My judging partner and I each pour a small sample into a plastic cup and hold it to the light. It’s a dark brown, almost black. I bring mine to my nose and smell notes of dark chocolate and roasted coffee. I take a sip and get a pleasant balance between malty sweetness and slight hop bitterness.
Then I go back to the computer screen, my digital notebook, and begin to write.
This is what judging a homebrew competition looks like. There are more than a million amateur brewers nationwide, according to estimates from the American Homebrewers Association, and every month dozens of competitions ask hobbyists like me to submit their beers for feedback and, hopefully, medals and bragging rights.
Behind the scenes, judges carefully taste each beer — the good ones and, yes, the not-so-good ones — to tell brewers how to make an even better batch next time. Last year, I enrolled in a class through the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) with a group of wannabe judges to learn how to fill out a score sheet and properly evaluate any beer.
It’s a lot like reporting. To borrow from the SPJ’s code of ethics, you seek truth with your palate, and you report it on the score sheet.
After more than 10 years brewing beer and nearly a year judging with BJCP, I think every journalist should try reporting and writing like a beer judge. Here’s how:
Descriptive language is accurate language
You don’t have to be a master brewer to be a successful beer judge. You just need good observational skills, a notebook and the BJCP style guide.
Each beer is judged against a set of standards defined by the BJCP. Want to know what separates an English porter from an American porter? Which kind of hops are most characteristic in a saison rather than an IPA? It’s all in the style guide. Think of it like the AP Stylebook for beer nerds.
When judging a beer, you fill out a scoresheet to rank the beer in five categories — aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression — on a scale of one to 50 against the standard described in the BJCP guide. The best beer you’ve ever had could likely score a 45. If a beer is simply undrinkable, it often gets a courtesy score of 13.
The key to filling out a good scoresheet, however, isn’t nailing the numerical value of a beer’s quality. You also have to take detailed notes using descriptive language to tell the brewer what you see, smell, taste and feel.
Sounds easy enough, but when judging a contest with 13 light-bodied Belgian saisons in a row, it can get tricky to describe the subtle differences between one beer and the next. It takes careful observation and creative language, skills that all reporters can learn from.
Say you’re at the bar and you’ve ordered a pint. It arrives and has a thick head of white foam at the top. After a minute or so, that foamy head starts to disappear. What are you left with? Is it completely flat? No, there’s still carbonation there. So how would you describe it?
In BJCP parlance, we sometimes write that “the foamy head fades into a ring of small and medium bubbles.” I often add another line: “A constellation of thin, small bubbles lace the top of the beer.” In beer — as in journalism — details matter. The more descriptive I am about what the beer looks like, the better a brewer can try to dial in the beer’s carbonation and head retention next time.
Try this the next time you’re reporting on an assignment. Take two minutes to describe just one of the five senses you perceive. What do you hear? What do you smell? Even if you don’t use those observations in your final draft, your writing will be better informed by your perceptions.
Pulitzer-winning writer Lane DeGregory does this on every page of her notebook. Every time she turns a new page while reporting, she spends a moment writing down what she observes with each of the five senses. When she’s writing, she can draw from those notes to describe what it felt like to be there – since the reader can’t be.
Descriptive language doesn’t mean adding details that aren’t there, of course. Accuracy in your notes is as important in beer judging as it is in reporting. It is paramount on any judging sheet to be honest and fair with your observations.
But no description at all can be just as inappropriate. Some of the most frustrating score sheets to receive as a homebrewer are the ones that just say, “good beer… nice flavor.” How can a brewer improve if they don’t know what you tasted or smelled or saw in the glass? How can a reader understand a scene if they don’t understand the same?
Using the right puns at the right time
My dad — an award-winning homebrewer turned pro — was recently working at a brewery in Arlington, Texas. Legal Draft Beer Co. — like many great breweries over the past few years — closed its doors in March 2022. The brewery, co-founded by a civil trial lawyer, leaned heavily on a marketing strategy based in legal jargon puns.
Looking for a German-style wheat beer? Theirs was the Hung Jury hefeweizen. Is a wintertime seasonal more your style? That’d be the Legal Holiday winter warmer. How about a black IPA? You’d have to get the Night Court.
