BierTalk English 14 – Talk with Gordon Strong, BJCP President, Grand Master Beer Judge & Keeper of the Style Guidelines

Gordon Strong was inspired by friends to take up home brewing, launching a veritable hobbyist career. He quickly found his way to the BJCP, the Beer Judge Certification Program, until he became its president. In the interim, others have taken the helm, but Gordon has kept his pet project, the evolution of the Style Guidelines, to himself. As Grandmaster Judge, he travels the world gathering the information that keeps the compendium alive. In the podcast, he tells his story and also explains the background of the BJCP and how all beer lovers can contribute to the Style Guide…

Link für Apple/iTunes: https://podcasts.apple.com/de/podcast/biertalk/id1505720750

Link für Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7FWgPXstFr1zR9Fm2G0UJS

 

Markus Raupach: Hello, and welcome to another episode of our podcast BierTalk. Today I’m very honored because I have a great master beer judge next to me. So and maybe the Grandmaster beer judge because it’s Gordon Strong. Maybe most of you, European audience doesn’t know him. I don’t know. We will see better. But maybe introduce yourself a bit, and then we talk about your great career.

Gordon Strong: Hi, thanks for having me on. Yeah, my name is Gordon Strong, the president emeritus of the Beer Judge Certification Program, and the Grandmaster judge, the highest rank in the program. But I’ve been a homebrewer for more than 25 years. I actually won the US National Championship three times and after that, I wrote a couple of books. I wrote the book, Brewing Better Beer, and Modern Homebrew Recipes. Many people know me from the BJCP as the person who writes the style guidelines. So, if you have complaints about how I describe German styles, then please address those to me. I want to make them correct. Yeah, I’m a brewer. I’m a judge, I’m a beer style guy, I’m a writer, speaker. I do a lot of things about beer, travel internationally for beer judging. So, I’ve seen a lot of places and met a lot of interesting people. And it’s a fun life.

Markus Raupach: Yeah, it is, and we already met sometimes at a competition. So yeah. That’s great. And so, but maybe first, to give a view to the customers or to the listeners, how did you come to beer? Was it in your youth when you said, okay, let’s make beer?

Gordon Strong: Yeah. Well, it was actually after I was out of college. Oh, it’s probably in my early 30s that some friends of mine from college were making their own beer, and they would bring it to New Year’s parties or something like that and I was pretty impressed. This was in the 1990s before people called this craft beer. We called it microbrewing back then if you remember. And no, so I wanted to learn a lot about beer. I’m sort of an engineer by background, and I have a strong interest in learning about things. So I got a lot of the Michael Jackson books on beers and read about them, and some instructional books on home brewing and just started brewing. And then as we say, you catch the bug, and you get the illness, and you’re hooked for life.

Markus Raupach: But you have also a normal life before. So, have you been an engineer? Or what did you do?

Gordon Strong: Yeah, I’m a computer scientist. So, I’ve worked in a number of places and doing things that aren’t nearly as interesting as beer. But they pay my bills, because it’s really hard to sort of make a living at beer. Beer is an expense for us, not an income source. So, I get a little bit of money from the things I do. But yeah, I have a real job. And this is my hobby, but it takes up all of my free time.

Markus Raupach: And you also have a wife. Is she with beer?

Gordon Strong: I have a wife. Yeah, I have a wife and daughter. My daughter’s in college. My wife was also an engineer and fortunately, both of them, at least tolerate my hobby or my obsession as they refer to it. Especially when we get to travel internationally. It’s like my wife complains about all the time I spend on beer until the time when I asked her, do you want to go to New Zealand with me? Oh, then beer is interesting. Next year, maybe South Africa and I think she’d be interested in that place as well. So yeah, we get to see a lot of interesting places around the world and get to see how people are interpreting craft beer in all those countries.

Markus Raupach: Yes, and you never are just the tourists. You always have people, you are in the society. It’s a great thing.

