For a novice beer judge, the first morning of judging can be an intimidating affair. I recall my own state of mind when I initially walked into a room of sensory specialists, seasoned and experienced.
There were few women - only three or four among a group of forty men. I had run through the ranks of the Beer Judge Certification Program and knew I needed to trust my training and my instincts. As a woman, I had been exposed to many spices, aromas and flavor profiles in the normal course of cooking, so I had advantages that may not come as naturally for people who had, by their own orchestration, avoided such tasks.
One of the most difficult parts of judging is the sensory identification of flavor. For those taking a BJCP course, recognition of off-flavors comes in the latter stages of training. Many trainees wish it came earlier, but a clear understanding of beer styles is necessary in the beginning. Aromas and flavors that indicate a flaw in some styles may actually define another style.
For example, Berliner Weiss has a sharply sour, acidic profile. This would be a dramatic flaw in a Bohemian Pilsner. Old Ale is vinous and often oxidative. Russian Imperial Stout may also have a vinous character, albiet more port-like, but should not have any signs of wet-cardboard or sherry-like aromas.
What is the best way to train your palate, without spending big bucks on a flavor kit for sensory training?
First, familiarize yourself with common aromas. The fruit and vegetable aisle at your local market is a good place to start. A Farmerís Market will serve even better. Most fruits have pungent aromas that infuse the air with esters. Strive to identify the differences among several types of berries. Citrus fruits also have distinctive aromas, even though they also have a citrusy profile that identifies them. Tomatoes, corn, broccoli, cabbage, celery, and cauliflower can help you identify DMS and vegetal flaws in beer, so become well-versed at recognizing these with your eyes closed.
You may look a little foolish sniffing fruits and vegetables with your eyes closed, so donít be surprised if a store employee calls in the ejection police. It may be better to purchase produce that is less familiar to you; then, examine it more closely in your kitchen.
A Specialty Spice Shop is also a great place to become familiar with aromas. Fresh spices have a higher level of intensity than those packaged by McCormick or ACH Foods. If you have not often used spices in food preparation, it may be difficult for you to identify common beer flavors. Clove, coriander, orange peel, rose hips, lavender, hickory smoke, cinnamon, black pepper, ginger, nutmeg, pink and green peppercorns, vanilla, nutmeg, almond extract, caraway, saffron, heather, cilantro, and mint are common aromas and flavors found in beer. A Homebrew shop may have other herbs not commonly found in the spice store. Consider growing an herb garden Ö or your own hops.
One last exercise that will help you: Assemble a do-it-yourself flavor kit. Use a bland beer (Bud-Miller-Coors lager) to start. Mark up several red plastic cups on the bottom with tags (so you can't see them). Put the same amount of beer in each cup - then doctor them with the following ingredients:
A drop (or 2) of butter flavoring (diacetyl)
A drop of Vanilla Extract
A few drops of apple juice (acetaldehyde)
Canned corn juice (DMS)
Expose one to the sun for 5-10 minutes (skunky)
Onion powder (Vegetal)
A few drops of molasses
Mix well, to completely dissolve all liquids or powders. Be careful not to contaminate the doctored beer with any of the other ingredients. Then mix the cups around so you don't know which is which. Try to identify them. It's hard.
When you get good at that, you can try the same exercise with Stout or Wheat beer. You will be stunned at the difference, but well on your way to becoming a beer judge with a more refined sensory palate.