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Improving BJCP Tasting Exam Scores – REDUX

AHA Austin Round 1



This is a follow-up to my article: Improving Your BJCP Tasting Exam Scores. While most of the feedback has been positive, there have been several contacts that claim I didn’t really go deep enough. So to that end, I have revised and dug a bit deeper. I just recently completed another round of grading and hopefully can provide more insight.

There are a few common Examinee mistakes that are easily addressed and should ensure a fairly easy shot at an 80 score. This is pretty straightforward advice that applies to any BJCP Beer/Cider/Mead Tasting exam.

Another disclaimer. I am not representing the BJCP in any way. I am fortunate to be BJCP National ranked, with a Mead Endorsement. What I write here is my opinion, nothing more.

My Examinee strategy requires just a little bit of analysis of the 2018 BJCP Grader’s Guide. The exam requires the analysis of and writing of scoresheets for 6 beers, meads, or ciders in a 90-minute limited timeframe. Looking carefully at the scoring mechanics per sheet, we see that 100 points are granted per sheet and broken out into Scoring Accuracy (20) and Sheet Content (80). Each sheet is considered individually, and the overall assessment is an average of the 6 sheets.

Remember that this advice is for test-taking, and not necessarily for normal judging procedures. That said, as someone that still enters competitions regularly, applying most of these tips will dramatically increase the perceived value and credibility of your scoresheet.

Scoring Accuracy (20) compares your score against the proctors’ consensus score for that beer/mead/cider, as well as the individual content area scores. If you are within 9 points of variance, you will still get 50% or 10 points. The remaining 80 points fall into Scoresheet Content competencies as described below.

Perception (20): Each scoresheet is judged against a rubric created from the proctor scoresheet, and points are deducted for missed flaws, errors in aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel perception. However, if the participants’ consensus finds something that the proctors missed, then no penalty should be given. Please make a point when writing your exam sheet to comment on each sub-topic under the category area and include both INTENSITY and QUALITY of that topic. For example: “Very High Maltiness featuring both high roasty and medium caramel notes. Medium white bread malt in the middle.”

Descriptive Ability (20): You must describe both the intensity and character of aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel of your experience. Again, see above. Make sure to comment on everything and use your descriptive vocabulary to describe the quality and substance of what is in the glass. Avoid junk words like good or nice. Be specific and use words that provide specific weight.

Feedback (20): Provide constructive and useful feedback on adjusting the recipe or brewing procedure to produce a beer/mead/cider more accurately to style. Feedback should also address specific and relevant solutions to flaws and areas where you deducted points. While there should be a positive comment here, spend most of the available space on the recommended solution and advice. Make sure to avoid assumptions about the process – you have no idea how that beverage was made.

Completeness/Communication (20): All written information should be well-organized, utilize all available space, and fully describe the judging experience. All fields should be filled out using appropriate checkbox descriptors, and the Stylistic Accuracy, Technical Merit, and Intangibles box filled. Go back through your sheets when you have time to ensure that ALL sub-topics are mentioned and detailed.

Corresponding scores per sheet are then correlated to expectations of experienced judging levels for each of the above:

  • 12-13+ = Recognized
  • 14-15+ =Certified
  • 16-17+ = National
  • 18-20 = Master

Graders then enter their scoring data into a spreadsheet, consult with each other for consensus and feedback and present the spreadsheet to the AD, who audits scores and may override if there are large deltas or a lack of consensus between graders. The grading process is long and subjective, but no more so than judging a beer. Each score sheet takes me about 20-30 minutes after I have gone through and created the rubrics, assuming the sheet is legible.

The Examination Strategy

Maximize those things that YOU control as an examinee. It’s really that simple. Let’s roll through the 5 areas, and I’ll make specific recommendations.

Scoring Accuracy (HARD): Nothing replaces personal experience in judging. Judge at every possible opportunity and sit with challenging flights and excellent judges. Learn to ask questions. Learn to be quiet and efficient in approaching each entry, and mostly, be honest. Don’t fill up a sheet with stuff you imagine – just what you experience. Judge what is in the cup in your hand. Don’t allow another judge to run over you or influence your perceptions. Go back and read Judging and The Anatomy of a Scoresheet.

Perception (HARD): This takes training and a lot of practice. Learn to identify common off-flavors and develop a lexicon of aromas and flavors that you can draw upon to describe something. Off-flavors and aromas should be diagnosed, and feedback given in the Overall section.

Beer, mead, and cider all present with different general characteristics and require specific study. Many clubs or BJCP groups offer off-flavor and aroma classes, and this is a good place to start. If you are in a situation where you can access actual off-flavors (say someone points out a butter bomb in a competition), see if the comp coordinator will let you taste that beer. Take mental notes of that association of senses and calibrate your senses to those of qualified judges.

Two things commonly missed are off flavors/aromas and missing elements that misalign a beer/mead/cider to style. For example, a little diacetyl is ok for some British ales, but it needs to be integrated into the flavor and not off-putting. Or perhaps a big Russian Imperial Stout is missing a warming effect from the alcohol or has a strong vegetal character from roast malt. You need to ability to suss out these things and assign them as in/out of character for a given style, which will require a good deal of study of the guidelines.

Not everyone can sense DMS, Diacetyl, Acetalaldehyde and many other faults. Some Masters are blind to many of these faults. Graders take this into account (or should). Know your limits, and always judge what is in the cup before you!

