New Competition Score Sheets — Do they make the grade?
When entering a homebrew competition, you expect to receive some constructive feedback and you hope for a little praise as well. Some brewers are somewhat critical of the score sheets they receive back from the contest and they should be. For the usually five to ten dollar entry fee, they feel they should get a complete analysis of their beer with colorful descriptions and quantifiable explanations for the scores they received. This is not an unrealistic notion, however, sometimes competition score sheets can fall short of these demanding expectations.
After judging and entering a lot of competitions, mainly here in the southeast, we have experienced numerous different kinds of judging styles and have received score sheets that have varied from detailed analysis to one word illegible observations. Our overall opinion of competitions is that it is a great way to get some unbiased feedback about your beer and to experience some friendly competiveness. Sometimes you may even get some useful advice on what to do to improve you beer. Occasionally a judge may pinpoint an off-flavor that you couldn't quite identify. At times you might get a score sheet back that is devoid of any constructive feedback and only contains a few words describing the appearance, aroma or flavor. The good news is it seems as though poor quality score sheets are becoming less frequent. The BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) is making a big effort to better educate judges and to make resources available for judges to help them improve their judging abilities. Since we're both Nationally ranked judges, we often get paired with less experienced judges at the competitions. For the most part, the novice judges who are studying for the BJCP exam, are very conscientious and take their judging roles seriously. The weaker judges tend to be those with experienced palates but not much experience within the BJCP. They sometimes may not be familiar with acceptable techniques for filling out score sheets and covering each style aspect appropriately. It is the responsibility of the competition organizer and judge coordinator to select quality judges for their competition. Unfortunately sometimes it's tough to get enough qualified judges, especially for large competitions. The ranking judge at the table has the responsibility of guiding the less experienced judges in the right direction.
Usually, the bigger problem in completing score sheets is time restraints rather than inexperience. While experience helps with being able to put your thoughts to words quickly and to recognize off flavors immediately, sometimes even the most experienced judges find themselves stumped, palate fatigued and pressed for time. Often valuable time is spent writing comments instead of discussing the beer and coming to a consensus. To address some of these all too common situations, the BJCP has developed a new experimental score sheet format. This year at the National Homebrew Conference/Competition (NHC) in Denver, the new score sheets were introduced. For most judges, this was the first opportunity to use this new method of judging. These new score sheets are primarily designed for second round judging and the assumption is that the traditional score sheets have already been provided to the entrants from a first round of judging.
The score sheet was developed by Gordon Strong who is president of the Board of Directors which manages the BJCP. While the new score sheet is not intended to be a replacement for the traditional score sheet, for now it should be considered as an alternative for certain situations. After the score sheet was reviewed and approved by the board, it was tested at the recent Sam Adam's Longshot Competition and at MCAB (a competition exclusive to first place winners of various qualifying events) before being used at the NHC. We should point out that it is copyrighted by the BJCP and that the most current versions of both the traditional and experimental score sheets are always available on the website www.bjcp.org.
The biggest difference in the new score sheet is that it contains checkboxes for a wide variety of descriptors and flaws, which can be indicated by low, medium or high intensity. This particularly speeds up the process when recording mechanical observations such as clarity, carbonation, and head retention. What hasn't changed is the 50 point scale with the distribution of the points remaining the same for aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. One initial drawback to the new format is the possible power of suggestion that the check boxes present. But the advantage is that it forces the judges to focus on each aspect they should be experiencing and observing throughout the judging process. For example, the aroma and flavor aspects have descriptors for malt, hops, esters, and other. A first glance, you might think that this format depersonalizes the score sheet and doesn't provide enough unique and personal feedback. This might be true for someone who writes long, well scripted descriptions of each aspect. But there is still space to write additional comments and to fill in your own descriptors or flaws. One may argue that most people will still simply use the check boxes and therefore make the judging more generic. Of course for some, less writing is a good thing since handwriting is sometimes less than legible, and some people just don't have a knack for putting their thoughts to paper. There still is a decent amount of room for short-hand observations that can convey a lot of information and Gordon is quick to point out that there is plenty of room for writing on the back of the sheet if needed. We found that with all the information available on the front, that wasn't really necessary. You can place a check in a box where an aspect is perceived and circle a box if the aspect is expected for the style, but is missing. Along with intensity you can also dictate the order in which you perceived certain aspects. The common flaws historically printed on the left side of the score sheet have been moved to a grid at the bottom of the new sheet and there are boxes to indicate low, medium, and high intensities for aroma, flavor and mouthfeel. The often over looked section that contained checkboxes for stylistic accuracy, technical merit, and intangibles has been moved into the overall impression section with a new scale for overall drinkability.
The NHC held a reception for judges the night before the competition to introduce the score sheets and to give everyone an opportunity to practice judging some beers. We collectively judged several beers and scored them using the new technique. We both felt that while initially the score sheets took some getting used to, they did ultimately speed up the judging process without compromising the ability to get quality feedback to the brewer. In fact we wonder if the feedback will be better. Since we had an entry in the second round NHC, it will be interesting to compare that score sheet with our first round comments.
Most judges that we talked to in Denver felt favorably towards the new score sheets, particularly the sections regarding mouthfeel and appearance where there is a lot of straightforward observation. They found it saved time to check rather than write out routine comments. The new format was certainly appreciated after judging stouts and not having to repeatedly write "black in color" and "creamy mouthfeel". This left time for more concentration on flavor and aroma. Judges know that brewers love feedback and most judges are brewers themselves, so they know how frustrating it is to get back a poor score sheet. The new score sheet certainly makes it easier to provide a lot of feedback to the brewer in a short amount of time. It illustrates the comments and observations that need to be made for each aspect. For example, someone with little judging experience might write "color ok" and "nice head". The new score sheets allow for specific colors to be indicated for the beer and the head. Texture and head retention can also be quickly noted as well as clarity. These are all integral parts to a beer and make the judging assessment much more beneficial to the brewer. When the score sheet is returned to the brewer, instructions on how to interpret the remarks as well a very detailed fault list are also included. This list is a way to cross reference any characteristics that were noted on the score sheet and to review possible solutions for the particular fault. Gordon also points out that the new score sheet can be used as a training tool to help judges better evaluate beer and would improve judges' skills in completing the traditional score sheets. Filling out the conventional score sheet would certainly be an easy transition from the checklist format after being trained on what to look for in each section.
While initial experiences with the new score sheets have been positive, it will definitely be assessed some more by the American Homebrewer's Association (AHA) and the BJCP. The AHA will survey the judges and entrants to get a more complete understanding for how people felt about the score sheets from the NHC. After data is collected, there will be discussions on whether or not the new score sheets should be used in the future. For those of you who have yet to experience the new score sheet, you should check it out. The new score sheet, as well as the instructions and fault list can be found on the BJCP website in the experimental forms section at the following link: http://www.bjcp.org/compcenter.php. Try judging your homebrew or a commercial beer. For those who are new to competitions, keep in mind that judges generally have only about 10 minutes to judge each beer and often must judge up to 12 beers per flight. Limiting your time on each evaluation and doing several in one sitting, you can quickly appreciate the efficiency of the new sheets. If you are serious about learning how to evaluate beer and how to improve your brewing, we'd strongly recommend joining the BJCP. The program will only improve with more qualified and dedicated beer evaluators and quality feedback from competitions will only continue to improve. See you at the next competition!