Written by Jay Buchanan
Below are some of my notes, observations, and opinions on preparing for and taking the BJCP test. Other club members have expressed interest in taking the test, and while it's all laid out and explained on the BJCP website, sometimes it helps to hear a first-hand experience. First, a little background about the test.
I. How the new BJCP test differs from the old one
Prior to April 1, 2012, the BJCP test was a pre-scheduled three hour test consisting of multiple choice, true/false, and essay questions. Additionally, there were 4 beer tastings where the examinees were allowed 15 minutes to fill out a beer judge scoresheet for each. The grading system was confusing, and the average turnaround to get your grade was 5-6 months. Also, because the BJCP limited both the number of tests they offered per year and required a certain level of judges to administer it, testing dates in any one area were few-and-far-between. That old test is now referred to as the legacy test, and is no longer offered.
The new BJCP test still assesses you on all the same criteria, but it's split into three separate tests: an entrance exam (the T/F & multiple choice parts), a tasting exam, and a written exam (the essays plus some more advanced questions).
To become a qualified judge, step one is to take the entrance exam. This is a 60-minute timed computer-based test consisting of 200 questions. The test costs $10, and you can take it as many times as needed. Technically, it's open book (you're at home, after all), but since you only have an avg of 18 seconds per question, you have very little time to research answers. Immediately after submitting your entrance exam, you are informed if you've passed or failed. You do not receive a numerical score (in fact, the BJCP has never even published the minimum score required to pass), only pass/fail, and a list of areas in which you were weak. Once you've passed the entrance exam, you are emailed a certificate and are now a Provisional judge (although that is not a BJCP rank). You now have one year to sit for the tasting exam before your certificate expires.
Step two is to take the tasting exam. Unlike the entrance exam, which is cheaper and available anywhere you have internet access, the tasting exam costs more, is limited geographically, and is offered on a first come first serve basis--a la the legacy test. The tasting exam is now 6 different beer samples over 90 minutes. There will be 2 proctors present--who are National ranked judges or higher--and your score will be derived from your scoresheets being compared to theirs. The scoring is also done by National or higher judges, but folks other than the proctors. Upon receiving your grade, you will be awarded a rank. If you score higher than a 70, you will become a Certified judge (once you earn 5 experience points); between 60-70, a Recognized judge, and lower than 60 you will become Apprentice [source]. The turnaround time for scores is now ½ of what it was for the legacy test. Because of this, the BJCP has begun offering more tests. All higher ranks are achieved with experience points, taking the written exam, and higher exam grade plateaus on both the tasting and written exams.
II. My experience
Back in early 2010, I secured a spot to take the (legacy) BJCP test in Feb 2011. I studied on and off for a while (we even formed a small WHALES study group for a spell), but for Christmas my folks gifted the entire family a weekend getaway for the same weekend as the test. Frustrated from what little retention I'd had from studying so sparsely, it was an easy choice to make and I skipped the test.
As they say, time flies. But the 2013 NHC in Philly kicked up my desire to go for it again, and I was able to secure a seat for a tasting exam in Oct 2013 at Keystone Homebrew. So I began studying again. After about 2 weeks of studying, while skimming the webpage I noticed that the BJCP offers a 3-for-$20 package on the entrance exam, so I said what the hell and took a stab at it, even though I knew it was a longshot. As I half-expected, I failed.
Armed with exactly what to expect, how the test is laid out, and my list of weak areas, I continued studying harder. After another month or so I took it again and passed. From there on out, I just focused on studying the style guidelines to prep for the tasting. I had plans to do blind tastings, doctored beers (with the sensory kit I purchased), and mock exams, but life gets busy, and they all fell through the floor. It's uncanny, but it is what it is.