Gordon Strong: Yeah. Yeah, it’s very easy as an American to only look at our own country. That’s, I think one of our biggest faults. So, I really do want to try to have a world perspective, especially when it comes to describing beer that it’s not just from an American centric point of view.

Markus Raupach: And what about the BJCP? Was it something you formed? Or was it already there? How did that?

Gordon Strong: Yeah, the BJCP had existed since 1985 and I didn’t take the exam for it until 1997. So that’s when I joined the program. It had been going on for a while. And then I became part of the leadership in the early 2000s, maybe 2005 is when I was first elected. And then I ran the organization for 15 years before stepping down from that. And they really did honour me with like creating a president emeritus so I could continue to promote the program and represent their interests worldwide, without having to actually run the organization. But I still write the guidelines and we put out a new edition of the beer style guidelines at the end of last year.

Markus Raupach: And also, maybe our listeners, maybe they know the BJCP guidelines, but they don’t really know what is behind that. So maybe you can explain a little bit what is the original idea and how did it develop? And what is the meaning of the BJCP?

Gordon Strong: Yeah, thanks. That’s actually the subject of a talk I’m going to give it a homebrewer conference here in Brazil in a couple of weeks. And so, I’ve been thinking about it recently. Really, the the first set of style guidelines for the BJCP were created in the 90s before I was involved, and it was just kind of a reference for judges. You get together and at that time, it was mostly homebrew competitions, not commercial beer. So, the brewers and the judges needed a common reference to say, here’s how this beer should be evaluated. What are the standards to evaluate it against? And very early on, they were very short, two or three sentences that just. Often, they were just historical notes of what part of the world this beer is from. But early guidelines for the BJCP tended to describe beers as they existed in the US import market. So, I had some problems with some people in the UK who said the descriptions were wrong. But this is how your beers taste. And they wouldn’t say what the problem was. And years later, I had learned after several trips there that we were really describing older, oxidized examples. So, we were saying the beers had too much caramel when they really had more fruit. And when you have the fresh examples, you can see that difference. So yeah, so I do try to travel more so I can describe these world beer styles, how they are in their place of origin, not how they arrive in a store in the US. So, the guidelines have evolved over the years. Originally, like I said, they were almost what I would call a book report. We’d read Michael Jackson’s books and some other things and try to pull out the sensory characteristics of some of these beers and put them in a document. And oftentimes, the styles described a single commercial example of the style and whether or not that beer really represented the style or not. I’ll give you an example. I’ll give you Germany beer. It’s like altbier. The original styles were really written for, and excuse me if I say this badly, Uerige. And if you go to Dusseldorf and try all the beers in the Altstadt, that you find that beer is very extreme. All the other beers are very closely centred around a certain sensory character. But this other one was well known and it was perhaps much more aggressive and the style was written that way. So, all these normal examples really didn’t fit in. So, on a trip to Dusseldorf, I tasted them all and tried to record the characteristics, and then I changed the description to not just be a clone of this one beer. And we did that with a lot of styles. The 2015 edition of the BJCP guidelines, I really tried to make much more international. Because the BJCP had grown, I tried to bring in more judges from outside the US. And then of course, we had to have the guidelines to be able to be used in all these different countries. So, I wanted to be correct about the beers in the origin. And some people in the US complained of, well, the beers don’t taste like that here, or I can’t find the examples or, some other complaint. It’s like, well, you need to travel more. If you want to learn about beer, you should always go as close to the source as possible, taste the beer when it’s fresh. If you still don’t like it, then you probably don’t like that beer. Because this is how it should taste. So, I tried to describe the beer and the way it should be. And then, of course, like the beers themselves, the styles evolve over time. If you look at the number of new types of IPAs that get produced, it’s continuous. And that’s hard to track. So, we tried to describe beers that are relatively stable, that haven’t been changing for a while, because we’re not going to put up new guidelines every year, as people are using these to study for exams, and we don’t want to keep changing the study materials. That’s not fair to anybody.

