Beer judging a complicated job
By Greg Copen | Jun 12, 2013

The American Homebrewers Association (AHA) recently released the results of its 2013 national competition. (Drum roll, please!)

Even though my beers didn’t perform as well as they have in the past, I’m proud of my brewing club partners from Virginia. Scott, the Mad Scientist, strikes again by taking first place in the lager category for the Atlanta region.

Jose took second place in the same category. Both beers will advance to the second round and contend for a national medal later this year. The Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP) judges rated my porter as a “good” beer. Typically, I strive for better ratings, but the judges’ feedback is the most important result from the competition. The medals are just a bonus!

Entering a competition is a great way to improve your beers because you’ll receive objective criticism from an independent party. Of course, beer judging is subjective and results will vary because of many factors, including a judge’s personal preference.

Competitions typically average multiple judges’ scores to mitigate their preferences as much as possible. A brewer may read the comments from all judges and make some recommended adjustments when it’s time to brew the next batch.

I frequently give beer samples to my friends and ask for feedback. Not every person will like every beer, but most are capable of giving their opinion. It’s important to understand their preferences to categorize their feedback. IPA (India Pale Ale) drinkers will lean toward more bitter beers; stout drinkers typically want less bitter and more roasted flavors.

I’m sure judging is a complicated process. A judge must concentrate on the characteristics of each style and use all five senses to detect subtle flaws in the complex flavors of the beer. Flaws can result from a bad recipe or a simple mistake in the brewing process.

Off flavors may also be a result of reasons ranging from fermenting a beer at the wrong temperature to using a chlorine-based detergent during the sanitation process and not getting a clean rinse.

Brewing isn’t a complicated process, but it requires a great deal of attention to detail. Simple mistakes in the process can lead to serious flaws in the taste of your beer. Cleanliness is the key to preventing most issues. I spend as much time cleaning and sanitizing my equipment as I do making the beer.

I clean as I brew by scrubbing all of my containers with a brush after each use. Prior to using the equipment for the next batch, I’ll rinse it with a food-grade sanitizer. The sanitizer eliminates bacteria that could alter the taste of a beer. Once you’re sure your equipment is clean, then you can concentrate on the recipe and the fermenting process.

I use feedback from friends and professional judges to modify my recipes. A beer may not score as high as expected in a competition, but generally I receive advice from certified people who take their judging of craft beer very seriously. I’ve also invested a few dollars in a freezer that controls my fermentation temperatures.

All these factors contribute to the final taste of my beers. It’s taken several years to perfect my process and I’m sure it’ll take even longer to perfect my recipes.

Bottom line: if you’re a budding beer maker, factor in a good dose of patience and a willingness to learn from constructive criticism. Brewing is a lifelong journey.