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A Look at Ethics in Beer Judging

05/07/2018

Beer competition judges must rise to the challenge of fairness and integrity.

To the serious home brewer, spring means more than budding trees and blooming flowers. It also represents the blossoming of scores of regional and national beer competitions, such as the first round of the AHA Nationals in April. My mailbox now overflows with beer contest announcements from Alaska to Florida and just about everywhere in between. Now that the season of beer competition is once again truly upon us, it might be a good time for those of us who judge to engage in a little introspection.

Observing the beer judging process can be a little like watching those endless figure skating competitions that dominate post-football-weekend sports on television. No matter who you see or where the competition takes place, there’s bound to be an Eastern European judge out there who feels duty-bound to trash just about anything foreign to his experience. In the community of brewers, this is the guy who wouldn’t give 40 points to a beer if his life depended on it; in fact, his standards are so high that even 30 is a struggle for him. His main concern is looking for faults, not strengths. To him, da Vinci used too many brush strokes, Mozart too many notes. DMS is lurking everywhere, along with diacetyl, objectionable phenols, and wild yeasts. (It is unfortunate that nearly all of the beer characteristics listed on typical judging sheets are negative ones.) In fact, he seems to find so many things wrong with your beer that you wonder why he judges in the first place, since it forces him to taste so many inferior brews.

Or how about this experience? You’ve carefully brewed to style and entered your beer accordingly, only to have it dismissed by judges who seemed to think your brew was significantly off the mark. When you read the judging sheets, you discovered that all the judges noted — as faults — the exact characteristics you were trying to achieve. Did these bozos know the style at all or, worse yet, even actually judge the beer you entered?

Neither of these questions are too much of a stretch. In my own experience, the panel in one competition mistakenly judged my imperial stout as a classic dry stout. Such errors do occur in large competitions, so conscientious judges should double-check entries that seem out of category to make sure the error is the brewer’s and not the registrar’s. (This is when doing things by the AHA book, which says to just “judge the entry as is,” doesn’t make a lot of sense.) Obviously, when judged within the framework of a beer style, some characteristics (such as lactic sourness) that would be terrible in a pale ale are just right in a Berliner Weisse. In this regard, assigning a beer to the wrong category is inexcusable. Judges as well as brewers should be wary of this mistake, even in smaller competitions where consolidation of categories may be necessary.

Unfortunately, misplaced or sloppily managed style categories are among the easiest of judging sins to atone for. The more insidious evils of beer judging are like those of the Eastern European judge at the skating competition: nothing you do is going to pass muster under the weight of unrealistic prejudices.

To some degree, we all have them — sensitivity to certain flavors or aromas (I have a low tolerance for sulfur), or styles we frankly don’t like, no matter how well they are made. I have to admit, for example, that I’m not particularly fond of meads. I find a lingering volatile acidity and often a cloying sweetness in even the best of them. (If this stuff is the drink of the gods, they’re welcome to it!) Yet I have found myself, for one reason or another, judging meads in some homebrew competitions. Although I tried to be fair, I had no business judging them. Even when it’s a situation in which no other judges are available, it might be better not to judge at all.

I remember another incident from the best-of-show round at a major competition I helped judge. One of the judges proclaimed that a Christmas ale we were tasting was good because “it didn’t taste like a Christmas ale,” a style he admitted to disliking. In other words, it was better because it wasn’t true to style! Fortunately, his opinion did not prevail.

Ultimately, the bottom line for a beer judge’s integrity would seem to rest on a willingness to have his or her own beers judged. This is the healthy thing about club competitions, regardless of the experience of the judges involved. Having your own beers judged tends to sensitize you to issues of fairness and the true criteria of well-made beer.

I believe that all BJCP judges in particular must be required to enter their brews in sanctioned competitions on a regular basis. Doing so would help keep us all honest (or from growing no more dishonest, at any rate). Such a requirement should be standard for participation in any judging program. I’ve seen too many judges who, as they move up the ladder in judging status, stop entering their own beers in contests.

Being a good judge, like being a good brewer, takes practice. It is necessary that we admit our lack of knowledge and prejudices and, when we can, strive to correct them. That’s what the whole process should be about, not simply a hierarchy of ranking systems and experience points. In short, judge fairly, or judge not at all. The glass stops here.

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