The Blunderful Wizard of Beer
Written by Ken Carman
Topic for this edition of Brew Biz: grading and challenging the BJCP Exam
BJCP stands for Beer Judge Certification Program. The following in a fictionalized account of my experience: studying for, taking and then challenging the grading of the BJCP test. Any similarity with any non-fictional person and the Wizard may be purely intentional.
Many years ago I, and my faithful companion… who in no way looks like Toto; well maybe just a tiny bit after I botched her last hair cut… decided we’d travel to the Wonderful Land of Beer: or join a club that runs BJCP sanctioned competitions, if you wish to read a more droll description. We had been brewing since the late 70s and had sampled many styles; many kinds, of beer. We entered the gates where a big “B” stood near the threshold: some might say it stands for “beer,” others… perhaps… would claim it’s a more local to Nashville reference… brew meccas like “Boscos,” or “Blackstone,” “Big River,” or just “brewpub.” But we were just glad to… “B…” there, wherever the meeting actually was. We were welcomed with copious amounts of beer; and plenty of friendship. We even were allowed to judge beer in many competitions organized, in part, in a way to please an organization: one run by Certified, or better than Certified, wonderful, “All Knowing” Wizards… well, at least according to at least one “all knowing” and “wonderful.” Supposedly the Wizard test proves that.
We stayed for a while, and became welcome visitors to a magical land where tasty foam flows, and sometimes a bit less than foamy hand pulls were poured. Eventually the residents proclaimed, “You really should take the exam to see if you qualify to be at least a Recognized citizen, according to the BJCP,”
“How do we do that?”
“Well, first you need a guide. Why, here he is…!”
Our to be unnamed guide: because I’m sure he’d rather be unnamed, said he would start to train us… and train us he did. Some claim he did little training at all, but that’s not really true. I answered many, many questions that were meant to represent what would be on the test. Personally, if you did as he asked, I thought our guide did a pretty good job; offering various blocks of question over the net and responding to what we had answered. Now the actual questions asked were a bit problematic, but that’s wasn’t the guide’s fault. Only the highest Wizards are allowed to know what actual questions will be on the test.
It’s a secret.
Although he wasn’t short, or hairy, or green, or a muppet, or someone who carried a lightsaber… he did seem a little Yoda like in his wisdom: being a professional brewer. A promise was made that all who faithfully studied would pass. For well over a year we studied; looking at questions past tense since we were not allowed to see the new questions: especially the reformulated ones for the new “revised” test. Eventually, it was decided we were ready.
So I put on my skirt, my bobby socks: tried to put a leash on my faithful companion, but she objected. Maybe I should leash myself sometimes, my dear?
And after joining up with a few more companions, we danced down the flowing yellow beverage-based road. Well, to be more accurate, it’s also brown, black, green, red… depending upon the malts and yeast used; and other factors like “food coloring” for St. P day. Ah, “St. P,” accurately describing the after effect of consuming the many creations inspired by the art of brewing. Or at least what some brewers are forced to add food coloring by management decree on Saint P. day… in this case “green.” As in, “like a cloverleaf.”
There have been other colors decreed by management; specifically brown or black, when an American big brewer wants a dark beer, or some versions of a seasonal beer during the spring that often uses the image of a goat on the label. But maybe we’d better get… BOCK… to that later. Or not.
You’re only allowed so much time on the test and I carefully used my wristwatch to make sure I spent as much time as I could. A few questions were hard but many fairly easy, like one that included Robust Porter and Foreign Extra Stout: two of my favorite styles I have brewed, studied and quaffed many, many times. Foreign Extra was my true introduction to actual dark beer; not just the food coloring altered versions that mega brewers like Miller were offering in the late 60s and very early 70s.
After the test was given we waited, and waited, and waited… months flew by. A gust like wind kept blowing up my skirt in the form of constant questions from fellow citizens, “Why haven’t you heard yet?” “How did you do?” Fellow citizens and test takers really wanted to know. Who did this wind filled with questions think I was, Marilyn Monroe? By digital means I asked a few times with no answer, but finally an oracle came to the digital “door” and announced…
“You all failed! Two out of five came no less than three points from passing. One failed by two points. You all still truly suck when it comes to knowing anything about beer! You are truly unworthy to grovel at our feet! But you can stick around and judge beer if you like, but you’ll have to check off how ignorant we consider you to be every time you fill out a form when you judge beer. Now take this rather large certificate that proves how much of a failure you are, and how much you disgust us. Put it on your wall: or hang it around your neck like Puritans used the letter ‘A.'”
OK, OK, you caught me.
This is a fictionalized version.
Those aren’t the actual words. I’m just amusing myself, and hopefully you too. My somewhat more stringent version is a bit over the top.
But not by damn much.
Back to our story…
My first question was only to myself. I wondered, “Why the hell would anyone even consider ‘awarding’ a certificate to someone who failed? And who would be stupid enough to hang it anywhere? Is this some trick S&M question; kind of like a very poorly phrased question about when you can and can’t judge a beer in a competition that was on the actual test?”
I cannot speak for the others. I don’t know what they wrote. But I had a real damn good idea what I wrote. I studied almost two years for this bloody thing. So I asked to see what I actually wrote, but you see test takers aren’t allowed to see what they wrote on their own test. My questions about that were rebuffed with something only slightly milder than…
“Don’t you dare to actually ask to see proof that they accurately read and graded what you wrote.
The mighty Wizards have spoken!”
But all I had to do was looked at what they claimed I had written and I knew: especially in one instance, it was not what I had placed on paper that day.
Something was wrong.
