Utah BJCP Beer Judge: Student-Turned-Teacher

Jae Vanderwerf - BCJP Certified Judge - Featured
Jae Vanderwerf, one of the relatively few BJCP certified beer judges in Utah, enjoys a pint at Bewilder Brewing in Salt Lake City. Photo Credit: Utah Beer News

Though she admits it drives her wife crazy, Jae Vanderwerf can’t help but analyze and dissect each beer she drinks. It’s second nature for the BJCP certified beer judge.

“It’s an always-on thing,” says Vanderwerf, who earned her title after passing two rounds of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). “I’m far enough in at this point that I’m always judging beers.”

The BJCP certifies judges of beer and related fermented products, such as mead and cider. Founded in 1985, the organization includes more than 7,500 active judges, according to the BJCP website. For Utah, Vanderwerf estimates the state is home to 30 or so active judges.

Photo Credit: Jae Vanderwerf

For homebrewers especially, the BJCP Style Guide is the Webster’s of beer styles.

The guide (PDF) provides vital statistics and standard characteristics (appearance, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel) for more than 100 beer styles. It also includes the history of particular styles and commercial examples.

Vanderwerf became hooked on evaluating beer several years ago after taking a BJCP prep course in Minneapolis. Since then, she’s passed the introductory Entrance Examination as well as the Judging Examination.

The second one, a blind tasting exam, which requires test takers to identify and describe six beers over the course of 90 minutes, earned Vanderwerf her certification.

She’s still eying one more test: the BJCP Written Proficiency Exam. It’s used to award higher levels of certification.

Jae Vanderwerf: In Her Own Words

BONUS: Subscribe to the Utah Beer News Podcast and listen to our interview with Jae Vanderwerf, BJCP certified beer judge. In it, she takes listeners through the process of judging a beer and explains why she decided to start teaching BJCP tasting classes. Plus, we discuss the growing beer scene in Utah, among other topics.

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Beer Scenes & BJCP

Vanderwerf knows a thing or two about vibrant beer scenes. She grew up in Portland, Ore., and lived in Minnesota before moving to Salt Lake about 18 months ago. Her craft beer voyage, however, actually started with a Utah brew.

“The first beer that ever got me into homebrew was Hop Nosh,” she says, explaining that she purchased the Uinta Brewing flagship IPA at a gas station in Portland. “It’s the first beer that clicked. It was fun, different, and interesting enough to pursue beer more.”

Now she’s homebrewing three to four times a month and becoming more familiar with Utah breweries. As far as judging, COVID-19 restrictions are limiting available competitions. Nevertheless, she’s putting her skills to work by preparing others to become BJCP certified.

BJCP Judge Teaching Others

This fall, Vanderwerf began teaching her first BJCP prep course. Unfortunately, due to health and safety concerns for group gatherings, the inaugural class went virtual. While she acknowledges an in-person setup would be ideal, the class objectives remain the same.

Jae Vanderwerf, a BJCP certified judge, wears her judging jacket that features pins and patches from various states she visits and competitions she judges. Photo Credit: Utah Beer News

“The class helps you work on your bias,” she says. “It helps you come up with words to describe beer. It trains your palate to be a little more fine-tuned.”

And, as with other passions, the more you know about beer, Vanderwerf says, the more enjoyable tasting it becomes.

“It’s like watching a sport you don’t understand,” she says. “You might appreciate it to some extent, but you won’t fully get it. It’s the same thing — learning about beers so you can fully appreciate it and enjoy it that much more.”

So once a week, she teaches a remote beer tasting class. It’s more than simply sitting in front of a computer drinking beer, however. The class is an intensive, three-hour, hands-on training that spans 14 weeks.

“It’s a three-credit college course, if you think about it that way,” she says.

In the end, students will have tasted dozens of beers. They will have learned how to describe what they’re tasting — both good and bad, because identifying off-flavors is an important part of judging beers.

Vanderwerf says she expects to conduct a similar class next fall as well.

“It’s fun hanging out with people who geek out about beer.”

A Growing Beer Community

As Vanderwerf visited with Utah Beer News (socially distanced) on Bewilder Brewing’s patio in mid-October, she sipped a Fresh Sesh IPA. Immediately, she praised the citrus hops and ample bitterness that’s characteristic of a traditional West Coast IPA.

“It’s hard to find these days,” she laments, noting that the New England-style IPA “haze craze” dominates the craft beer landscape. “It’s really hard because everyone wants all the hop flavor but no bitterness.”

Though she’s only lived in Utah a little over a year, she’s impressed with the beer scene. And while the state’s brewery numbers pale in comparison to those of Portland or Minneapolis, Vanderwerf is enthusiastic about the prospects.

“It’s the smallest city for a beer scene I’ve been to,” she says. “It’s been fun to see a city in that initial growth step, and it’s fun to see it come to life.”

Even more, she appreciates the connection between the pro brewers and homebrewers in Salt Lake.

“There’s a really close relationship,” she says. “More than I’ve seen in other cities. That’s great. It creates an awesome community.”

Analyzing a Beer

LISTEN: In a bonus Utah Beer News Podcast episode (available Nov. 24, 2020), Jae Vanderwerf takes listeners on a beer judging journey. Get a glimpse at some techniques and strategies to better describe and evaluate the beer in your glass.

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