Tuesday, October 23, 2012

2012 BC Beer Awards Judging, and Judging To Style

A few photos of the BC Beer Awards judging that took place in late September at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts by Granville Island.  A great venue for another long but satisfying day judging beer.

Heads down judging

A mini-best-of-show to determine a category winner

Happy judges!

Some of the samples for a mini-BOS

Judging To Style Guidelines and Judging Commercial Beer

The primary purpose of judging beer within the BJCP rules is to help homebrewers make better beer.  Experienced judges can identify flaws or inadequacies in the brewing process, or in a recipe, or in handling/storing a beer, and advice is given accordingly.  Awards are mostly for bragging rights & prizes of free equipment or ingredients.  Homebrewers put a lot of time and effort into their beer, paying an entrance fee and carefully shipping their beer to a competition - so we judges need to provide the best advice we can via our evaluation sheets (which are sent back to the brewers after the competition).

Beer is judged according to its intended style, largely out of necessity - you need to know what the brewer was trying to achieve before you can determine if he/she was successful, and you need a uniform method of comparing and ranking similar beers.  The BJCP provides detailed sensory evaluation guidelines for dozens of styles of beer; competition entries are judged to those guidelines.  If you create a unique beer that doesn't fit a usual style, you can enter it into one of the catch-all "specialty" categories.

While there's a subjective element to all beer judging, the BJCP rules are designed to make judging as objective as possible.  Without predefined style guidelines to judge to, the only questions would be "how good is this beer?" (and the answers would be entirely subjective, according to each judge's personal preference), and "which of these 300 wildly different beers is best?" (to which each judge would answer differently, and there would be no clear winners).

Some people (usually beer consumers rather than homebrewers) don't like the idea of judging to predefined styles.  Some perhaps think that certain great beers would "fall between the cracks" style-wise and score poorly as a result.  This isn't necessarily true - some styles in the guidelines are quite broad and encompass many different expressions, while styles with very specific attributes might be narrow.  And there's always the "specialty" judging categories, which are catch-alls for unique beers.  Some people might think that the closer a beer matches the published style guidelines the higher a beer will score, regardless of its overall quality.  This is also not necessarily true.  A beer that is radically off-style with respect to the guidelines can expect a terrible score (e.g. a really great stout is always a really terrible pilsner).  But if a beer is on-style with respect to the published guidelines, and is free from flaws, the score is not determined by the degree to which it matches the guidelines; at this point the score will be related to the overall balance, the sum of the parts, the drinkability and other intangible elements that separate truly world-class beer from only decent beer.

Judging commercial beers is decidedly different than judging homebrew.  In no particular order:

  1. It's a given that the vast majority of commercial beers will not have major flaws - and it takes a lot more effort to judge beers that are all pretty good than it does to judge homebrew that varies from bad to excellent.  
  2. Commercial breweries brew for profit, not to win competitions - so they don't care about brewing exactly to a set of style guidelines, though they will likely brew beer that their drinkers can recognize with a couple-of-words description (e.g. "Dry Irish Stout" or "Dry-Hopped Saison").  Many commercial beers fall within the guidelines for common styles, while others are best entered in the "specialty" (catch-all) categories. 
  3. Commercial breweries enter competitions to win medals that enhance their image & can be used for marketing - and to enter costs them almost nothing in terms of money or effort.  They lob a six-pack of beer at a commercial competition and hope that they get a medal out of it, easy peasy.  If they don't medal, no problem, they're still selling beer.
  4. Professional brewers are very sophisticated and generally don't care what a bunch of judges think about their beer; they brew exactly what they want to and need to, and generally do it well.  So the primary "feedback" and "advice" function of judging is not of value to them.  (The BC Beer Awards uses checklist-style judging sheets - these allow faster judging because they eliminate the detailed written feedback that homebrewers expect and professionals don't want/need.) 
  5. Beer judges are not saying your favourite commercial beer is inferior just because it didn't win a medal in a competition.  (e.g. Driftwood's Fat Tug IPA is a fantastic IPA, regardless of whether or not it won a medal.)  If a great beer doesn't medal, it probably means competition was stiff.

You can be confident there are solid reasons behind beer judges' evaluations, based on a significant amount of knowledge, experience and judging effort - especially if a judge has a BJCP rank of some sort.  In fact, every judge provides his/her email address on every judging sheet so the brewers may contact the judge if they have any questions about their evaluation - which provides extra incentive to judge accurately and constructively!

I was busy judging beer rather than taking photos, but fortunately @sujindertakeaim tweeted some much snazzier instagram-ed pictures, which I've included below.

Hard at work judging

Entries are organized in another room, out of view of the judges

Best Of Show evaluation - the winners in each style category are compared

Deep thoughts (and arguments) about the Best Of Show contenders


  1. Judging professional beers is a totally different kettle of fish to judging home brews. Homebrew competitions that follow the BJCP guidelines are about amateurs attempting to make a 'professional' quality brew to certain set of guidelines set down by the BJCP for home brews.

    "Brewing to style" is not for professional outfits as their beers may miss out on an award as it is not "to style". Brewing should be about quality, innovation, balance, finesse and creativity.

    Imposing the BJCP system on the world of commercially made beer is letting the tail wag the dog.

    The BJCP style rules are rather arbitrary and in some cases do not represent the actual beer being made - especially in Europe where the BJCP style guidelines are viewed as some US home brewers telling Europeans what their beer, made for centuries should look and taste like.

    Judges for beer should come from a broad range of industry professionals (including certified homebrew judges, brewers, buyers, writers, beer sommeliers etc) as they do in Wine and spirit competitions to get a broad palate rather than a narrow view on the relative quality of beers.

    1. Thanks for sharing Beer Wrangler - fair comments (though I think fewer deserving beers than you might think miss out on awards due solely to the judging system used).

      Personally, I don't believe the BJCP guidelines are "imposed" on commercial beers, or that a particular set of judging guidelines stifles commercial innovation, creativity, quality, etc. See points 2, 3 and 4 in my post: I doubt any professional brewer makes beer in order to win a BJCP competition or according to BJCP guidelines, so I don't think the judging system affects commercial beer at all. Brewers can enter a BJCP competition if they want to, with the understanding that it will be judged according to those rules. They can also enter non-BJCP competitions (i.e. GABF). But nothing is forcing them to enter. And nothing is stopping anyone from coming up with a better judging system for commercial beers and/or hosting competitions using such a new system. Though that would involve an outrageous amount of work.

      Also, the BJCP guidelines aren't meant to tell commercial brewers how their beer should taste. Quite the opposite - they are written by true beer experts to reflect reality, to encapsulate the features of world-class commercial examples of particular styles. Traditional European beers are what the applicable sections of the guidelines are based on! (Though they are updated every few years to reflect new or changing styles.)

      A diverse panel of judges is an interesting idea, but it's not a panacea: each will still bring his/her own set of subjective, personal criteria to a competition - so unless you have some kind of uniform guidelines, competition results are likely to be comparatively inconsistent and arbitrary.