Gordon Strong’s beer CV is impressive.
He’s won the USA’s top home brewing prize, the Ninkasi Award, an unprecedented three times. He’s the Beer Judging Certification Program’s top beer judge, and it’s President too.
New Zealand home brewers will be familiar with the BJCP’s Beer Style Guidelines – they’ve been used in SOBA’s National Homebrewing Competition since it’s inception. The broader Program also includes education and certification for aspiring beer judges, covering sensory training, judging, scoring and giving feedback.
Gordon is coming to New Zealand for the first time next month, to attend and speak at the New Zealand Home-brewers’ Conference in Nelson. Gordon and the other visiting speakers will also make up the judging panel for the Brewmania home brewing competition.
Beertown.NZ: The BJCP Style Guidelines are used here in New Zealand, but there's no training programme for judges. Can the guideline be used alone or are qualified judges an essential part?
Gordon Strong: The style guidelines are flexible and can be used in many different ways. Judges can use them in competitions, and enthusiasts can use them as a general reference. Training has always been largely self-paced, but the BJCP does provide extensive resources. Once a critical mass of judges is in an area, locally-organized training classes usually follow.
B: We have a small and isolated beer community here. Do judges need to experience beer outside their familiar brewers and styles to develop an objective palate?
GS: No, but it helps. Sensory panelists at professional breweries train intensively on the brewery's own products, and their palates are incredible. Repetition and training in the skill is what matters most, but it becomes difficult to judge unfamiliar beers or styles without a broad experience base. The best homebrew judges are ones who travel, try a lot of different beers, and have practical experience in the styles along with a mastery of the basic sensory and judging mechanics.
B: Everyone has different sensory strengths and weaknesses, including in smell and taste. Is it possible for a single judge/reviewer to give a beer a fair review?
GS: Absolutely, but it's more of an opinion than an absolute judgment. People sometimes make the mistake of thinking of a beer judge in the legal sense. Again, the best judges are ones who can give a beer a thorough sensory assessment but also provide a rationale for their opinion. Describing a beer in terms of its fidelity to style and its technical merit (freedom from brewing faults) is what allows the sensory perceptions to be placed into context. Good judges know their sensory 'blind-spots' and will listen to other opinions, especially when their own senses fail them.
B: Do you deliberately practice tasting/judging (in the sense of a musician practicing their instrument)?
GS: Yes. Otherwise, it isn't really practice and your skills will start to erode.
B: There's a big difference between judging a beer objectively and enjoying a beer subjectively. Do you find your judging skills & experience get in the way of enjoying a beer? Are you always identifying flavours or seeking out faults?
GS: Not really, to the first question! I silently evaluate every beer I drink, but I can do that with a few sips and less than 30 seconds. You really save time when you don't write out a full scoresheet, but I still go through the mental process of evaluation (so yes to your second question). If there's something really interesting or unusual about the beer, I'll seek out others and have a longer discussion but mostly I'll go about the business of enjoying the rest of my pint. To do otherwise is like saying you eat but you're not really tasting. Where's the enjoyment in that? I guess I look at craft beer like a fine meal; it's worth giving it some focus and attention. I don't see beer as an alcohol-delivery system just as I don't see a meal as a calorie-delivery system. Savor what you're tasting, enjoy your companions, and have a good time.
B: And finally - is this your first visit to New Zealand, and what else are you planning while you're here?
GS: Yes, and I'm very excited about it. I'm bringing my wife along and we hope to do some sight-seeing and try some wines. My wife is the obsessive-compulsive type who loves to plan travel itineraries, so I'm letting her handle the specifics. I just want to see the country, meet the people, and have a good time.