Use the “cue” words on the score sheet to ensure you cover EVERYTHING required. This is really basic and I’m surprised how many people forget to describe the yeast/esters and even the hops in a beer’s aroma and/or flavor. If it is a clean lager, then write “no esters, clean lager ferm.” The “other aromatics” cue can include flaws that you do not detect. You can simply write “No flaws noted” or be specific and write “No diacetyl – DMS – alcohol noted.” Graders and entrants appreciate that bit of thoroughness. Twenty percent of your score is Completeness and Communication and if you neglect required items AND leave blank space, it’s essentially a double deduction.
To that point, make every word tell. The sequence you describe things will indicate what jumped out of the glass first, so don’t waste words and space with fluff such as “Nice hops followed by a good malt backbone.” That type description says very little about the unique beer in your hand. For example, pretend you are judging six IPAs in a row. Can you distinguish the six sheets when you are done? Could someone taste the six IPAs and match your sheet to each IPA correctly?
Ensure that you mark the check boxes (above right) and be consistent in your marks. I’ve marked one scheme above to align the Scoring Guide with the boxes – just mark them consistent with your description and from beer-to-beer.
Research. There are several excellent pieces of information on the BJCP site that spell out the exam, what it takes to do well, and how to prepare.
Think of each score sheet like the Graders will: Perceptions, Descriptions, Feedback and Communication/Completeness.
Do not be a fault-finder just because it’s an exam. Don’t fall prey to the “exam mind games” trying to guess what you’ve been served. I have seen examinees badly misjudge fresh, classic commercial examples.
I am a big advocate for using the Scoring Guide (see above) to place the beer in a range first, and then decide if it should be low, medium or high in that range. For ex, there is a difference between “minor fine-tuning” and “minor flaws” that defines the gap between Excellent and Very Good. There is a huge difference between “generally within style guidelines” and “Misses the mark on style” that defines the gap between Good and Very Good. If someone gave you a beer, and you could not quickly tell them how to best enter it at a comp, then it should score <=29.
Review your description and comments and ensure the score matches your description. The worst score sheets are those that confuse the entrant with lots of issues noted but scores a 35, or is described in glowing terms and gets a 23. If you mention some flaws and style gaps up top, then don’t say “very drinkable beer with few issues” in the feedback. Score it based on your description and give feedback on all quality and style issues noted.
It’s entirely possible to like a well-made beer very much, but down-grade it for missing critical style requirements. You could give such a beer a “10” in Overall Impression, but should score it appropriately in the Ar/Ap/F/M sections.
Describe the beer in front of you with finite and absolute “levels” to each characteristic; for ex, do not say “low to medium hops.” You’re tasting a unique beer and not a style guideline.
Use words that describe the relative level such as low, medium, high. I also like using words like faint, minor, strong, that are descriptive as well, but I know some graders prefer the basic L-M-H scheme since “strong” might mean different things to different people.
Be careful with descriptions such as “Munich malt” and “Noble hops.” Munich is a city, and noble is a concept. Melanoidin or ‘toasty’ is a flavor people can relate to, and perfumy/spicy/floral/flowery/peppery describe hop aroma and flavor of a Noble origin.
Remember that hops in Flavor has a bittering component and a flavor component, and the two are independent. The Flavor section has unique cues such as balance and finish/aftertaste that must be addressed. I recommend you create “a script” that you could use for every beer that flows through all the required aspects and practice writing some sheets with that script before the exam. The script should fully complete the entire section with no blank space and should address every Cue word. Tick off each cue word to double-check yourself and to show grader you hit them all.
Try to get past the flaws in a bad beer and judge the recipe to style and try to comment on things other than the blatant issue. For ex, if it weren’t slathered with buttery diacetyl, how’s the yeast/hops/malt character in relation to that beer’s style?
Be careful with statements such as ‘would expect’ or ‘would like to see’ with respect to style guideline items. If you say “would expect more hop flavor” and the guide says “low to none” then you are wrong and it’s a deduction. Unless you know the guides stone cold, it’s probably best to simply fully describe the beer and then offer direct feedback to improve the beer.
For judging and especially for this Exam, try to eliminate fluff words from your vocabulary: nice, good, some, very, “up front” and backbone, etc. Also do not waste Description space on “Not to style” in the A/A/F/M sections; save it for Feedback.
Remember that Appearance requires some description of the head’s color, texture and retention, so those three plus color and clarity make five points in Appearance. Describe the core color and any sub-tones you perceive (garnet, ruby, orange, etc.) You can also note the apparent carbonation that may be visible.
Practice! The exam Admin brings you six beers landing every 15 minutes. Practice handwriting sheets at that pace for a few weeks before the exam to ensure you can write non-stop for 90 minutes and still be legible and not omit Cue words and details.
3×5 index cards are roughly the same size and space as the Aroma and Flavor sections: use them as portable practice tools when drinking a beer.