First off, if you're not familiar with the BJCP, it's the Beer Judge Certification Program. The purpose of the BJCP is:
Style guidelines are one of the important contributions of the BJCP from a competition perspective because they serve to define characteristics for recognized beer styles. The BJCP also focuses on developing a common beer vocabulary which is important for being able to describe virtually everything about a particular beer, including its appearance, aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel. This is important because it doesn’t matter how great your palate is if you can’t describe what you’re tasting.
Encourage knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the world's diverse beer, mead, and cider styles; Promote, recognize, and advance beer, mead, and cider tasting, evaluation, and communication skills; and Develop standardized tools, methods, and processes for the structured evaluation, ranking and feedback of beer, mead, and cider.
So, let’s say you’re to the point that you’re hooked on the hobby and you want to dive a little deeper and learn about the various beer styles around the world. Or let’s say you’re a seasoned homebrewer that’s stewarded or even judged in a competition and wants to dive deeper into the brewing hobby. If either of these statements describe you, then you’re probably a good candidate for taking the exam.
Step 1 - Entrance Exam
The overall process for becoming a certified judge starts with the entrance exam which is a timed online exam. The BJCP’s site has plenty of details about the exam, so I won’t get too detailed here. The only thing I’ll say is it’s open book, but I wouldn’t recommend taking it without studying. It consists of 180 questions in 60 minutes. That’s 20 seconds per question. There are some questions that everyone gets, then other questions that are pulled from a pool of available questions. Long story short, you won’t get the same test as your buddy. Some people I know have passed without studying, but for the majority of us it would be a waste of money to take the exam without prepping.
Numerous questions will focus on style comparisons and typically involve popular/common classic styles. One funny note, I had multiple questions re 19B California Common (Steam Beer) and 10A Weissbier, two styles I rarely drink because they just aren’t favorites of mine. I'd spent a lot of time studying American Pale Ale, Porters, and Stouts...but definitely not California Common or Weissbier. One nice thing, you immediately find out at the end of the hour whether you passed.
Step 2 - Tasting Exam
After passing the entrance exam, the next step is to take the Tasting Exam. Although this may seem intimidating, it's really not too bad, especially if you’ve judged in a competition before. Personally, I was much more nervous about the Entrance Exam due to the time limitation than the Tasting Exam. Although the Tasting Exam also has a time component. The Tasting Exam is similar to judging a competition, so if you've done that before, you should be familiar with the process. A few tips:
- Make sure you’re familiar with the BJCP scoresheets.
- Practice judging at home with various styles and time yourself. You’re shooting for a 100% completed scoresheet in no more than 15 minutes. That seems like a lot of time but it goes by quick.
- If you can pair with an experienced judge for some practice sessions, do it. They’ll help you validate and describe what your tasting.
- Re the scoresheets, focus on completeness. Whitespace is bad. Use all available lines for each section.
- Get familiar with common terminology/vocabulary to describe malt, hops, and yeast-derived characters. For example, bready, floral, fruity, phenolic, estery, etc.
- Use quantifying descriptions with your malt, hop, and yeast descriptors. For example, low fruity hop aroma.
- If you get hung up on something, skip it and come back to it after a minute or two.
- Practice writing legibly. My penmanship used to be incredible. Years of working on computers and tablets have definitely had a negative impact. Write clearly so the exam graders can easily read your comments.
The Tasting Exam is not open book, in fact no phones or reference materials of any kind are allowed. It’s just you, your pencil, and the beers you’re judging. You’re not allowed to discuss the beers with anyone until after the exam concludes. For the Tasting Exam itself, you’ll be judging side by side with about a dozen other examinees. There will also be a couple proctor judges as well, but they won’t be seated with the examinees. You get 15 minutes per beer, 6 beers overall, so a total of 90 minutes. 15 minutes flies by, so make sure you’re timing yourself during your practice judging sessions. At the end of the exam after everyone’s scoresheets had been collected by the administrator, we talked about each beer with the proctors. This will give you an idea of how well you did by how close your scores and comments matched up with the proctors.
Ok, so now you’ve made it through the Entrance Exam and the Tasting Exam. Here’s the hardest part…waiting for your exam results. The tasting exams are individually graded by volunteers, experienced judges who are also graders that will evaluate your feedback compared to the proctor judges. Timelines vary a little, but I wouldn’t expect to get your results any sooner than 3 months from the exam date. That seems like a long time but try to remember it’s a volunteer organization and the graders are literally reading through all comments from all examinees. Mine ended up taking about five months if I remember correctly but that seems to be longer than most.
That’s about it. If you don’t score well the first time, try not to beat yourself up over it. I mean, it’s just beer after all. You can always retake the exam, plus you do earn points for judging which will help you advance if you struggled with the exam. Cheers and happy brewing and judging.
Resources - Below are some resources I found helpful in studying for both the Online Entrance Exam and the Tasting Exam:
- Barleypopmaker's free BJCP prep course videos. I found these videos very helpful. They give you a great overview of the process and help you focus on key points. Take notes, especially for things he tells you will be on the test. Edit: This website seems to no longer be available, but the videos are still on YouTube.
- Beer Style Compare-O-Matic from beersyndicate.com - I didn't see this one until after I'd already passed the Entrance Exam, but it would have been very helpful during the open book exam. This tool really makes it easy to compare styles on the fly. You will be comparing styles during the test...the only question is which styles will you be comparing?
- BJCP.org - The BJCP has published numerous materials that will help you pass both the Entrance and Tasting exams.