking beer and want to get a little studying in, if that's your jam! I recommend this to all my Beer Scholar students who are prepping for the Cicerone® exams – every time you have a beer is an opportunity to pop the BJCP Guidelines open to learn about that beer style.

5) Judge beers "to style," it's not just which beers you prefer. I.e. you may like Imperial IPAs more than regular IPAs, but if you're judging an IPA category and you get a beer that is clearly "too big," i.e. there's little doubt that it is imperial, that beer should not win. Why? Because it was entered in the wrong category. Judging based on your preferences is called "hedonic" judging, that's not how beer is judged. We try hard to judge beer by how well it is made and whether it fits the style as described in the BJCP Style Guidelines, not hedonically. It can be challenging at first, but you have to appreciate every style for what it is, even if it isn't your favorite. If you're assigned to judge Milkshake IPAs, don't just say "I hate that style" and then give them all lower scores than you would do for well made beers of another style. 

6) Typically, judges do not discuss the beers until after they've judged them. Aroma and flavor is highly suggestible, it's easy to bias people. If someone picks up a beer, sniffs it, and groans, everyone else is already thinking the beer must be bad. If someone says, "there's XYZ in this beer," then suddenly you may taste it, too...which could be OK if it's true, but it's better to figure that out yourself and then discuss it after assessing the beer. You can always readjust your score and update your score sheet after the initial assessment is complete and you've discussed it if the other judge helps you recognize that the beer is flawed. FYI the judges aren't being rude to you if they're silent as they judge and write out their score sheets, that's normal. Again, definitely let them know you're new and want to discuss the beers after assessing them. Ask questions! 

7) Fill out the scoresheets as fully as possible for the brewers! Nothing is more frustrating than submitting beer to a competition and then getting useless feedback or very little feedback. Being a beer judge is all about helping folks brew better beer – it is a SERVICE to the homebrew community. Those brewers worked hard to make the beers you're sampling and probably paid to enter the competition. Give them as much feedback as you can about what you're sensing in those beers as well as suggestions for how to make it better. Another benefit of discussing the beers after assign them – it's ideal when scoresheets all reflect similar sensory conclusions and feedback. That way the brewer sees agreement about how to make their beer better, but this is definitely not required, sometimes judges disagree. 

8) Don't wear cologne, perfume, or any other smelly stuff (and take a freaking shower). You'll distract, annoy, and piss off every judge around you if they can smell you. This goes for smokers, too, don't go have a smoke and then come sit back down at the table. I don't know what to tell you, maybe brush your teeth and wash your hands before coming back to the table. In general, smoking dulls your sensory analysis abilities. Also, leave your mug of coffee and your lunch somewhere else, food should never be on the table while judging is happening nearby.   

9) Never trash talk beer you're judging. The judge seated at the table next to you may have made the beer you're judging. Sure, judging is blind and the beers are anonymized, but the entrants can see who filled out the scoresheets afterward. I've seen judges get caught for sh1t talking other people's beers at small competitions. Afterward, when everyone is looking at score sheets, entrants may be able to tell it was their beer you were laughing about. Regardless, someone worked hard on each beer in the competition...sure, maybe it's not a great example, but take that as an opportunity to give great feedback they can use to make better beer. 

10) Just have fun and don't stress about it. Judging can an amazing learning opportunity! I hope you're paired with friendly judges who are stoked to help you level up! Master BJCP judged were once just getting started in beer. You deserve to be there, too. Never forget that. 

Here are two bonus tips I'd be remiss to leave out:

11) Never assume you know what a brewer did! When you're writing up your feedback, don't make assumptions about what the brewer did. Sometimes it may seem obvious, for instance certain off flavors typically arise from brewer's doing particular things...but always hedge – you don't know FOR SURE why the beer has certain aromas or flavors. You have thoughts on what  may have caused them and how the brewer could improve the beer – let them know that stuff! I usually write like this: "diacetyl is typically caused by X, so it's likely that Y happened during fermentation." It kills your credibility with the brewer if you make assumptions about their ingredients or techniques and you're wrong. "Next time, try using X hops instead." 

12) Be kind to the brewers! There's no reason to be a jerk. Sometimes brewers send in beers they know are bad because they want to understand what's happening. Sometimes they have no idea something is wrong beyond, "this doesn't taste like pro beer." Sometimes, brewers have no idea there's a flaw you think is obvious. Be kind. You don't need to give them a minimal score, beers scored under a 30 usually don't medal (you can ask the organizer or experienced judges about this as it can be different for various competitions). Make suggestions for improvement to the brewer. Thank them for entering the beer and encourage them to give it another shot. Again, you're doing a service to the homebrew community, judging is NOT about gatekeeping or showing off your knowledge at someone else's expense! Also, keep in mind that beer you're judging may have been made by a Master BJCP judge, you never know who will be reading your scoresheet tomorrow! 

bjcp certified cicerone