Stout, lager, IPA, and others are names you’ve probably heard or read if you’re interested in beer. If you’re a homebrewer, you’re likely already quite familiar with all of them.
Now, when it comes to grouping beer, cider, and mead, there needs to be some standard. It can help in everything from judging in competitions to addressing beer styles around the world better.
That’s where the BJCP guidelines come in. BJCP = The Beer Judge Certification Program.
Of course, these guidelines often change with time and as the industry evolves by itself. It’s easy to feel lost or confused when trying to classify your own beer, and even certain styles and categories might be altered.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines: mainly what they are and how they work. We’ll summarize the guidelines themselves and explain the relevant factors at play when determining how these guidelines function.
What are the BJCP guidelines?
- 1 What are the BJCP guidelines?
- 2 Which guidelines are considered?
- 3 Important considerations about the guidelines
The BJCP uses certain terms to specify beer “types”; they deal with both categories and subcategories as well as beer styles. Subcategories are the most important term; they’re somewhat similar to styles, and they identify major features from beer.
Beer style is very specific, and each one has a precise and defined description; they’re the standard approach for judges. On the other hand, categories are essentially groups. They gather similar beer types, but not all subcategories need to be related to each other.
Beer is often grouped by their home country, but this has little to do with their characteristics. It’s mostly used to understand history or markets, depending on the judges’ needs. (Here’s more on How to Become a Beer Judge)
How do the styles and categories work?
A common mistake is to learn style names instead of their descriptions; this is what makes everything feel confusing. Names are mostly used to identify different styles. In a similar vein, assigning a style is the first step, grouping (or categorizing) them the second, and naming these groups the last.
Style names aren’t supposed to be mandatory for breweries. They’re only used for reference, for they’re often the appropriate description of a style. When different styles use the same name, their original region is often added to the style.
That doesn’t mean that:
- All beers must be named with their style.
- Breweries or regions own the style name.
- Local markets always call the beer by their style.
Which guidelines are considered?
The following isn’t an exact description of the format, but a summary of the different guidelines followed by the BJCP.
About the beer
Judges consider the style’s essence and how it’s different from others. The consumer-grade description or impression of the beer is one of the first guidelines, and it stretches to how regular people would describe styles.
Then, the appearance, aroma, taste, and mouth sensation are the fundamental elements for determining a style. They’re also independent from the manufacture, as even the same ingredients and processes can deliver different experiences. These four elements refer to perception.
However, styles tend to include typical ingredients and processes. While there’s no exact recipe for a style, characteristic elements can be taken into account.
The beer’s context
Here’s where history plays a role. Now, the BJCP doesn’t focus on history, but how the beer originated is often take into consideration when determining styles. This is especially true for the previous cases: when different styles adopt the same name.
Additional notes or even trivia can also account for a beer style. They’re not mandatory, but brewers can add their own comments when submitting their products for review.
The BJCP added style comparisons to their format back in 2015, and it’s basically a description of how a specific style is different from related or even similar styles.
It’s particularly useful because it’s sometimes easier to describe styles by drawing comparisons to already-known styles. That’s why judges might ask for important features that differentiate a style from others.
As such, the format includes a section to provide clues like the context or sensations when tasting a style.
The ASBC (American Society of Brewing Chemists) created the SRM (Standard Reference Method) for expressing characteristics fro certain beer. These include both the final and original gravity, the alcohol-to-volume ratio, or IBU (International Bittering Units) as well as the color.
Color tends to vary when using different methods and conventions, but it always refers to visually distinguishable characteristics. If it needs to be analyzed with certain tools, then it doesn’t fall under the “color” criterion.
Statistics are usually employed to determine the order in which to judge different examples; it’s not a relevant criterion for qualifying or disqualifying style examples.
Established commercial iterations of beer styles make up an entire guideline for the BJCP. However, the 2015 update reduced the number of examples necessary, and they must be products that represent a style.
It’s important to keep in mind that commercial examples don’t need to be 100% compliant with their style – or be world-class. Commercial examples aren’t perfect references, and judges mostly use it to facilitate judging order. When it comes to defining beer styles, their descriptions are the only accurate approach.
Finally, every style has its own attribute tags, which make sorting them into different groups a lot easier. When tagging a style, it’s not necessary to pay attention to the order of the tags themselves.
Finally, tags don’t really mean anything more than a brief summary of the style’s attributes.
