How I judge beer

This page is for homebrewers who have gotten a score sheet from a competition I have judged or anyone else who is interested in how I evaluate a beer. I hope it’s helpful, and of course I welcome feedback and discussion.

There are lots of ways to evaluate a beer, ranging from “do I like this?” to measuring isomerized alpha acid concentration using a spectrometer. For AHA/BJCP sanctioned competitions there is a standardized score sheet that collects a judge’s appraisal in five areas: aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. Even while out at a bar, I find thinking about these five parts of the drinking experience to be really valuable, at least for the first few sips.

When judging at a competition, I feel a responsibility to the brewer to give them as much information as I can about what I perceive in their beer, and then score it according to how well it fits the style category it was entered in. There are 81 sub-styles, so entering a brew into the correct category is very important because even a world-class stout entered into the IPA category will get a very low score.

Beers are judged in flights of 6-12 entries of the same style/sub-style (for example, one flight may include English IPAs, American IPAs, and Double IPAs). The judge I am paired with and I will decide the order which we’d like to sample the beers, generally subtle flavored or low alcohol to stronger flavors or higher alcohol in order to not blow out our palates on the bolder beers.

When a beer arrives at the table, we’ll look at the bottle. Contest rules state that beers should be packaged in label-free brown glass bottles, but from time to time an entry will have label glue or other junk on the bottle. While this doesn’t count against the entry in terms of points, it does make a bad impression on some judges that will carry through to the tasting. I try to not let that affect my evaluation, but everyone is better off if the bottle is completely clean.

Next, we open the beer and pour a 2-4oz sample, pouring in a way that will generate enough foam to evaluate the head color, retention, and quality. Some beers can be poured quickly down the middle and generate very little head, while others will billow out of the glass with even the gentlest pour. At the point I smell the aroma right away to capture the first bit of aromatics that can sometimes be lost in the first seconds.

Appearance (3 points/6% of total score)

Next, I will hold the beer up to the light to ascertain color and clarity. I will generally write down a color (straw, pale gold, golden, light copper, copper, amber, brown, ruby, dark brown) and give 1 point if it fits into the guideline for the style. Clarity usually fits into murky, cloudy, mostly clear, brilliantly clear, and again gets 1 point if appropriate for the style (weizens, wits, and dry hopped beers can all be cloudy, for instance). Then I will note the color of the head, the size of the bubbles, and the level of head retention. Generally most beers are adequate in this, and I almost always give 1 point for this criteria unless it’s wildly out of style (perhaps a flat Berlinner weisse).

Aroma (12 points/24%)

I try to get my notes on the appearance done in a minute or less, so I can get right to the aroma portion before the most volatile hop oils and yeast esters dissipate (also, if you receive a score sheet from me, my apologies for consistently misspelling “disappate”). When I fill out score sheets, I will just write my perceptions in this box and save my commentary/value judgements for the overall impression area. I will always write about the level of malt aromas (bready, toasty, grainy, roasty, chocolaty, dark fruity, melanoidan), the hop aromas (citrus, pine, earthy, herbal/tea-like, floral, tropical fruit), and yeast character (banana, clove, apple). If one of these isn’t present, or very subdued, I will write “no malt/hop/ester aromas,” and for many styles this is totally appropriate.

I’ll also note other aromas, such as plasticky or smoky phenols, brettanomyces-driven funk, vinegar notes, cheesy, boozy/alcohol, wood, spice etc. If a beer smells oxidized, I will write “oxidized malt” because I never experience the classic “wet cardboard/papery” aroma that generally indicates oxidation. Often I’ll note if I perceive diacetyl in the beer or not because I think that’s good feedback for a lot of homebrewers. For me personally, I have a bit of a blind spot for acetaldehyde (green apple) and DMS (canned corn) aromas, so I tend to leave those out and rely on the other judge to pick them up.

If the aroma doesn’t match the style at all, or is completely blown out by an obvious flaw (infection, oxidation), I will score it a 4 or 5. If the aroma hits the right notes and fits the style, I will generally give it a 7 or 8, and if it’s excellent it will get a 9 or 10.