Even a lowly apprentice can challenge how his test was graded, as long as his hands are tied behind his back, he wears a blindfold and his feet are bound by the fact he isn’t allowed access to what he wrote that day. The BJCP keeps it and YOU… CAN’T… SEE… IT!!!!!!
But I did ask the first oracle…
“Um, I know I didn’t write that Robust Porters ‘always’ have a heavier body than Extra Stouts.’ I would like to check what I wrote against what was said about what I wrote.”
“Foolish, unworthy apprentice-knave, you are not allowed to see what you wrote.”
Now, as I mentioned, even a lowly failure of an apprentice is allowed to challenge a wizard: even the regional representative of the BJCP “guild.” I was given his electronic e-dress with a laugh and a “good luck” comment. I didn’t think it unkind: more of a warning of fruitless nonsense to come. Often a test taker can ask the actual judges who graded their test. So, at first, I asked to communicate with those who actually graded the test. But for some unexplained reason the regional Wizard refused to even respond to my requests in that regard, though he let my companion question those who graded her test. So, left to one avenue of communication, I proceeded to ask the regional Wizard my questions. Here is the “substance” of much of what I got back in response…
When I asked just a few sentences of what I had exactly written that day, Mr. Wizard either so roughly paraphrased what I wrote that I knew his version wasn’t accurate, or when I pointed that out… simply copied unrelated sections of our previous E-mails together in a response that was utter gibberish.
Perhaps in some Uncle Buck during his worst moments sort of way.
When I told him a certain beer called a Pomme could have a green apple taste he challenged me about that beer’s existence. I sent him of a link to Lindeman’s Pomme, which I had tasted, and even pointed out the label had green apples on it. He offered me a free; quite long, lecture on how inferior my taste buds were compared to his. When that failed to impress me…PRESTO! CHANGO! Within a mere handful of hours he and another highly placed never to be named Wizard got together and agreed I didn’t know what I was talking about. Zappo! Zingo! My tastebuds having been proved inferior Mr. Wizard and his not named, but highly placed, Wizard.
Solid proof no one could refute!
Never you mind that in competition judges frequently disagree: even highly placed ones.
And when it came to what I knew didn’t write, that Robust Porters always have a heavier body than Extra Stouts; he admitted I didn’t write that, but since they “weren’t sure what I was saying” they were still going mark it against me. Supposedly I didn’t provide any comparison of differences and similarities between the styles. When I challenged that by pointing out differences and similarities I know I had offered, he said… I’m not joking… that he didn’t say I “didn’t show any differences and similarities,” only that I “didn’t shown any differences and similarities.”
Think I was going to get anywhere?
Neither did I.
I suppose it didn’t help that many E-mails; not mine, dripped with sarcasm and disrespect from the very first one. Each and every E-mail responses could have been translated into one simple phrase…
“How dare you challenge the all powerful, all knowing Wizard of Beer?”
Let’s be fair. There were those who did respond kindly, and helped as much as they could have, wuithin the BJCP. I am not claiming all were cruel, unkind or unprofessional by any means.
Now some of our friends amongst the citizenry wondered if I was going to just leave after this fruitless exchange. I think they know by now… not. When I run into situations like this I don’t reject friends and good company. There are those who quit because they don’t achieve positions they think they are entitled to, but that’s not me, though sometimes I understand why they would. Wronged, or not, I will stay amongst the good folks in the Wonderful Land of Beer.
Will we take the test again? Not sure about moi’, but my faithful companion has said; many times…
“Hell, no. I studied long and hard for this, and they couldn’t find two points there? I know I did better than that.”
Five exams. Of top three, two got 57, one got 58. The rest failed with scores far worse. Of course when we have to show our BJCP status for judging purposes, that’s not mentioned. As far as other judges know at that point we failed miserably and are horribly ignorant when it comes to beer. Plus, disregarding our own angst: in a test that’s still filled with mostly essay questions, they couldn’t find even two points for our fellow test taker who scored a 58?
Let’s bring it down to a specific claim. As far as Millie and I are concerned, when it comes to the BJCP, we feel that our tests were handled in less than honest and professional way; if for no other reason than after any other test you are allowed to see and even given at least a copy of what you wrote so you can improve and pass the next one. BJCP forbids that.
What are they afraid of, perhaps that their grading suffers from being less than “wizard-y,” and maybe sometimes flat out wrong? Perhaps so, because someone within the BJCP agrees with me, and I finally did get to see what I wrote that day. Many of the claims made were inaccurate: at best. The oddest thing is, if they really had wanted to grade it that poorly; and still do a professional job, I saw how they could have been that tough. Various comments made me wonder whose test they had actually graded.
Did three judges actually read and assess this as claimed? If so, in my case, then why was I not allowed to communicate with the two judges who graded the exam, like Millie was? Why was I only allowed to E-mail Mr. Wizard?
If you are proud of how your organization grades such tests then letting the test taker have their exam back in some form, unedited, is what you do. If you are ashamed or have something to hide? Well… you do something else.
I will continue to judge beer. I personally don’t care what anyone thinks of me, specifically those who cower behind a refusal to show their own work by showing us what the hell we actually wrote that day so we can compare it with various comments.
And when it comes that certain “Wizard,” and an inability to represent an organization well when challenged, I can only say I feel very, very sad. Such a Wizard only harms his own organization… harms the good, professional, members… and harms themselves.
Most of all, while “Wonderful” may describe the land, at least one who rules over that land isn’t quite so “wonderful.”
Hence the use of “Blunderful” in the title.
The Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to review, discuss and comment on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer, reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer.