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Art of Tasting - Hickory Hops

April, 2003

By Bobby Bush

Hickory Hops, the city's first beer festival, is just around the corner (see www.hickoryhops.com). This is the first of two articles for beer drinkers and fest goers. Cheers!

Just throw your head back, open up your yapper and pour that cold, clear, tasteless beer right down your parched throat. That's all there is to drinking beer, right Bubba?

Without being an effete, pointing-pinky snob, there is a proper method to tasting beer. But, of course, it must be beer with flavor to start with. Drink beer for pleasure however you wish, but if you're in search of the subtle tastes and nuisances of a particular beer, the BJCP has developed a system for your use. The Beer Judge Certification Program, which dates back to 1985, is "a non-profit organization which encourages the advancement of education of people who are concerned with the evaluation of beer." Judge certification is a long, formal and tedious process involving intense education covering nearly every aspect of beer characteristics, from style definitions to actual flavor components and off-flavor recognition. Judges take their beer drinking seriously.

So where does a fledgling beer drinker began in this all-of-a-sudden complicated tasting process? The BJCP has established a five category, 50 point scale for beer evaluation. In competition, homebrew or professional, beer is judged blind, that is, judges know the style but have no clue who brewed each beer.

Aroma is the first checkpoint on the list. Does the beer have an aroma? Most do, but is it appropriate for style. India Pale Ales, for instance, should practically have hop clouds overhead raining pungent floral hops on everyone within a nose or two. Pilsners, less blunt in hops presentation, may waft a slight hop breeze while English Brown Ale may emit a brown sugar aura. Aroma accounts for as many as 12 points in the 50 point scale.

Appearance weighs in with only three points. Beers should be of proper color, clarity and head. A Cream Stout should sport a frothy tan foam cap and be opaque black in hue. A Bavarian Hefeweizen, an unfiltered wheat beer, must be cloudy gold and topped with a frothy white head. How many times have you ordered a Red beer that wasn't red?

The biggest component of the Beer Score Sheet is Flavor. With 20 points on the table, beer judges labor diligently to compare the beer at hand to very specific stylistic characteristics. With over 56 different categories and subcategories, some of which overlap, this is not an easy task. Judges make note of malt, hops, fermentation characteristics, balance, finish/aftertaste and other flavor characteristics appropriate for the style. Further information on style specifications and the Beer Score Sheet can be found at www.bjcp.org.

With five points, Mouthfeel is given lower priority but remains an important function in the art of tasting. Mouthfeel is simply the body of the beer. Is it thin, like a Hefeweizen, medium like a Pale Ale or heavy like Porter and Stout? Does the beer have proper carbonation, creaminess, astringency or other palate sensations? Like a melted milkshake, Stout with thin mouthfeel just wouldn't taste right.

Finishing out the count, Overall Impression chips in with 10 points. This is the most subjective part of the judging and often separates the winners from the runner-ups. Judges comment on overall drinking pleasure and make suggestions for improvement to the beer.

Unlike wine tasting judges, beer judges swallow their tastes. Between beers, water and bland crackers or bread are used to cleanse palates. Beers are awarded a numerical grade by averaging the judges' scores. A Very Good Beer rates 30-37 points. Excellent hits the 38-44 range, with Outstanding, a rare feat, at the top of the chart, 45-50.

You don't have to drink like a judge to enjoy the myriad flavors of craft brewed beer. Tastings and comparisons are fun. So are beer festivals. Make the most of your time at Hickory Hops. It's the perfect opportunity to learn more about the art of tasting craft brewed beer.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

Bobby Bush

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