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Judging and the Anatomy of a Score Sheet

It is inevitable. After a major competition, someone posts a horribly written score sheet to social media, and drama ensues; defensive lines are formed, names called. In my years of competing, the quality of score sheet feedback has been random. When reading paired sheets side-by-side, you can often tell who is the influencer on the table and directs the consensus score. You can also tell who is freshest through the training, throwing around feared words like oxidation or diacetyl or acetaldehyde or DMS. Recently judging the Texas Mead Cup, as well as a Tasting Exam, I thought I would share my thoughts on judging, and review the anatomy of a score sheet.

These are, of course, my opinions, and in some way my personal manifesto. I am not here to argue the merits of the Style Guidelines, the BJCP, the general organization of a competition, or critique any specific judge. To be fair, I often fail to meet this high personal standard. I am not a “better” judge than anyone else – so keep that in mind. Not much authority or “expertise” here to back this up.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) is in no way responsible for how a competition is run or the individuals that judge. It simply provides an organization to train, recognize, and rank a judge’s experience, knowledge, and ability to communicate. Judges are volunteers, taking time to support a competition, most often without any reward or incentive (save BJCP judging points, required to progress in rank). BJCP Certification is NO guarantee that a judge is “good” or will provide excellent feedback. Good judges can consistently provide and describe their experience evaluating the entry, and provide reasonable feedback to improve the entry, and finally, score and rank the entry in a flight. BJCP endorsement is not required to be a good or even great judge but does provide organizers some idea of a judge’s experience and ability.

Judging has made me a more consistent brewer and mead maker(by my standards anyway). There are those magical moments when a brilliantly crafted entry is opened, and you can wallow, enjoying the aromas and flavors. There are also those incredibly challenging entries that have a single major flaw, but otherwise really good, and those, that you fear to put to your lips. It is a mental game of evaluation and detection. I love it. I try to use these skills when choosing my own entries hoping to compete well.

Navigating the Competition Process

In most cases, the organizer or judge coordinator will gather judges that have arrived on time, and begin pairing experienced with less experienced judges. Often that means pairing a BJCP judge with a non-experienced judge, or at least an experienced, but trusted judge with a less experienced judge. Having coordinated a few competitions, it can be frustrating to get enough qualified folks on the tables and judging.

This is often an opportunity to provide a calibration session. In my opinion, this can help set the tone for judges, where a very experienced judge talks through their experience and relates it to the score sheet. Everyone can follow along, and provide their feedback. The calibration should be interactive, not leading.

Judge pairs are then assigned tables, and stewards start to bring out score sheets, flight sheets, and the lead/head judge is identified for the pair. The head judge reviews the flight sheets and may make recommendations on the ordinal position of entries, moving potential palate killers to the end. Beers/Meads/Ciders come to the tables and are evaluated. Score sheets are filled out followed by a short discussion to come to a consensus score. At the end of the flight, consensus on the best entries to move forward into a mini-Best of Show (mini-BOS or second round) is achieved and is not always based on scored rank. Judges should then take a break away from any judging, and prepare to judge another flight, depending on schedule, etc. Generally, the most trusted and experienced judges are asked to complete the mini-BOS and BOS, please do not be offended if you are not chosen!

Pet Peeve: Judges should NEVER hang around, watch or listen to the judging of categories where they are entered. Be honorable and get the heck away from your entries! If you are pouring, and recognize an entry (maybe someone in your club), let the coordinator know. If you are asked to proceed, be as fair as possible. Of course, judges should keep their voices down when discussing. Another judge may be the owner of the entry you are raving or complaining about. If you are handed a sample and know it is yours, then you should decline to provide feedback or an opinion. I keep a list of my entries on me and the categories they are entered into – and reference it because my memory sucks!

There is often a bit of competition between judges, especially those wanting to earn BJCP points, to sit at the mini-BOS and BOS tables. Generally, judges earn points for judging sessions and an additional point for competition BOS, but never extra points for mini-BOS. The judge coordinator and competition organizer most likely already have names in their heads for this. Let them know if you are willing and want to sit, but again, do not be frustrated if you are not selected, it is not personal. Too many people at that table simply slow things down.

Judges that have entries in the competition can only judge categories they have not entered, and cannot participate in any mini-BOS or BOS in which they may have an entry. In-experienced judges, without a competition entry, may be invited to observe the mini-BOS and BOS process. Here, judges quickly evaluate all of the entries at one time. It is common to have 6-12 cups or more on the table. Most judges take some short notes, and quickly eliminate any obviously flawed or out of style entries, leaving the few good cups. At this point, judges discuss, argue, and rank through a consensus process. In a few competitions, a second set of score sheets are written, but this is rare.

