After 3 days and 4 sessions of judging at the 1st round of the National Home Brew Competition, I spent the better part of yesterday and today reflecting upon the experience.
Here are my random thoughts.
1. Tasting beer is the only way to get better at tasting beer. I critically evaluated about 40 beers in three days, and each time I checked my comments with a beer professional or a national ranked judge (BJCP). What I found was that for 3 of the 4 sessions, I actually did pretty good, and then I got a ball breaker of a national judge, and a difficult style that I don't have a ton of experience with (Bocks, including Maibock, Tradtional Bock, Doppelbock, and Eisbock). I haven't drunk a lot of them, and never made one....but nearing the end, I was improving.
2. Judging beer is the most difficult drinking you will ever do. I started on Saturday morning at 9am after two previous nights of judging from 6-9pm. I did not feel like drinking beer anymore.
3. There is a lot of crappy beer being made by homebrewers (and new professional brewers, too). The average score for all beers is probably 28 out of 50. I believe that is because that judges are too kind. The minimum score for any "beer" (one that is undrinkable) is 12 or 13. If homebrewers are submitting their best beers to the NHC, there is a crap-ton of bad beer still being made.
4. I actually submitted two beers that I thought weren't very good (certainly not champions), just for feedback. This is not a competition to get good feedback, however, but I proved that people aren't putting their best beers forward (all of the time).
5. Most judges are doing the best they can under the less than ideal circumstances, but some are truly assholes. I have been observing judging at NHC for three years now....most of the comments are honest and you can bank on them, some are crazy (even from "experienced" judges). There is no way to tell the difference, however, so assume that if two judges said the beer was bad, don't delude yourself, it is bad.
My most interesting observation was when a pair of judges that I was sitting with had a bad (infected) beer, they asked the steward to bring the second bottle (if a beer is being considered for best of show the second bottle is used, if the first bottle is infected, the second bottle is evaluated in the standard judging), and the second bottle had a host of different issues than the first (both were as bad as bad can be). I joked that they should evaluate both, and send a bill for an additional entry fee.
6. I am not sure how I feel about judging beer....it isn't fun, but the people are great. If I pass the BJCP exam, I will be happy (to have passed by never studying and never ever actually judging a beer in my life under any circumstances), and I will likely judge 1 or 2 competitions a year (I would like to try one that isn't the Nationals), if I don't, I am not certain I will pursue it....I will have to decide at some near term about this....I like knowing and learning, and don't have another good venue for growth...but judging beers sort of sucks, and the exam sucks even worse.