Judging beer is a complex matter and one which I have thought long and hard about. What makes one beer better than another, how can a simple pilsner be “better” than a complex imperial stout? How can you compare apples to oranges?
One solution has grown out of the home-brew movement in America. The BJCP was founded in 1985 by the American Homebrewers Association (along with the Home Wine and Beer Trade Association) in an effort to have some continuity and standards set for homebrew competitions. They have a dizzying seven levels of beer judge with freemason-like progression of ranks from ‘apprentice’ to ‘honorary grand master’. The parameters set are based in a series of style guidelines that homebrewers have to brew to. The closest representation to the declared style, without faults achieves the highest score.
I have chatted with a couple of certified BJCP judges and asked about judging the quality of beer, and tried to compare it to the professional assessing of wine and spirits. The two methods are very different and I wondered how that may have come about. One judge described it to me as “dog show” judging. The style guidelines are like the Kennel Club breed standards description, and the best examples that match or get closest to those guidelines, while maintaining quality, and exhibiting no brewing faults will get the highest scores.
Progressing to a ‘best in show’ and finding the beer that is better than others, regardless of style, is a simple task of lining up the scores given in the style round, re-tasting to ensure accuracy and confirming the original assessment and declaring the winner. The winner therefore is the beer that is closest to the style guidelines of its particular style (with the afore mentioned quality and fault-free provisos).
Now this makes perfect sense for homebrew competitions as the amateur is attempting to brew something that could pass (and on many occasions surpass) a professionally made beer. I personally feel that this system is not as useful for commercially available beers. The first stumbling block are the style guidelines, these are strict descriptions of the flavours that should (or not) appear in any given beer, in short the “breed standards” that the beer is attempting to emulate. These can be a bit arbitrary as styles develop and change, especially historic styles.
Take porter for example, using meaningless terms like “Brown Porter and Robust Porter” which have no basis in the names used in the UK where the style was developed and evolved. There was brown stout and stout porter; grain bills, alcohol and flavours changed over the years from the early 18th century when a well hopped (for the time) brown beer grew into what became known as porter. There were porters in the early 20th century that were renamed “stout” for marketing reasons without a change in recipe. So who are the BJCP to decide what professional brewers should brew and what to call it?
I think they are trying to preserve in aspic what is a natural evolution of beer styles. A pint of pale ale is different now than it was in 1730, so which is the “real deal”? How close in taste is an American IPA to those shipped to India in the heyday of the British Empire; is it close enough to actually use the term IPA in any meaningful way?
These are just examples of the issues at stake. I have no problem with attempting to define beers, as it helps sell it and inform the consumer, but the BJCP has become a self appointed arbiter on what is and is not a style and what it should taste like. They may well offer good representation of what home-brewers want to make and how they are judged, and perhaps have been accepted by American breweries to determine styles and quality, but they regarded with a certain amount of apathy if not total disregard in Belgium and the UK. German breweries probably haven’t even heard of them!
The beer historian and award winning author Martyn Cornell wrote an article on the differences between Old Ale and Barley Wine (and Burton Ale) here and it serves as a good example how styles can merge and crossover over time.
In reality Beer can be made in a myriad of ways, and just getting to be the nearest to the BJCP style standard is not enough.
The other factor published by the BJCP is quoted as “indefinable magic”. Really? Magic? come on you professional beer judges, you can do better than that! What about texture, balance, complexity, the harmony of flavours, integration and finish for example? No one in the business of professional evaluation of anything, including beverages, should be able to fob off something “indefinable” as magic. You are a professional so are being paid to define it!
I think that those who study for the BJCP and pass are undertaking a comprehensive and challenging task and although I have the utmost respect for their tasting ability, it is the fact that it is fast becoming the only method where by beer is judged that i have deep reservations. Why not take a leaf out the other 2 sectors (spirits and wine) and assemble panels of professionals from the industry, of which BJCP judges would be a welcome addition? Writers, retail and licensee buyers, beverage directors, (beer) sommeliers, brewers and educators can all contribute a wealth of expertise and not get confined to a dogmatic and narrow view of beer judging that will only reward brews that conform to the BJCP othordoxy.