APR/MAY 2005 | REGIONAL | PACIFIC
By Jim "Dr. Fermento"
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
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
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 email@example.com
for specific information or traveling tips.