To execute these puns, the marketing minds behind the brewery used rhetorical tools that are applicable to any writer.
Take the Hung Jury hefeweizen. You get alliteration between the two H words and a rhythm in those syllables — one, two, four.
Plus, there’s a subconscious meaning behind the name that discerning beer drinkers will notice. A good hefeweizen, brewed with wheat and fermented with a German ale yeast, should be a delicate balance between notes of banana and clove. If you ferment the beer too hot, the yeast puts off extra banana flavors. Ferment too cold, you get too much clove.
Legal Draft’s hefeweizen, then, is a toss-up. It’s caught between the two, just like a good hefe should be. It’s a hung jury. The pun works even if you don’t know how a hefeweizen is made, but it’s even more effective if you do.
If Legal Draft put out a stout called “moot,” for example, it would send the wrong message. Too unimportant, too inconsequential for a strong, dark, malty beer. Instead, their stout was called Chief Justice, a stoic name that brings ideas of importance. (If you brought young children to the brewery, however, they’d get an aptly named Moot Beer.)
The lesson for writers: Use puns when appropriate. But know when and how to make them effective, and never use a pun that sends readers in the opposite direction of the tone you’re trying to convey.
Nut graphs are your story’s tasting notes
Earlier this year, I attended the nation’s largest single-site homebrew competition as a competitor and judge. Over 12,000 entries were submitted to the Bluebonnet Brew-Off by 266 hobbyist brewers. It is notoriously among the most competitive competitions in American homebrewing.
After spending several Saturdays in February judging beers, the competition culminates in a two-day conference in Irving, Texas. Hundreds of brewers gather to sample each other’s recipes, collect awards and share advice on all things beer.
I was pouring for my homebrew club’s bar. We’re the Horsemen of the Hopocalypse, and we were pleased to win the people’s choice award that night for best club bar. We had a wide range of beers on tap, from my dark pecan porter to a light German pilsner to a sweet blueberry-and-vanilla mead. So many choices, and one question from everyone who came up to our bar: “What’s good?”
What any good bartender knows, which is also what every good salesperson knows, is how to quickly and concisely share what the product is and why you should buy it, or in this case, drink it.
It’s like writing a great nut graph, but for your beer.
Like any reporter, I start with my notes. In this case, that means going back to the BJCP score sheet. I’ve already collected detailed descriptive language about how the beer looks, smells and tastes. Now, I condense that into a few short sentences to capture a reader’s (drinker’s) attention and leave them wanting to read (drink) more.
Not long ago, I tried this with one of my favorite North Texas beers. Fire Ant Funeral (another beer with a great name) is an American amber ale made by the Texas Ale Project in Dallas. I didn’t score the beer like I would with a BJCP contest, but I did take brief notes on the appearance, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression:
Amber malty sweet, low/moderate earthy hop aroma. Bready malt character. Medium hop bitterness on front of the tongue. Lingering hop character – without a bitter hop bite.
I then worked those notes into a “nut graph” of tasting notes, with a little additional reporting from the brewery’s website:
Unlike its devilish namesake, you’ll want to get stung by this flagship amber ale. Its sweet body is balanced with plenty of hop flavor and a crisp finish — without the bite. Seven different varieties of malt and American-grown hops turn this funeral into something to celebrate.
Observing the details
Whenever I’m reading a great piece of journalism or nonfiction, I’m always thinking to myself, How the heck did they pull that off? I wonder what questions, techniques, documents, sources or observations the writer had in their notebook. I think through how they may have used those notes to make the final story work on the page.
I now think about beer the same way. If I taste a great beer with unexpected flavors and characteristics, I want to know how the brewer pulled it off. By dissecting the beer with careful observation, an experienced beer judge can start to realize how the recipe came together. It makes me a better beer judge and a better brewer in the process.
Apply the same technique to your reading and writing. It’ll make you a better reporter and will make your stories stand out every time.
Charlie Scudder is a freelance writer and editor in Arlington, Texas, and an adjunct professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. He has brewed beer for more than 10 years and is a BJCP provisional beer judge.