So here I am now--writing this just after taking my tasting exam. It didn't seem too bad, although I have no idea how close I came to aligning with the proctors' scoresheets. If I get a 40%, it would be as much a surprise as if I get a 90%. That's my prediction: somewhere between 40 & 90%. Only 12-14 weeks until I know for sure. Looking back after taking the test, I think the sensory training would have been the most valuable in my preparation, since I found that while my understanding of the styles is good, sometime the ability to put my finger on the flaw (if any) can be quite challenging--especially when my palate starts getting fatigued.
III. Suggestions on how to approach the test
If you're on the fence about setting out to take the test, I would suggest you first steward or judge a competition to get a feel for it. Most competition coordinators will let you judge without BJCP rank. Of course, being a steward is also a great way to be part of the process, too. I signed up and judged Malt Madness this year, and it reassured my decision to drive for the test.
Once you do decide to go for it, check the exams website for any tasting exams close enough for you to get to. Then contact those exam admins to see if you can secure a seat. An important thing to remember is that most of the time seats open up last minute for these tests. If you have your entrance exam out of the way, you can slide in a few days before the test date. Even if the admin says it's full, ask to have your name put down on a waiting list, and as long as you've passed the entrance exam, you'll be ready to go even on short notice. Aside, I was surprised to learn that at NHC in Philly this year, 49 people sat for the tasting exam and 11 seats were available. No one was turned away. That tells me that even if all seats are filled up before Grand Rapids 2014, you will most-likely be able to get a seat.
Next you should begin studying and challenge yourself to stick to a schedule. Find a partner or form a group for continued motivation. There are lots of resources and study aids here: http://www.bjcp.org/examcenter.php.
I would suggest taking the entrance exam ASAP--even if you don't have a tasting exam scheduled. Obviously, the closer you are to your first accessible tasting exam date, the better, since the certificate will expire in one year. Once that is out of the way, you can focus on the beer styles. And while there's a whole lot of information jammed up in those styles, at least you'd be free to focus on improving your sensory skills and also your ability to put your perceptions into words.
IV. Study tips
Obviously, everyone learns a little differently. I know for myself, I tend to retain more information when I write things out repetitiously. I would write out all the common off-flavors and how to spot them. I knew from the word go that memorizing every word of every subcategory wasn't going to happen, so I approached learning them in groups. There are some groups quite easy to spot, and some that I made by comparing and contrasting similar (and sometimes all) styles. For example:
- In which styles is diactyl acceptable?
- In which styles is DMS acceptable?
- Which styles are extremely malt-forward?
- List the major differences between brown, robust, and Baltic porters. (I would do that with all the style groups)
Another great way to approach the styles is to give one or two major points for all 5 sections: aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. The more you can associate and relate to the words which are printed on the scoresheet, the easier it will be to conjure these up during the exam.
V. Exam observations (and tips)
About the entrance exam
- costs $10, but they also offer a 3-for-$20 option
- once you start, you get 60 min and you can't pause the test
- there are 5 questions per page, 40 pages total
- you can mark questions and will have the opportunity to get back to them
- at the end, there is a summary page - any questions you marked have an asterisk and any unanswered questions are red. This makes it easy to use your remaining time addressing trouble or skipped questions
- you will receive a grade or PASS or FAIL, but no score
- along with your grade, you will receive a list of areas you were weak in
- questions are randomly selected from an unpublished pool of over 1500
- There are questions in three formats: true/false, multiple choice, and multiple choice multiple answer (the trickiest)
About the tasting exam
- costs $40 for first test, $15 for retests
- 90 minute test
- a new beer will be poured every 15 minutes
- you are not allowed to have any guidelines or smartphones during the test
- exam administrator will pour the beer and tell you the style name and category number
- make sure your scores add up correctly, and the total is in line with the scoring guide (lower left hand corner of scoresheet)
Hopefully this article helps you gain a clearer picture of what you're getting into if and when you decide to become a BJCP judge. It's important to remember that, like any other learned skill, being an effective judge is achieved through judging. No different than brewing, bowling, reading, welding, or playing a musical instrument. I look forward to judging competitions in the future. It's a fun addition to being a beer enthusiast and a homebrewer. Cheers!