Mouthfeel (5 points/10%)

The next area I will evaluate is the mouthfeel. I will always note the body (thin, light, medium light, medium, medium full, full, thick), though this particular area is very subjective and can definitely be influenced by previous beers in the flight (ever drink a blonde ale after a barleywine? It feels like water!) so I try to be broad here. I’ll also write down my perception of the carbonation, tartness, astringency (which is that mouth puckering sensation you get from a grape skin) and whether or not I feel any of the heat from the alcohol.

By this point I have a sense of whether this is a good beer or not, and really good beers will get 4 points, good beers will get 3, and bad beers will get a 2 for this category. I may knock this down a point if a key element misses the style guideline (too much alcohol in an English bitter, or a thick body on a dark lager, for example).

Flavor (20 points/40%)

This section accounts for 40% of the total score, so I try to give this a lot of attention.

Overall Impression (10 points/20%)

In the previous sections I really focus on my objective perceptions without making value judgements. I try not to say things like “good malt aroma” or “carbonation to style” because I don’t think those are very helpful to someone reading their score sheet, either to learn about evaluating beer for themselves or to understand what I was perceiving when I judged the beer. In this section I will put my subjective opinion and at least one suggestion for something I would change.

I’ll always start out “this is an ok/good/very good/excellent beer” and go on to say what major flaw I found, if any. Sometimes I will say something like “this is an easy drinker” or “really pleasant” if it’s going to get dinged for missing style parameters, because I think it can be frustrating to hear a list of negative things about a beer that is very good and enjoyable.

I’ll ask myself “what two things would make me score this beer higher?” and I try to give feedback along those lines. Often it’s handling/packaging issues (sanitation, oxidation) or recipe tweaks (cut back on the bittering addition of hops). I hear a lot of complaints from experienced brewers like “the stupid judge told me to mash at a higher temp, even though I mashed at 158!” It’s always hard to make concrete suggestions when you don’t know the recipe or the brewer’s process, so I try to not assume too much and just say what changes would garner a better score from me and let the brewer make their own decisions on how to make those tweaks.

Final Score

My view of scoring is that all beers I judge will fall between 16 and 45 points. I know that sounds silly, I mean, why bother having 46-50 if you’re not going to score a beer there, but I tend to think perfection in this craft is something to reach for, not attain. Or maybe I just have yet to run into a 50 point beer in my judging career! On the low end, 13 is considered the ego-saving minimum, but generally I can always find enough points to get to 16.

score rangesAt this point in evaluating the beer, I will make a gut decision on where this entry falls on the spectrum of problematic/fair, good, very good, or excellent (see the bottom left of the scoresheet for descriptions). Then I will add up the points assigned to the previous four categories and how ever many points are needed to get it into the range of points listed on the score sheet will be the number of points I assign to the overall impression. Often I will have to go back and adjust a point or two on one of the previous areas in order to fit the score into my gut feeling score.

I try to complete my entire evaluation without interacting with the other judge. Once I’ve reached a score and filled out the sheet, I’ll ask the other judge “what did you come up with?” and we compare scores. If the numbers are within 3 or 4 points of each other, we’ll have a quick discussion of the major points we perceived (“really nice hop aroma, I think it could have used more of a malt backbone”) and move on to the next entry. If the difference in scores is more than 4 or 5, generally we’ll compare each section to see if one judge perceived something the other didn’t, which is fairly common, or if it was an across the board different experience. Often we’ll discuss the style guidelines to see if one judge was overly harsh or generous on a particular point, and then one or both judges will adjust their scores up or down to come to a consensus within a few points of each other.

Thanks

So that’s my process for judging. If you’re reading this because I evaluated one of your beers, I hope that helps shed some light on your score sheet, and I hope I was able to give you some good information. And thanks for sending in your beer, I definitely value getting to judge competitions and I’m always trying to get more experience and improve my palate. I know it can be a pain to pay money to enter and ship a beer, so I strive to make it worth your while.

Please contact me with any questions or comments!

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