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Aurora Beerialis
By Jim "Dr. Fermento" Roberts

I am not a certified beer judge within the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), but I’m studying to become one now. Even if I don’t pass the exam, I’m learning a lot and would encourage anyone with an interest in beer to take the course simply to learn more about our cherished beverage. It doesn’t matter how you score, because you always win when you learn more about beer. I am also learning some things that are not a part of the program’s design.

Learning how to evaluate a beer is primarily training yourself to listen to what a beer has to tell you. “Listening” involves using all of your senses, including sound, sight, smell, taste and the tactile sensations inside your mouth. It’s not as easy as it seems, because not everyone has the same sensitivity to all of the elements within a beer, and not everyone has the same beer to be sensitized to. It’s certainly easier for some people than others, primarily my instructor.

The BJCP course in Anchorage this year was a grueling, seven-week full-immersion course into all aspects of beer. Our instructor, Jason Ditsworth, is a certified national judge in the program, and he’s a walking, talking, tasting encyclopedia of beer. For the longest time, I thought that when I "grew up" in beer, I wanted to be just like him.

For one thing, he’s got a palate that should be insured. For example, a number of years ago, I bellied up to the bar at Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse, and beer guru Billy Opinsky shoved a beer in front of me and said, “What do you think about THIS?” I’d managed to take a whiff of the malty nose and was just about to taste it when he said, “Oh, and see if you can tell me what’s wrong with THIS,” shoving another small sample in front of me. About that time, Ditsworth walked in and Opinsky went through the same routine with him.

Learning how to evaluate a beer is primarily training yourself to listen to what a beer has to tell you.

The only difference was that when Ditsworth took that first exploratory snort, his eyes rolled back, and before even tasting the brew, he exclaimed, “Where did you get a 1995 Midnight Sun Double Shovel Doppelbock?” He didn’t even taste the beer to come to his conclusion. He then smelled the second sample, took a tentative sip and said, “Alaskan Amber should never taste like that.” I was blown away. I wanted to learn beer as well as Ditsworth had. That was my inspiration to enroll in the BJCP, but it was a number of years before my busy schedule would allow it.

Although students sample beer in class and talk about it, Ditsworth assigns two or three homework beers each week that students are required to evaluate, score and come back to compare with the scores of others. Knowing my own palate limitations, and being a good student, I decided to study more than the requisite three beers each week. In fact, I was resolved to drink every beer listed in the commercial examples in the BJCP Style Guidelines that was available here in Anchorage.

One aspect of my personal BJCP beer-discovery and enlightenment adventure that I actually find disconcerting is that there are so many stylistic representations that are locally produced here in Alaska that the proctors outside wouldn’t recognize. Alaskan Brewing Company’s ESB and Smoked Porter are listed, but then again, their distribution network is formidable and their beers are for the most part nationally recognized. Silver Gulch’s (Fox, Alaska) Pilsner Lager is a clean, delicious beer that dances between the softer Bohemian pilsner and a German pilsner. Midnight Sun Brewing Company’s stylistic Old Whiskers Hefeweizen, Arctic Devil Barley Wine and many of its Belgian-style ales, such as the La Maitresse du Moine (a Belgian dark strong ale) or the Épluche-Culotte (an abbey tripel) are worthy of inclusion, and most of our non-bottling brewpubs’ beers are as well.

Glacier BrewHouse’s new cream stout nails the sweet stout category almost flawlessly and provides a good, hard-to-find example. Even before I embarked on the BJCP journey, I directed beer lovers to Glacier with the proclamation, “If you want to experience how dry-hopping should be done, head to Glacier.” The Moose’s Tooth’s Fairweather IPA showcases the over-the-top hopping schedules — the hallmark of the American IPA style. Homer Brewing Company’s Broken Birch Bitter provides a case study in the extra special/strong bitter category.

When it comes to evaluating local beers against specific BJCP style criteria, Ditsworth told me there’s no harm in pretending. There’s great value in evaluating local beers against style guidelines, as long as one keeps in mind that most breweries don’t brew to style and don’t intend to. One of the beautiful things about the American brewing scene is that brewers make what they like, make what sells and aren’t constrained by style parameters that are important only from the standpoint of reference. So lately I have found myself in a lot more liquor stores and a lot more local watering holes than even my writing duties mandate. There’s no harm in that, and I can thank the BJCP for rounding out my beer professionalism across the board.

I’m sure that throughout the country, most regions have enough local beer variety to support study in most of the BJCP-listed styles. It’s one big beery world out there, and wouldn’t it be grand to study for the BJCP using the local beers across every region of the country? Wait, then I’d be Michael Jackson! Thanks anyway, but I’m happy here in Alaska, and I’m sure each of you is proud of your own local brewing talents. “Think globally, drink locally,” indeed!

James Roberts is the weekly beer columnist for the Anchorage Press and is known by his alter ego, “Dr. Fermento.” E-mail him at james.roberts@gci.net for specific information or traveling tips.


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