Markus Raupach: But I think that’s also an interesting thing. And as you say, it’s changing and it’s developing, and I think it gets more and more meetings also. Because, of course, it’s something people need for doing their exams. But now, it’s also a bit of history, because every beer style has a short part about its history, about classical examples.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Markus Raupach: So that’s really, now it’s more like a companion and also, you can use it to explore new beer styles, maybe or to create new beer styles, whatever. So, I think it’s really, it’s getting more than just the exam.

Gordon Strong: Yes, yes. Originally it was a competition reference and an exam reference. But since we give the content away for free, a lot of people have adopted it. And I find, that wasn’t the original intent. But I’m very pleased to see it used that way as a common language of beer. There’s historical notes I wanted to talk about a second because particularly, I know there’s some sensitivity when an American is writing about the history of something that’s not ours. Sure, I can write about the history of things that have occurred during my lifetime. But for classical things, especially in beer, sometimes there’s stories that get told and retold, and maybe they’re not so true. They sound good, but so, I tried to actually I asked Ron Pattinson. You’re one of in years past, he had been one of our biggest critics. So, I went to him and asked him nicely, like, “Ron, I write these and I know you have some problems with this. Would you help me understand the areas that need some improvement?” And he’s helped me on a couple of those things. And the last edition, I was really surprised to see how positive he was. I mean, to use the name Ron Pattinson and the word positive in the same sentences, yeah, you know how rare that is.

Markus Raupach: Yes, I got him on board.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, yeah so and because he helped and he saw we were trying to make a good faith to get this right. We were trying to describe things as they were not how they should be. So, he saw that there wasn’t any sort of political intent.

Markus Raupach: Intentional…

Gordon Strong: Right. I’m not trying to tell brewers what to make. I’m trying to document what they’ve done. So, he saw some value in that. He saw how people were using it. And so, I was very happy to sort of have his endorsement that the history was. He’ll never agree that it’s perfect, but …

Markus Raupach: No, and as I experienced in my own work, I also wrote some books about beer and there’s always history and story.

Gordon Strong: Yeah.

Markus Raupach: And the border is very narrow and sometimes you think it’s history and ten years later, you learn, okay, it was just a story. And so, as you always learn, and there’s not so much profound research on beer history yet. It’s getting better and better, but so I think that’s okay to say maybe you had a wrong idea. Now you learn it was wrong, then you correct it. And as long as you do so it’s okay.

Gordon Strong: Right. Because if you don’t have the sort of strong ownership of what you wrote, say, we’re trying to get it right and if we learn something new, that’s where I think having a scientific background sort of helps. It’s like, well, we have new data, and we changed our conclusion. So, if something is wrong, and there’s sort of proof, I want to be able to fix that. But a lot of times it’s just people’s opinions of, well, I read this story somewhere. I’m like, that’s, no, no, no. Let’s look at something real.

Markus Raupach: Yes, and also, if you think that the idea of beer styles like we have it today, that’s maybe born in the 90s. In that strict way, for especially in my area in Franconia, brewers brewed beer and they wrote something on a label and that’s it. And as long as people buy it and drink it, there’s no problem. The problem is when they enter the competition.

Gordon Strong: Competition.

Markus Raupach: That’s the thing. And as long as they don’t do that…

Gordon Strong: Who cares? The same thing as a homebrewer. It’s like, make the beer that you want to drink. There’s no problem with that. But if you’re trying to enter a competition and you want to call it something, then understand there’s some guidelines there. And we’re not trying to limit the creativity of brewers, we’re just trying to make it fair for the brewers when they compete together. Otherwise, it’s the equivalent of going to a beer festival and just having a People’s Choice. Then it’s whatever the strangest ingredient or the most alcoholic beer or it’s always something really strange that wins. With guidelines, sometimes you can have a very straightforward style win, something we’ve recently experienced.

