BJCP Exam Countdown: The Home Stretch

by Billy Broas

5 weeks.Sour beers for the bjcp exam.

That’s how far away the BJCP exam is.

For some background, I’ve been wanting to become a certified beer judge for years now. Last January it was one of my New Years Resolutions to pass the exam; a group of us formed to study for it.

There is a huge demand for the BJCP and not enough resources, so the earliest we could schedule it was March 2013. In hindsight, I’m glad we’ve had over a year to study because it’s a ton to learn and a whole lot of fun.

We’ve been fairly consistent about meeting every two weeks. The study sessions generally go like this:

  • Choose a BJCP style category (the next one in line)
  • Someone brings bottled examples of the style
  • We read the guidelines, taste the beer, and fill out scoresheets

We haven’t been too disciplined about formally judging beers because it’s much more fun to just sit and talk about them, but that will now change as the exam is right around the corner.

A Change of Approach

In 2012 there were changes to the BJCP exam structure. You can read all of the details (pdf) if you wish, but to sum it up:

  • The exam used to be a combination of a tasting exam and a written exam. They are now separate exams, and you must pass the tasting exam before becoming eligible for the written exam.
  • There is now an online entrance exam which you must pass in order to take the tasting exam.
  • The tasting exam consists of judging six beers (compared to the previous four) and comparing your scores against those of the exam proctor (a National or Master judge).

So the individual exams and their sequence is this: online entrance exam -> tasting exam -> written exam.

The exam we have in March is the tasting exam. To me, it is a relief that we’re no longer doing the written exam. When we learned of the changes we altered our strategy. Since we no longer need to be as well versed on technical topics (brewing techniques, beer style attributes, etc), we could focus strictly on tasting, judging, and learning off-flavors.

Yes, you do need to know those technical topics and style guidelines for the online entrance exam, but it is nowhere near as in-depth as the written exam. I passed the online exam recently and it’s not that difficult if you have a good base knowledge of beer styles and some brewing experience.

Off Flavor Tasting Kit for beer.

Off flavor kit & our delicious base beer.

The Home Stretch

The strategy for these final weeks is judge, judge, judge. We’ve made it through all of the BJCP styles and are now just going to concentrate on filling out scoresheets.

No one is a “natural” at filling out scoresheets. Even if you have the best palate in the world, it doesn’t mean you are good at giving feedback to homebrewers.

Filling out scoresheets with other judges is critical. You need to calibrate your judging and discover any blind spots you may have. If you score a beer at 40 and another judge gives it a 20, that’s not good. In the tasting exam, the farther away your score is from the proctor’s, the more points you lose.

I know I need work at judging. If I took the exam today I’d be in trouble. But I’ve made big strides in the past year and as long as I buckle down between now and exam time, I’m confident I’ll do well.

Besides, it doesn’t take much to convince me to drink more beer.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Jack January 23, 2013 at 11:39 am

Good luck! Suffice it to say I’m jealous that you get to take the exam soon. With how popular it has become getting into an exam is really tough. The ones you see listed on the scheduled exams page are already full by the time they get listed. Seems to get into one you really do need to get a proctor willing to help schedule one and be on the list before it gets scheduled, and that’s not easy to do.

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Billy Broas January 23, 2013 at 11:47 am

It is tough to schedule one, and if I were in charge of it I’m sure it would just be a reoccurring New Years resolution (shoutout to @pintwell for organizing it for us). Yes, they are usually full by the time they are listed. That’s because most people, like us, get a group together and then find a proctor & administrator for the exam. Then it is posted.

It does make me more motivated to do well knowing that I can’t just take the test again the following weekend. You can’t take it for granted.

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Luis Tovar January 23, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Damn! I just took my online exam last night, and was hoping to take the tasting exam in June. From seeing your comments, it looks like I’m going to have to push it back!
Good luck on your test!

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Brett A. Robison January 23, 2013 at 12:58 pm

I just took the tasting exam a week ago. The worst part right now is awaiting the results. I think the biggest thing I focused on while practicing and then while taking the exam was relating the flavors back to how the beer was brewed. I think if you focus on those connections and their impact on flavor you’ll be well suited. I could be wrong, for all I know I tanked it. Also, be ready for an intense curveball. I was given an American and/or Imperial IPA with a huge citrus profile. It was given as a submission to English IPA. The beer was delicious but I gave it a 29/50 for being in the wrong category. Again, maybe I was wrong there but be aware they may do this to you. Lastly, no coffee on the day of, it’ll wreck your palate.

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Billy Broas January 23, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Hey Brett, I bet the wait is terrible. I hope you do well and please come back and let us know the results.

Good advice about tying flavors back to the process, which is why being a homebrewer is invaluable with this exam. I’ve heard about the curveballs. Did you get any beers that seemed intentionally spiked with off-flavors?

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Steve January 24, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Very true about calibrating your palette to other judges. When I was employed by the FDA I was trained as a field sensory analyst and tasked with sniffing fish (beer is much more fun). For the life of me I could not discriminate between the sweetness of fresh fish or the sweetness of the sour milk aroma of slightly decomposed fish. After 40 hours of training I was able to understand my limitations and score the fish accordingly.

40 hours of training and the entire class was scoring fish really close to the best sniffers in the world.

Also hate that the exams are constantly filled up and/or paired with homebrew clubs. Did you form your own club and schedule this or just do it as some sort of group?