Anatomy of a Score Sheet

Because many new brewers enter competitions and get score sheets back with feedback, I thought it pertinent to give some insight into the organization procedures and how score sheets are generated. Keep in mind, competitions vary widely, but this is generally how things go.

Judges should prepare themselves mentally and physically for judging. This means settling down and getting comfortable, quiet, and friendly discussion about the style category, perhaps reading the guideline document. I take a judging kit along, with good pencils and erasers, a penlight, and pre-printed labels. Everything is set up, along with some towels to quickly address spills. I discuss with my judge partner the order of entries while hydrating before judging with a bit of cold water. If I am lead in the judge pair, I organize my sheets and flight sheet so all are accessible.

Below is my personal judging procedure. It is NOT presented as the BEST way to judge an entry, rather a way to get through a sheet consistently. I’ll add in a lot of opinions, which may be pedantic. That is fine. You don’t have to agree with me! There are many methods out there.

  1. Decant the sample into the cup and cover to capture aromas. I have a little metal cup cover that was a judging gift from a comp. As the sample warms up, the cover traps the aromatics and concentrates them. If you don’t have a cover, use another cup to capture those fleeting aromas.
  2. If there are immediate and obvious signs of contamination or packaging flaws, do a very fast sniff and sip. If you confirm the flaws, discuss with your judge partner if you should go to a second bottle. Bottling and shipping are very difficult and every entry should get a fair sheet. If a second bottle is available, talk to the steward or coordinator, and then indicate on the sheet that you went to the second bottle and why. If the bottle is not available, then proceed to judge.
  3. First, I judge APPEARANCE. I have a fairly standard and quick script for this, writing a simple sentence that addresses the key issues printed on the sheet. Comment on color, clarity, and head (retention, color, and texture), as well as a comment on style. You will note a common theme – use the queues provided on the score sheet!
    EXAMPLE: “Pale straw color tending toward orange. The light haze is acceptable, with a tall, dense creamy white head that persists with very fine bubbles. High carbonation supports the head, and is appropriate for a saison. Love the lacing!
  4. Next, I move to the AROMA section, which I know is listed first, but I want the aromas to build up. Comment on malt, hops, esters, and other aromatics, as appropriate to the style, but also bringing in I/Q (Intensity/Quality) for each. I find I/Q easy to remember as I step through each of the characteristics.
    EXAMPLE: “Malt intensity is medium, with a low doughy note. Medium low toasty aromas elevate the malty character. Hops are medium-low, presenting a spicy noble character with a light floral accent. Yeast driven phenols and esters balance toward spicy white pepper and present a strong crisp Saison impression. 
    I get a slight plastic phenolic note and smoke. Fruity esters are low.” I would then underline the plastic and smoke comment.
  5. FLAVOR comes next. I will take at least two full sips before picking up the pencil. Comment on malt, hops, fermentation characteristics, balance, finish/aftertaste, and other flavor characteristics, considering the style. Focus on I/Q for each characteristic.
    EXAMPLE: “Malt flavors are medium, presenting with a tart, doughy character that supports the medium-high floral and spicy hoppiness. Hop bitterness is medium and appropriate. Yeast-derived black peppery phenols dominate, and fruit esters are low. Balance favors the yeast character, phenolic and spicy. Finish is clean and crisp and lingering. Very nice and drinkable. 
    Boozy, alcohol comes through prominently, which is ok for a strong saison, but has a distracting low fusel  character.” Depending on the strength indicated on the flight sheet, I would likely underline the entire last sentence.
  6. Onto MOUTHFEEL. This has been the weakest section on many of the sheets I have received over the years, despite the characteristics to lead the evaluation. Comment on body, carbonation, warmth, creaminess, astringency, and other palate sensations, as appropriate to style. Again, focus on I/Q in the descriptions.
    EXAMPLE: “Medium bodied, but the finish is bone dry. The very high carbonation level is appropriate. High alcohol is warming, but this is dangerously drinkable. No creaminess, no astringency. Very prickly carbonic bite that helps the dry effect. 
    Excellent palate presentation, great job bottling such a high carbonation level!” I would circle the last sentence as a positive.
  7. Finally OVERALL. Rather than restate, I prefer to sum up my experience with the beer/mead/cider, with a key focus on style, and adress any major flaws (assuming I have not done so in the evaluation sections). Review those comments that are underlined or circled.
    EXAMPLE: “This is a wonderful beer that hits on all of the key characteristics of a strong, pale Saison. I detected a slightly smoky, plastic phenol, that combined with a low fusel alcohol note, may indicate that your fermentation went a bit hard, fast, and hot. I would suggest starting your fermentation on the cool side, then allowing the temperature to free rise over a few days to 68-72F, depending on the strain. Or select a more forgiving Saison yeast that throws fewer fusels, and pitch an adequate amount of viable yeast cells. Great job with this beer! I truly enjoyed it!” If you like a beer, say so! Ask for a recipe or otherwise encourage the entrant.
  8. Score each section, and add up. I like to assign an overall score in my head and work out score assignments for each section. Double check your math.
  9. Finally, fill out the rest of the sheet. I quickly scan the Descriptor Definitions, check those appropriate, and circle the words that support my analysis. I may also write low or good where appropriate. Then move down to the bottom box and indicators of Stylistic Accuracy, Technical Merit, Intangibles. These indicators and the score should align with your overall individual score as listed on the bottom left Scoring Guide chart.
  10. Wait quietly until your team judge is finished, and begin to discuss QUIETLY. With in-experienced judges, it may be necessary to confirm what they detect or help to redefine something. Never belittle or push or complain. Rationally work to create a consensus score, including making minor score adjustments to come within the competition’s desired judging delta. Remember that points are arbitrary and that you should be generous. The overall score and quality of feedback go a long way in encouraging the entrant to continue to improve and compete. Once consensus has been reached, check and organize the sheets, annotate the flight sheet, and move along. Feel free to share a good entry with the steward or comp organizer.
  11. Throughout the process, be still and reserved. It is common, as the alcohol begins to drop your inhibitions, to make noises or grunts when first smelling or tasting an entry. Do your best to avoid that, and to ignore it when your partner groans. Make your own judgments as fairly as possible. Do not wander around and talk to other judges, unless you can do so without interference. Never go to a table where you may have an entry!