Descriptive Ability (EASY): When I took my last tasting examination, I wrote IQ next to each area. IQ stands for Intensity and Quality and is a reminder for me to address each of the sub-topics under Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, and Mouthfeel with detail.

Develop a personal canon for Intensity and do not use ranges; medium-high, not medium to high.

Use Intensity descriptions consistently and avoid using fluffy words, especially good or awesome. Stick with High, Medium, Low or Medium High, Medium Low, etc. Words like good, nice, and excellent only convey an opinion and not a measurement.

When describing the Quality of a sub-topic, use your vocabulary for malt, ester, phenol, and hop characteristics. These should be more than just malty or phenolic, so go deeper. Such as, “Medium High Phenolics present as black pepper with a hint of tropical fruit.”

For example, the aroma of an IPA: “Hop aroma is very high and pungent, with medium-high tropical fruit aromas, mango, low dank note. Malt intensity is low, with low levels of cracker and bread crust and a low note of caramel. Esters are very low, buried under the tropical hops, but suggest a clean fermentation profile.”

Each area has “Comment on…” subcategories. Use them!

Compare that to this: “Lots of hops. Fruit salad aroma. Good malt. No esters.”This last description provides no intensity levels and the lightest sense of character. Words like “Lots” and “Good” are not measurable. Use the categories “comment on” list and check off the list as you go. Even if you are not accurate, at least you get more credit during grading.

Yes, I am repeating myself. I feel it is required.

Develop a descriptive template that eliminates the writer’s block I often see with new judges. Utilize the “Comment on” list and plow through. A writing cadence, over time, will allow you to use “muscle memory” and quicken your pace,

Feedback (EASY-ISH): My strategy is to develop pat “answers” to most of the off-flavor/aroma issues that may arise, as well as recipe recommendations to increase alignment with style guidelines. This way, I can provide SPECIFIC and ACTIONABLE advice without making assumptions.

I am going to jump onto a soapbox here and say, don’t fill this section for the TEST with fluff comments like “I’d finish a glass of this.” Save that for competition judging. That is empty filler and bad when that space should be used to provide that specific and actionable feedback on off-flavors, balance issues, and style problems. Be thoughtful and relevant, and don’t just parrot bad advice. #endrant

Here are a few examples specific to mead:

“Nice drinking mead but a bit hot. To avoid fusel alcohols, study up on TOSNA nutrient addition schedules and adopt them. Rehydrate your yeast in 1.25x by weight in GoFerm, and use pitching rates of 1-2 grams yeast per gallon for under 1.090 gravity, 2-3 grams per gallon if over 1.090. Temper the yeast slurry to pitching temperature, and ferment at the lower temperature range recommended by the manufacturer. Avoid stressing the yeast.”.

“Lovely traditional, however, the woody astringency causes a balance issue. Consider blending with a softer mead and/or sweetening with honey to reduce tannin levels. If using oak in secondary, taste throughout secondary aging until the level is just right and remove the oak. You may also wish to consider using a different level of char or varietal to match the honey character better. Adjust acidity and sweetness after oak-ing to taste. This may do better in another category.”

“I love Orange Blossom Trads! The high alcohol level, combined with the very dry finish, is unpleasant. Consider using less honey to reduce alcohol levels and a light touch of sweetening with raw honey to reduce harshness. After back-sweetening, let rest for a few days to integrate and then adjust acidity and tannin levels to taste. Or blend this with a sweet version of traditional to taste.”

Always think, SPECIFIC and ACTIONABLE advice. Remember that the proctors are not providing this kind of feedback but rather their overall impression of the beer/mead/cider, so it is important that you address either the key off-flavors/aromas and any tweaks necessary to bring the sample more in line with the style or improve the experience while trying to avoid gross assumptions.It is OK to give your opinion, such as, “I would like…” but only after you have addressed the important and salient issues that you detected.

Completeness (EASY): Fill out every relevant line, check every relevant box, and do not leave any white space around the aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel areas. Make sure to comment (again, I repeat myself) on EVERY sub-topic under each category. Carefully, as needed, use all of the available lined space and white areas as required.

Make sure to align your scores with the box at the recommended scores at the bottom of the sheet and tick the sliders that represent stylistic accuracy, technical merit, and intangibles.

Make sure to check off the Descriptor Definitions, and as a bonus, write something next to clarify, such as high, low, and if appropriate to the style.

Completeness also means writing legibly with orderly sentences and paragraphs. Sentences make sense when proper grammar and syntax are used. So many people have horrible handwriting, but please make an effort. Block lettering is appreciated.

Finally, write with confidence. Yeah, I just threw a whole bunch of stuff at you to remember. Practice, Practice, Practice.

As mentioned, ranges are not appropriate and give a sense that you are just not sure. Same with using words like “maybe” or “perhaps” in providing feedback, unless you are giving options. Those are not SPECIFIC words. Be firm in what you are expressing without being arrogant. Take the time to figure out what is in that cup and return to it if you feel rushed.


Do the work (practice) and learn both the styles and how off-flavors/aromas present to you personally. Use the indicators under each category to specifically address each issue and check them off. Always use an INTENSITY statement for each issue and describe its QUALITY.

  • Write IQ by each area if needed as a reminder. Use all of the available space needed to get your points across.
  • Feel free to meander into the white space near the descriptors.
  • Provide both SPECIFIC and ACTIONABLE feedback that addresses identified flaws, or that will make the recipe better fit the entry category.

Be confident. Judging is about YOUR opinion and not someone else’s. Judge what is in front of you, and do not allow yourself to be influenced or biased.

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