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Billy Broas January 24, 2013 at 4:45 pm

Hey Steve, really interesting position you had. You’d probably be a jedi beer judge with that type of training – I just hope no beer you smell ever brings back memories of your previous career!

For our exam, I reached out to a bunch of beer people I knew in town. There were others that were interested in taking the BJCP, so we formed a study group and got an exam scheduled for us. People have came and gone, and the exam will probably be about half people from our study group and half people that emailed us wanting to take the exam, for 12 total exam takers.

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Mike Pietropaoli January 28, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Hey Billy we are on a similar schedule. I passed my online exam in October, have judged one comp as a provisional (judged saisons with Dave Houseman in the afternoon, who contributes to the calibration column in Zymurgy…such a great guy and a great teacher!) and stewarded two others prior. I was particularly psyched when Dave and I would come up with the same score for a beer! I signed up for the tasting exam in December 2011 and got WAITLISTED for the exam in Feb ’13 (eventually barely snuck in!)

I’ve found a few things to be helpful, though I wish I could find a group of people that were committed to meeting more regularly, though one of my clubs does a non-sanctioned comp every month, which has helped me taste different beer, learn the styles (somewhat, as we do a different category each month), and learn to use descriptors.

Finally, I have been trying to fill out a minimum of 5 scoresheets per week. A couple of things I have found helpful as well:

-my proctor recommended taking one beer (eg Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout), and judging it in three different categories, ie “Oatmeal Stout”, “Russian Imperial Stout”, and “Baltic Porter”. That way, you can learn to identify STYLE flaws and not just technical flaws. SS’s Oatmeal Stout is a well-made beer, but it is probably not the best Baltic Porter…this would help with the AmIPA/English IPA curveball one of the posters above noted.
-I’ve been looking through Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate for simple reviews of the beer I just evaluated. Like anything crowd-sourced, a lot of the ‘data’ can be crap, but I might catch a descriptor that I missed.
-Finally, I will quiz myself on some reverse-learning stuff (there’s probably a more technical term). Ie instead of reading the style guidelines for saison and biere de garde, I will try to write down the differences between a saison and biere de garde. For example:

Biere de garde has (should have):
-malty upfront sweetness followed by dryness
-low esters, malt-focused aroma potentially with some toasty character
-clean lager character over some melanoidin

Saison:
-ester/yeast-forward aroma
-much more citrus/tart flavor
-similar dryness
-some hop bitterness (whereas the dryness in a BDG comes more from the fermentation)

This may be completely useless, but it helps me remember style characteristics. Where I do get a bit fuzzy is on the difference between a German Pils and a Bo Pils (german has more hop bitterness, higher carb?), and a N. German Alt and a Dusseldorf Alt!

Anyway, cheers and good luck on the exam!
Mike

PS Love your bucket list beers, but its tough getting them on a Monday morning!

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Billy Broas January 28, 2013 at 8:25 pm

Very helpful comment Mike. Comparing beers, especially similar ones, against each other is a great way to learn. It makes you pick out the small differences that are so important in judging to style.

Judging with Dave Houseman is a heck of an opportunity. I’m sure I would recognize him from seeing his face so often in the commercial calibration columns.

lol Good point about the Monday bucket list picks. Maybe I should move them to Friday and stop torturing people all week.

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Matt Savage February 7, 2013 at 11:56 am

Be prepared to wait 5-6 months for your results. You will get your BJCP ID before that but you won’t know your score until much later. I just passed mine and had enough points to be certified instead of recognized. Unless you are sure you are going to get an 80 or above it wouldn’t hurt to sign up for another one now if you ever want to be a national or above.

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Billy Broas February 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm

That wait is a killer….

Nice job with with the certified rank! Good call on looking for another exam. Couldn’t hurt.

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Shawn February 14, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Good luck with the exam. I’d love to try taking it sometime, but there’s not a lot of them being given in Atlantic Canada!

From a few people I’ve spoken with who have taken the new exam, it seems to be pretty consistently: 2 beers that are good or even great examples of the style, 1 that is severely flawed (sour, skunky, astringent, etc.), 1 that is flawed or at least mis-categorized, and 2 that have minor issues.

But, of course, don’t quote me on that!

Looking forward to hearing how you do. Great site, by the way!

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Billy Broas February 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Thanks for the tips Shawn. I’ve heard that structure as well and will be on the lookout for it. Good luck getting an exam of your own.

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Gary Fuller February 19, 2013 at 1:29 pm

I just took my tasting in Texas, I live in Florida.

My suggestion, if you want to get into an exam, contact any and all exam coordinators listed anywhere that you are willing to travel to. Get on their waiting list. I was on the TX waiting list for almost 8 months before a spot opened up. Thank goodness I have family in Dallas. And I have to thank James Lallande and his group of brewers in dalls and FW that were so welcoming of me to join their judging exam. James has an exam scheduled in his area about every 6 months by the way.

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Shegogue Brew May 13, 2013 at 8:27 am

Hey Billy,

How’d your exam go? I have been studying for my exam scheduled for this September and was just a steward at my first competition. I think i really need to increase my “description vocabulary,” but i my scores in my head were matching up with the judges so I am a little more confident now than before…due to my schedule its really hard for me to study with others, so helping with the competition was huge for the studying process!

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Billy Broas May 15, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Still waiting on my score. Hopefully it comes soon.

Stewarding and Judging is the best way to study in my opinion. You’ll learn to calibrate your scores to those of the judges. You also need to know the styles inside and out, so download the BJCP app and go through them whenever you have downtime.

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