Appearance is important when judging beer. Image courtesy of the Sydney Royal Beer & Cider Show
When judging a beer the appearance is broken down into three components: colour, carbonation and clarity. Image courtesy of the Sydney Royal Beer & Cider Show

 

In the Autumn Issue of Beer & Brewer, which hits stands Monday, international beer judge, Ian Kingham, tells us what it’s like to be a judge and explains how to taste beer like a pro. Here is a teaser…    

 

To be a beer judge is easy, to be a good beer judge requires many attributes, and to be a great one, well that requires the judgement of others. While most beer judges come from commercial brewing backgrounds, it is not always the case, often experiences in media, hospitality, commercial beer operating or judging in other categories can be the path to becoming a beer judge.

For good judging it is advantageous to possess a good palate, an articulate vocabulary, a knowledge of brewing and process, a sense and respect for beer styles, a knowledge of ingredients, an appreciation of broad culinary flavours, a calm temperament, a respect for others and confidence in your own ability.

If you want to be a beer judge and this sounds like you then all you need now is opportunity. The best opportunity comes through understanding the respectful calendar of judging events, preparation through levels of accreditation or certification, finding a sponsor and being prepared to learn as you go.

While being an accredited beer judge may sound great, it is more a vocation of passion, with an upside in comradery, connection and candour, and little if anything in monetary compensation. Pitfalls are few, although a beer judge is susceptible to the embarrassing position of spontaneously being made the centre of conversation for instant experts, and a beer judge needs to manage warily the beleaguering or belligerent interviewer, whom seem ever present at any informal BBQ event.

While attention for those who like it is flattering, often conversations which lean towards “How drunk do you get?”, “All beer’s the same isn’t it?” and “How hard can it be?” seem to dominate some people’s curiosity more than questions pertaining to the nuances of skill, knowledge and passion, which truly inspires beer judging as opposed to beer drinking.

 

HOW TO JUDGE YOUR OWN BEER

Accredited judging may not be everyone’s brew but knowing some simple pointers can help consumers with even the most basic level of knowledge, learn to really appreciate their beers.

Three key criteria for being a beer judge (commercially or at home) include; 1) The judging environment, 2) The art of appraisal and 3) The knowledge of the judge.

 

1) THE JUDGING ENVIRONMENT

The more serious the judging, the more conservative the environment. It can be said that ‘judging begins when beer’s best complements are gone’. At some shows this means judging in solitude, with a white lab coat and no beer conferencing during the delivery of beer (flights).

At home this can involve removing clutter, turning off any music or distractions, choosing an area which is calm and removed from the action of the house.

Beer should be served at its recommended temperature. Note that an ice-cold beer creates an ice-cold palate. This is great for refreshment but adds little to flavour tasting.

While discussion over beers is a wonderful social pursuit, the greater the level of silence in judging the greater reduction in bias. If you are serious about beers discuss them after all your notes have been written. Body language plays a part in expression, so keep your calm consistency if you want to get the most out of sharing opinion.

Food has an effect on tastebuds and as such changes the palate with beer. This can be advantageous for many beers if enjoying with a meal but is not conducive to judging a beer on its own merits. Socialise with food, judge without.

Beers have varying alcohol levels and as such the more tasted the greater the chance of alcohol influence on the judging. Sharing sample sizes or sacrilegiously dumping samples is one way of managing alcohol. Water and dry biscuits between serves is helpful in pacing consumption and choosing a moderate number to compare has its merit.

Brand influence on consumers is one of the largest investment streams in modern brewing. To judge a beer accurately it is best not to know its packaging and appraise the beer on its stylistic merit. Blocking perceptions and pre-conceived ideas allows for free flowing expression. An assistant pourer or the use of brown paper bags as a shield is suggestible.

Natural light allows a beer to be seen in its best light, although it is important not to stand a beer for too long in direct sunlight as it can taint the flavour.

Sample management is of great interest, not just in judging but in getting the most out of your beer drinking experiences. Beer which is fresh, stored away from heat and light, and drunk from a ‘beer clean’ glass has its best chance of being enjoyed the way the brewer intended.

Record keeping is not the most sociable of pursuits but if you wish to be serious in your approach record keeping, reviews and comparisons are very helpful in corroborating and collaborating your notes with that of others and ensuring improved consistency in your judging.