Markus Raupach: And also, I think it’s a very important thing also for the people I educate as beer sommeliers, you have both. You have your personal opinion about beer, what you like, what you don’t like. But you have to learn to separate from that and to have a view of, like, that’s, you have the guidelines.

Gordon Strong: It’s okay to evolve.

Markus Raupach: Yes. So, when you are at the competition, it’s not you judging the beer, it’s the guidelines, and you say how close it is to the guidelines.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, you’re like a referee.

Markus Raupach: Or like an instrument maker.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Markus Raupach: Whatever. So, it’s like an objective view on beer.

Gordon Strong: We try to make it that way. But there’s, when all other things are equal, that’s when that extra, when your personal opinion comes in, is this the best thing you’ve ever tasted? Is this something you will tell stories about? Will you remember these years in the future? And I’ve had beers like that, and I’ve had some of them here. The one that we tasted was, I’ll tell stories about that.

Markus Raupach: Yes, of course. And I think it’s also at competitions as we were just in the best of show yesterday, just to explain the idea.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, the context.

Markus Raupach: And it’s also if you’re not so, if you have not so experienced judges, it’s always the most impressive beers that win.

Gordon Strong: Yeah.

Markus Raupach: Like the imperial stout 15% aged in barrels, whatever. Because that’s so intense.

Gordon Strong: Whatever has the longest description.

Markus Raupach: But on the other hand, maybe it is much more tricky to make like just a plain helles or something like that.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, a very subtle beer.

Markus Raupach: And to have that in mind, that’s a …

Gordon Strong: Executed perfectly.

Markus Raupach: Maybe we can talk also a bit about the BJCP itself. So how does it work? If someone in Germany says okay, I’d like to do that. How does that work?

Gordon Strong: Yeah, we have exams that you have to take to become a judge. It starts with an online exam, which is, I don’t know if it’s 100 questions or some, either true false or multiple choice, and there’s a time limit. And you take that just to show that you know something about beer, that you’re not just a completely new person at it. You pass that, and then you’re allowed to take a practical tasting exam. And there, it’s trying to give you an experience similar to a competition. So you judge six beers and there’s a time limit. You have 15 minutes per beer, which is actually quite generous. So, they’re asking people to be complete. And there are proctors who are there who are also judging the beers and that’s something that I do a lot. So, I taste the beers, I write my notes. And then my score sheets and the examinees score sheets go off to independent graders who don’t know who, they don’t know the identity of the people. And they just sort of compare, what did we describe? What did they describe? And what is the quality of their sheets? Are they giving good feedback? Are they giving good descriptions? Is this a score sheet you as a brewer would want to receive? So, they’re graded against that and they get a score that determines the rank of the judge. That plus the practical experience, you have judging and competition. So, it’s a combination of the exam score and the practical experience. We do have exams in Europe and we do have a few members in Germany. It’s small, but growing. I think mostly in the West, I think.

Markus Raupach: I have some in the jury of the World Beer Awards.

Gordon Strong: I think we have an exam coming up in Rumrod. Is that how you say it?

Markus Raupach: Rumrod. Even in Germany it’s a hard word.

Gordon Strong: And where is that? That’s closer to Belgium?

Markus Raupach: Yes. In that direction.

Gordon Strong: Yes. Okay.

Markus Raupach: People can drive it in Germany, though.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, yeah, it’s, yeah. You have good highways.

Markus Raupach: So, it’s all about points and if you have a certain number of points then you rank higher?

Gordon Strong: Yeah, yeah. If you have more as your experience grows, you can achieve higher ranks, but it’s always a combination of the exam score. The exam score enables you to reach higher ranks if you have sufficient experience. So, at first level, you take this online exam, then you take a practical tasting exam, and to achieve the highest ranks, which is like the top 20%, there’s a written examination. But that’s down the road for new people. They have to have this other experience first.

