Beer judges are tasked with the job of tasting beer. Tough job, to say the least! We all laugh at the very idea that this could be a difficult thing, and readily volunteer to taste a free sample. As we come to grips with the actual task, however, we need to understand the expectations of the brewers, and the purpose behind our sensory evaluation.
Homebrewers span a range of experience levels. They may be absolute novices, looking for feedback to improve the quality of their beer process and the choice of ingredients. But those brewing for a long time may be highly proficient, out-distancing many professional brewers with a bag of tricks and a “hobbyist’s budget” that allows them to design experimental beers with exotic ingredients. They may keep detailed journals of every aspect of the process, use convection burners, or referment in the bottle. But at every level, they are looking for the voice of experience to guide them in understanding how their beer is perceived, as well as recommendations for improvement. This is the nature of their involvement with beer.
Josh Weikert, award-winning member of Stoney Creek Homebrewers in Southeastern Pennsylvania, gives some examples of how this works:
“[One homebrewer] said he ‘dry hopped’ and used some spice. We commented we got NO impression from the dry-hopping, and he wrote to tell us he meant he ‘dry hopped with the spice.’ I e-mailed him back to say that he should just say ‘added spice post-fermentation’ - dry-hopping is with HOPS.”
Weichert advises, “never comment on what you think they used. You can make [a clear]point by saying ‘use only pale malts and light simple sugars in recipe’ or ‘consider increasing sugar-grist ratio,’” rather than making incorrect assumptions.
He continues, “It's possible to give advice without making guesses on ingredients or process. Just as an example, if bitterness seems harsh we might recommend cutting the water with distilled, using a lower cohumulone hop, etc.”
Professional brewers typically want to know how close they came to brewing a world-class style in every aspect of sensory perception. They have attended Siebel, Weihenstephan, UC Davis, American Brewers Guild, or any of a number of educational programs, and most have a solid understanding of the chemistry behind the brew. They don’t need or want the same kind of feedback that a Homebrewer desires. It is usually enough to give sound, detailed information about each perceived characteristic, and leave the analysis to the brewer. Of course, if you feel that you have valuable comments to make on the process or ingredients, you are obligated to provide that feedback.
The Evaluation Process
How does a judge describe these perceived characteristics? It’s complicated. Aroma is complex, and is the first aspect that a judge will analyze. Some aromas are highly volatile and may evaporate quickly. The judge does not want to miss a great first impression, so she will inhale, without hesitation, as soon as the beer is presented. Often, off-aromas are the first thing a judge will notice, including those of nail-lacquer, butterscotch, green apple, grass, or soured malt. In some styles, these may be perceived as good, but not in most. The judge may look for maltiness, hoppiness, lactic components, or fruity esters.
Appearance is also evaluated, including color or SRMs, clarity, chill haze, evidence of wheat or dry hopping, floaters, effervescence, head, lacing, or legs. Depending on style and level of alcohol, the beer may have a billowy layer of mousse, for example, or it may have appropriate legs and virtually no head.
Flavor is another level of subjectivity in which different palates may perceive markedly different impressions. Maltiness is often listed as one aspect of flavor, but needs to be further defined. Maillard reactions from the malting process will produce bread-like flavors such as biscuit, toasted crust, fresh baked bread, nuttiness, and most chocolate or coffee flavors, whereas Caramelization reactions will produce flavors of light honey, caramel, toffee, burnt sugar, and raisin.
Another aspect of flavor is sweetness or dryness, but this is a separate characteristic from the malt aspect. Many judges think of caramel flavor as “sweet,” for example; however, the attenuation of the beer can be changed by mashing. The result can produce beers of equal maltiness, but different residual sweetness. Choice of hops or addition schedule can alter the perceived balance of maltiness, as well, but many essential oils may be lost in the boil, increasing the perception of maltiness, despite the amount of hops used. Late additions or dry hopping will reinvigorate these alpha acid resins, but can vary in intensity from year to year.
Although fruity esters may be one aspect of hoppiness, they are more often the result of yeast action, in combination with fermentation temperature. In some instances, fruitiness may be the direct result of fruit extract, puree, or fresh fruit additions.
Mouthfeel is another aspect of judging, and is often confused with the impression of how malty a beer is. In reality, mouthfeel is governed by the unfermentable sugars remaining in beer, or by soluble proteins and beta glucans from malts. Beers such as Doppelbocks or India Pale Ales may be perceived as highly malty due to their full mouthfeel, but may have the same level of maltiness as the lighter-bodied Scottish Ales or Dry Stouts.
Overall Impression evaluates intangible, organoleptic aspects that make a beer world class. If a beer leaves gentle warmth in the throat, for example, or makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up in a good way, it may deserve a higher score. It may have aspects that make your eyes water, or a profile reminiscent of barnyard or horse blanket. One judge may perceive these as good, while another may report this with a scathing review. Regardless, perceive prolific feedback as constructive. There’s nothing worse than getting a score sheet that only says, “Nice beer.”
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