 

(2) THE ART OF APPRAISAL

A common term used in hospitality is ‘people drink with their eyes’, meaning the better the appearance and presentation of a drink the greater the customer experience. Beer is no exception, and as such beer is judged on appearance.

To best appreciate beer, pour it into a glass and begin your review. The pour should provide a good head on the beer and should leave enough room in the glass to successfully place and remove a nose without the indignity of getting it wet.

The appearance of a beer is broken into three components, colour, carbonation and clarity. Each distinctly covers indirect processes of brewing such as quality of filtration, as well as providing a consumer lens on the beer. Give the beer a strong swirl to release aromas by creating a rich head.

Next begins the true joy of beer, tasting, which first emanates from aroma. A multitude of nut, herb and fruit aroma vary in intensity across styles, complemented by differing degrees of caramelised malt sugars, yeast characteristics and alcohol. As you experience the first impressions of flavour be on the lookout for faults, these are critical in establishing the true merits of beer.

Aroma consists of attributes assigned to core ingredients of beer. Malt character, yeast character, hop aroma and finally fermentation characteristics. The balance, intensity, pleasantry and subtlety of each reveal ingredients in the beer, skills of the brewer and most importantly, a first introduction to the beer’s character. Again faults in beer can be detected at this point of judging, these can include sulphury, solvent, papery and plastic notes to mention a few.

The palate of a beer delivers its true value. A balance of flavour is important and the common receptors in beer are sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Heat (from alcohol), malt layering and residual flavours may also be evident. As are descriptors such as softness, acidity, oiliness, hardness and the compactness of the beer flavours. The judging of the beer should include an evaluation of the contribution made by malt, yeast, hops, water and importantly fermentation and manufacturing characteristics. Note the balance of each is critical for a good beer.

The final measure for beer is its aftertaste and this is the residual finish of flavour after the beer has been swallowed. The aftertaste allows for some impressionable input from a judge but also aids in identifying faults or more positively, appreciating characteristics such as maltiness or hoppiness by what is left as the lasting impression. Good questions to ask when appraising beer include “How would I most enjoy this beer?”, “Would I have more than one?”, “Would I be happy to share this beer with a friend?” and most importantly “Do I personally like this beer?”

 

3) THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE JUDGE

When it comes to beer you can be forgiven for thinking that everyone is an expert. It is important to note that just because you’ve driven a lot of cars, travelled many miles or shared an enormous amount of driving experiences doesn’t make you a better mechanic.

The best skill for being a great judge is from experience. The more beers you try, the more books you read, the more brewers you speak to and the more you can co-ordinate this information into some resemblance of order the better a judge you can become. Like singing and music, the appreciation and feeling a judge gets from the palate varies from individual to individual, some are in tune, some are not.

Before judging it is great to have some reference for classifying beer and the best is a copy of beer guidelines such as the BJCP, which set out criteria and classification of styles and include flavour profiles and characteristics, which should or shouldn’t be present. A good book which has reference to beer styles and flavours is another alternative.

Reading brewer’s notes or descriptors on products can help with identifying some flavour components in beer but be wary. Notes on packaging are often more about marketing and what someone wants to believe is in the beer than it is about the beer’s true taste.

By checking back on notes and comparing previous samples, a judge can continue to refine their technique and calibrate their skills. By sharing judging experiences with others you can pick up some different tips for what works for you. An example of a tip once shared with me was “Make sure when you take the beer into your mouth that you have a moment where you hold some of the liquid in your mouth and breathe in”, this for me can help accentuate flavour in the beer, a tip I continue to follow today.

While critics, opinionists and marketers may have a view on the quality of beer, personal preference is only worth something when it is your personal preference. A good way to find the best beers is to review medal-winning beers by searching the respective websites of the major events. The more frequently a beer medals and the more widely across events it medals then the more credible the beer.

Accreditation to support judging can be gained from studies in beer judging, food pairing, fault training and more formally through Cicerone programs such as ‘Beer Savvy’ and ‘Beer Cicerone’ (beer’s answer to sommeliers of wine).

 

The full article in the Beer & Brewer Autumn Issue also looks at beer faults and benchmark beers to know. The issue hits stands on Monday, 21 March.  

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