General Thoughts

Approaching the judging process with humility and with the Golden Rule front of mind, may help you to write sheets that mirror what YOU hope for and expect from the very best competitions. Put yourself in the shoes of the entrant, who may either be a very experienced brewer or an absolutely brand new brewer. There is NEVER a reason to be RUDE or INSULTING to any entry.  Figure out how to write about awful entries without being a jerk.

Write your sheets with the audience in mind. The score sheets you write for a BJCP exam should be written for the graders, to help them understand your ability and knowledge. Sheets for an entrant should be oriented toward helping them understand your experience with the entry, and gently direct them toward how flaws may be fixed, or suggest minor recipe tweaks. Leave the big fancy aggressive words behind, and never assume anything about the entrant or their brewing processes.

It is so easy to be “judgmental” and “harsh” when writing a sheet. Far easier to be negative when confronted with extreme flaws. State flaws simply, and without derision. Better to say, “Butter flavors overwhelm the malt character.” than “Butter Bomb! Diacetyl!” Then provide some advice in the Overall Impression section, or if the flaw is massive, use the appropriate section. Underlining negative notes also helps to identify the key flaw(s) that impact that section’s score.

I tend to avoid writing the chemical name of a flaw, ester, of phenol, more than once. I would rather present a better description and use the Descriptor Definitions to outline the technical names. A sheet that reads, “Strong artificial green apple and latex aromas are inappropriate for a robust porter” communicates your experience better than just writing, “acetaldehyde is overwhelming” despite the space savings.

Slow down while writing. It is not a race. With experience, you can write a sheet in 8 minutes, but most judges I know take 10-15 minutes. Don’t let yourself be rushed. Handwriting is the bane of many judges and you know if you write legibly or not. If you struggle, then write in larger block letters, taking your time. I find this helps me to organize my thoughts and present a logical argument. Also – look critically at your handwriting as you get deeper into flights. It becomes easy to “slur” your writing and language as you drink.

If you start to feel impaired. Please stop. Excuse yourself and hydrate. Sometimes, eating a small snack will help. And most of all, please, do not drink beers/meads/ciders between sessions. We need responsible and sober judges. Save the party to the end, and make sure you get home safely!

My goal, overall, is to provide good information and encouragement to help the entrant. They should clearly understand what you are saying and how you came to your conclusion. They may disagree. Own what you write. I love to get emails from entrants – especially when I solicit a recipe or make a compliment!

Please refrain from posting score sheets online in a plea to reinforce your opinions of how crappy it was! At the least, do so after removing the judge’s information? Problems with sheets or scores should be addressed with the competition organizer. Trust me, they want to know.

As I mentioned, this is a high bar. I fail to meet it too often. Hopefully, you can glean some tips to make your judging and score sheets clearly communicate your experience.

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