Important considerations about the guidelines
Guidelines aren’t static, and this is why they shouldn’t be taken as anything other than references to what you might expect from certain beers. Below, we’ll go through some of the most important things to keep in mind when it comes to the BJCP guidelines.
They’re just guidelines
They describe general features and characteristics of common iterations of each style, and they’re helpful for judging. That’s it; they’re not specifications, and they shouldn’t be used to criticize examples that don’t fully comply with their descriptions.
They’re more suggestions than titles, and their main objective is to aid judges when rating participants in competitions. In fact, they’re supposed to be flexible so that compliance doesn’t hinder well-made products.
It’s not a good idea to take them too seriously, and these guidelines should never change someone’s perception of a product. Guidelines often change from one edition to the other, and getting too caught up with the style descriptions often even kills its essence.
They were designed for homebrewing competitions
We mentioned competitors because of the BJCP guidelines’ origin. Style descriptions were invented (and are still targeted) to help judges in homebrewing competitive events. That’s why the BJCP also differentiates styles to prevent overlaps in the categories.
Styles often make their way to the market, but this has never been their objective. That’s also why commercial examples are often inaccurate representations of the style they’re named after.
Consumers tend to get really confused when talking about beer styles exactly because of this issue. All styles and categories have been designed to be used for home brewing. They’ve never been intended for any audience other than this one.
They aren’t 100% accurate
Similar to the previous point, a lot of people outside the intended audience use the BJCP guidelines. Different companies, groups, and organizations have adopted these criteria – even when not related to the original intent in any way.
There’s no real problem with doing that, and the BJCP itself even enjoys how other groups have found value and even advantages from using their guidelines. The problems come up when people draw assumptions about certain products and styles using commercial use of these guidelines as their sole reference. Even homebrewers have started to use the guidelines to discover rare styles of beer.
Just keep in mind that it’s more of a consequence of their creation instead of the actual objective of the BJCP.
They’re prone to change
Another important reason not to take BJCP guidelines as law when talking about beer is how often it changes. Styles evolve throughout the years, and some of them are even open to debate and interpretation.
Furthermore, if the style name doesn’t change, no one should take this as a hint that beers within these styles haven’t changed. This is particularly true thanks to the difference agents at play for commercial breweries – like market demand and state regulation. Products will change with time. Even styles that have been around for a while are dramatically different from their original iteration.
Style descriptions by the BJCP aim towards beers currently available in today’s market. There’s a special historical category, but these must be specified to be judged by the appropriate guidelines.
Another important consideration is that beer ingredients also change. Hops, in particular, are constantly evolving, and different varieties are constantly introduced into the market to offer new features and sensations.
It’s also because of breweries looking to increase their sales. They’re always looking for ways to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and that means lots of manufacturing innovations – sometimes even ditching or adding new ingredients.
The main consequence is that styles need to accommodate to this evolution. If ingredients change continuously, then style names would become obsolete very quickly, and it’s also a reason why regions are often added to these names.
Even so, two products within the same style and region might offer quite different sensations. That’s why judging should never be rigid, even if using a current edition of the guidelines. Ingredients and processes can change drastically even before a new edition comes out, and judging should always adapt to these changes.
Finally, beer styles are quite broad exactly because of this reason. The BJCP embraces creativity, and that’s why brewer interpretation is even encouraged within their guidelines. Therefore, styles were made to be flexible.
They’re don’t cover every beer type
The BJCP recognizes beer styles that haven’t been included in their guidelines. There are many reasons why this occurs.
Styles that are rarely heard about are often excluded. This is probably because there aren’t enough brewers making them to make judging feasible; how can you define a style if you don’t have several examples to determine its main characteristics?
Additionally, beer styles that the BJCP suspects might be prone to disappearing soon – or too old for anyone to be producing right now – are often excluded.
BJCP guidelines are only descriptions of the most common beers currently available.
Commercial beer doesn’t fully accommodate to them
Many breweries advertise new products by naming them after popular styles – even when they don’t match the BJCP guidelines for the said stile. Still, we already discussed how the guidelines aren’t supposed to be taken into consideration when tackling products outside of judging.
Furthermore, commercial examples are also constantly changing. What was once the best example of a beer style might be the opposite in a few years. Again, commercial brands need to stay relevant to current market demand, so it’s only natural for them to evolve their products.