Ethics in beer judging are often overlooked, but recent events have lead me to examine them.
I recently judged at a craft beer event and it left me thinking. I noticed a few things that really upset me, and I found myself pondering them for quite some time. I thought about the various aspects of note in the competion, and there was one area where I was simply dissatisfied. Among some of these issues that I put a lot of thought into, foremost was the idea of ethics in beer judging.
As a disclaimer of sorts, I would like to begin with saying that I work hard at being an optimist. This is not to say that I foolishly assume the best and that all is rosy and good in the world. I have just as many reasons to be negative and miserable as the next person, but I choose to work at actively being positive for all waking hours. (some days this is far easier than others, but this probably goes without saying) I was having a difficult time deciding about this post (whether to write it and whether to post it or not) and if it would be beneficial to go down this path as it is not overwhelmingly positive. In speaking with others, I gained some confidence that the ideas should be put forward in hopes of stimulating thought and (hopefully) discussion.
Recently I was one of the judges at the Half Pints Pro-Am competition.
The event is organized by the Winnipeg Brew Bombers , a local hobbyist club. They work in conjunction with Half Pints Brewing which is the title sponsor. This year they altered the format slightly which resulted in two major changes – they limited the number of beers that a single entity could enter to six, and they also invited a variety of people from differing backgrounds to help judge beer.
Starting with a Compliment
The stewards ran things in a smooth and enjoyable way, making things much easier for the judges. Beers were served promptly and well poured, and if questions arose on the beverage at hand we were able to get quick feedback.
Many of the beers submitted for the event were better than at last year’s event. With that being said, on the whole beers entered ran the gamut from infected to superb. In the flights that I judged there were many good beers, but nothing truly earth shattering but that is a reflection of luck of the draw in categories for the day.
While what I judged is a matter of public record now (all official score sheets have our names and emails on them) I choose not to focus on that here. Instead what I want to focus on for this article is something that I have been reflecting on for several days now – the types of judges and their styles of judging. Of course the vast majority of judges at the event were quite good, and they deserve much credit for their (largely) thankless efforts.
The BJCP Procedure Manual for competitions has a variety of suggestions for judges and stewards conduct, expectations and responsibilities during competitions. From writing legibly to not judging a category that you have entered a beer in, this manual lays out many tips for running a good competition and being fair to the beer that had been entered. There are a couple of lines that I think are of particular importance to this discussion
Judge comments should be fair and constructive. Snide or rude comments on scoresheets are absolutely unacceptable.
Discuss the general characteristics of an entry, but do not attempt to influence opinions of other judges.
To start out with, I want to say that most judges work very hard to do a good job. They try to give feedback that is honest and constructive, and work quite hard on doing that. Tasting an unknown beer to a written standard can be quite a challenge, and is intimidating to many first timers.
I have heard others say that knowing a good beer is instinctual and even second nature, but that is not something that I ascribe to. Some styles are not well known, or are poorly understood, and that can make it difficult for the beginning taster to judge fairly. For example, it is one thing to taste a clean light lager and know if there is an off flavour, but I know experienced beer tasters that have a hard time identifying the differences between the various types of porters and stouts.
What drove me to write this particular piece was the behaviour of a few judges and how their actions have been or could be viewed by others. These events certainly made me focus my thoughts on the idea of ethics in beer judging and this is something that I will be bringing with me to events in the future.
While there were a few things throughout the competitions ethics-wise that got my attention, there were two that really bothered me in that they directly impacted others.
When judging beer, typically one does their initial analysis independently and then when done there is some level of group discussion. The idea behind this is that no single person’s opinion should overshadow that of others. Herein is the problem. In one round of judging that I was involved in there was a judge that clearly had a very strong opinion of a beer, and he voiced his displeasure in a clear and somewhat boisterous way. In his mind there was a flaw to the beer in question and he wanted it noted. (I should point out that another judge and I did not share that opinion) While the other judge and I did not act on this opinion, it is easy to see how someone that is less experienced or less assertive could have been dominated by this strong opinion and personality.
The other incident that I would like to mention occurred after the competition was over and the awards were handed out. At a public meeting (but in a quiet corner) an entrant to the competition came and showed a couple of us his score-sheets. One of his entries received a horrible mark, but this was not the issue. I automatically assumed that there was likely an infection of some sort in the bottle causing significant problems with it and thus I poured over the comments section of the sheets. By the time I was done reading the comments, I was visibly upset. If I had received the sort of comments that were written there on one of my beers I would have been fit to be tied. Not only were some of the comments incredibly negative, some were actually outright insulting and moreover these comments made some incredibly horribly assumptions. Even now a couple of weeks later I can think of no way that these comments could have been justified. (I urged the aggrieved entrant to bring the issue forward to the competion organizers, which he did. I also followed it up myself)
Both of these issues were ones that came about due to the actions of those involved. In one, the effects were contained fairly easily by a couple of judges that were adamant in their resolve, and in the other the entrant was impacted. The gent that had the horrible score-sheets took things far better than I would have, but I maintain that he never should have had to have gone through this ordeal. He entered his beverage in good faith that it would be judged fairly and that he would receive good feedback on it and he most certainly did not get treated as one would have expected.
So what is the issue that links these two events? To me it comes down to two simple factors.
First and foremost there is a basic lack of respect for others.
As I have said to others, in the case of the second entry, the beverage may have been flawed but there are far better ways to handle the situation. (Simple suggestions on how to fix the entry for future competitions should have been given, instead of crude insults)
In the case of the highly opinionated judge it really comes down to interpersonal skills. He is entitled to whatever opinion he likes on the beer, but there should be no attempt to influence the thoughts and actions of others at the judging table.
Secondly there is the desire by many to find flaws.
In one of his podcasts on the Brewing Network one of the hosts that I truly respect, Jamil Zainasheff talks about the habit of many beer judges to try excessively to find flaws in beer. This desire to find flaws can result in judges being overly critical of what may truly be good beer. There is no need to take a product and tear it apart it if it is a good thing. Minor flaws will exist in any beer, so why not focus on the positivies? One has to think that if a judge is searching so hard for a flaw that they are then bound to find one, whether or not one actually exists.
The Golden Rule
The ethics of judging beer are often overlooked. I hope that these examples I have given might spur some thought and discussion in others as I think they should be a matter of focus as the craft beer movement continues to grow across the continent.
So here is the take away that I offer. When judging, just BE NICE. People pay good money to have their entries judged, and they have the (quite reasonable) expectation that their entries will be fairly judged and that they will get good feedback in order to improve.
Anyone that has judged beer has tasted some that are simply flawed in some way or another. The ethical thing to do is report the flaw and give a way to help fix it, if possible. The method that is used should be kind and helpful and in no way should it discourage the entrant. In the same way, when judges are discussing a beer they should share their thoughts, but they too should be cognizant of how they come across so as not to influence things to their personal taste.
The hobby, the entrants and the beer deserve our best.