Markus Raupach: And you are grandmaster judge, which means …

Gordon Strong: So, the ranks are recognized, certified, national, master, grandmaster. And the grandmaster, it’s sort of like black belt in karate. It goes up. If you complete the requirements, every time you complete the requirements again, you get the next higher level. So, I’m like level 15. So, I’ve done a lot of judging and a lot of service to the organization. It doesn’t mean I’m necessarily a better sensory judge than a master judge. It’s a master judge who has extensive experience and who’s performed service to the organization.

Markus Raupach: Or who started early enough.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, yeah there is, it’s a time commitment. Yeah. So, over the course of 25 years, I’ve judged in maybe 400 competitions, and often judging Best of Show and doing all these other things. I’m helping with exams, and yeah.

Markus Raupach: So, you would get a point for being at a jury and you would get another point for maybe being table captain or like Best of Show?

Gordon Strong: You get at least one point per competition. But then it’s a half point per session. So here, we judge three days and there were two sessions a day so three points. And if you’re on Best of Show, you get an extra half point. So, it’s experience based. Did you perform something where you would have learned improvement of your skill? You can also get points for giving the exams or proctoring exams, or there’s educational points that we have.

Markus Raupach: And I like the idea. I like the idea because it demonstrates that also being at competitions is always learning. And only judging is you always learn because you are together with other people, and you have the interaction when somebody knows the beer maybe differently, or better or longer.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, it’s not just learning about beer, it’s learning how to come to a consensus, how to sort of, we call it playing well with others. The things you should have learned in early school. Yeah, some people are better at that than others. But yeah, you’re always learning. And that’s one of the reasons why I like traveling international. And every time I’m in a new country, I ask, can I judge the fruit beers? Can I judge the spice beers? Can I judge the beers with special ingredients? Because I want to learn what you have available to you. So, in Brazil, oh, that’s amazing, because of the huge variety of fruit they have here. And a lot of them have no name in English. So that means we don’t see them. So, they’re all very new. But some of them are quite amazing and they work really well in beer.

Markus Raupach: And even inside Brazil, some people from the South don’t know the fruits from the East or from the North or from the West, whatever.

Gordon Strong: Brazil is an enormous country. It’s slightly bigger than the mainland of the US. And the US is, especially in European terms …

Markus Raupach: It’s big.

Gordon Strong: It’s big,

Markus Raupach: Maybe last thing about the BJCP as an organization, so is it voluntarily or are they building on it? Or how does that work?

Gordon Strong: Yeah, it’s entirely a volunteer organization, none of us are compensated. So, I say, we don’t make money at this. I spent 15 years running the organization and I didn’t get a salary for that. It was all volunteer work. I write the style guidelines. I’ve written books and writing the style guidelines was more work. So, I don’t receive something for that. But I get invited to fun places, and I get to meet people and that’s the reward. But yeah, all the leadership positions in the BJCP are volunteer. So, it’s people who have other jobs and this is their hobby, and they’re just trying to make a better organization for judges. So really, the BJCP was designed as a certification organization. So that we’re setting some standards and giving exams and evaluating those. All the other things we do are in support of that goal. So, when we do style guidelines, that’s not really our original purpose. People might know us for that, but we do the guidelines to be able to support the exams, which is the purpose. We do the competitions because that’s how the judges get the experience, and we record the points, and we keep track of all that and rank advancement, and people get little pins when they. There’s always some shiny thing you get. It’s fun and that helps the competition organizers know who the better judges are when they want to have the people be in charge of each of the categories.

Markus Raupach: But how are decisions made? For example, if you say, I want to make new guidelines next year, is there a board [gremium]? Or how does that work if you have people, volunteers in every country?

Gordon Strong: Well yeah, we have volunteers in every country, but the organization is global. So, there’s a board of directors that’s made up of regional representatives from ten regions, sort of based on population. So, regions of the US plus we, recently we added a Latin American region, an Asia Pacific region and a Europe Middle East Africa region. So, it has sort of a multinational corporation kind of feel to it, but it’s all based on the number of judges that are in there, because we want the regions to be approximately the same size. So as regions grow, maybe we change the boundaries. So, each of those has an elected representative, elections are every three years.

Markus Raupach: All the judges have one vote?

Gordon Strong: Or each active judge in the region has a vote for their representative and that person represents them on the board, and that makes the sort of governing decisions. But there are appointed directors in charge of things like the exam, competitions, styles, education, communications, IT. So those representatives don’t have direct control over that. There is sort of a president of the organization which is selected from the representatives. So, it is somewhat challenging if people aren’t in paid positions. You have to, there is no real coercion way of getting somebody to do something. You have to be persuasive. You have a good idea and then you get people to follow it, or you together come up with a plan and that’s what you work on. So as far as the style guidelines go, everybody who wants to have input is welcome to send me suggestions. We have an email address, style@bjcp.org and anybody that wants to send something can. I read them all and we look at that. But we update the guidelines about every five years because we want the exams to be stable. Judges need to learn them for competitions. And there are very many translations. It’s translated into a lot of languages and it’s put onto phone apps and there’s a lot of work that happens once some content changes. So, it’s a balance between, yeah, we want to get these new styles out and, but like, all the work that other people would have to do to make it available. So, we think five years is about right.

Markus Raupach: For me, it sounds good. And to be honest, I also, I made a beer game based on the BJCP. So, I have to update it now because it’s based on 2013, 15. But it’s fun and it’s great, and I’m really happy that you and your people do this and did this. And I really can’t imagine how hard it is to run a global organization. Because maybe that’s the biggest challenge you have on earth to bring people from all countries or time zones or religions or whatever’s together. And beer is a good thing as a common basis, common ground. And so, as we have.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, it is very challenging. I think part of the success would come from trying not to be too controlling about it. Beer isn’t autocratic. So, people that criticize sometimes would say, you’re telling me what I have to do. I’m like, no, not at all. That’s your misunderstanding, that’s not us. So, we try to explain what we’re about, what we’re trying to do. And if somebody has new ideas, we’ll listen. But we’ll evaluate them because we get input from all over.

Markus Raupach: Yeah, someone has to see.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, yeah.

Markus Raupach: Whether it’s history or story.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, yeah exactly. Exactly. That’s actually what I enjoy the most is the guidelines. So that’s what I continued to do. After I gave up all my other duties, I kept the guidelines because I really enjoy those and I feel like, we call it a stewardship. You’re taking care of something that’s not really your own. It’s ours. So, I think it fails if it tried to become mine, because it’s not mine. It’s not mine. I’m just, I’m just trying to help describe what’s existing.

Markus Raupach: And I think that’s a very big learning you have to do. It’s never yours. It always goes into the world and it stays. And you will be gone one day and that remains…

Gordon Strong: Yeah. Hopefully a long time.

Markus Raupach: I mean, you in terms of we.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Markus Raupach: Not you personally.

Gordon Strong: Yeah.

Markus Raupach: But yes, but thanks a lot for all you did and do and will be doing. And thanks also for the time you had here for us.

Gordon Strong: This was a fun discussion to talk about this. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and if people didn’t hear it directly, then maybe they’ll be interested in becoming beer judges. And maybe then I’ll see you at one of these competitions someday.

Markus Raupach: Yeah. Perfect. So, thank you again. See you in the next competition. Let’s see where in the world, but it will be somewhere.

Gordon Strong: Yeah, yeah, I have to come out your way and maybe you can show me some of those beers of Franconia.

Markus Raupach: I will. There’s a lot of new stuff and old stuff and many things to explore and discover.

Gordon Strong: Yes.

BierTalk – Der Podcast rund ums Bier.

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