My general philosphy of judging beer is called, at least by me, the hedonism scale. I developed it with Tom Dalldorf when I was at the Celebrator for use in our blind panel tastings, and we still use it there today. Unlike the BJCP guidelines, which are generally used for homebrew competitions, I don’t emphasize faults and defects. I go by the proverbial standard of “if you can’t say something nice about someone (or something), don’t say anything at all.” This is not meant to run down the BJCP, they perform a very necessary function, but I don’t believe they can offer as much to the evaluation of commercial beers.
First of all, commercial brewers don’t, or in most cases shouldn’t, be trying to copy or emulate a beer style to fit its exact style parameters. Their goal is vasty different, which is to create a beer that people like. They may want it to be close to or even in some cases nearly like a particular style profile, but it’s not a goal in itself. Take the ubiquitous Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. When it was first brewed around 1982 it tasted nothing like an English-style Pale Ale, which is where the style “pale ale” originated. By the standards of the day, Sierra Nevada’s take on a pale ale would have scored horribly at any competition where a strict adherence to guidelines was used. But people liked it and it’s popularity grew so rapidly that it spawned a new style of its own: American-style pale ale, separate and distinct from its English cousin. So that today many brewpubs and brewers run the risk of having their pale ale compared to Sierra Nevada if they use too much Cascade hops or create a beer too close to theirs. There are many breweries who have done this intentionally, in order to “give the people what they want” and while I may not agree with that decision, that debate is for another day. The point here is simply that commercial brewers must follow their own plan and now be restrained by anything so vulgar as style guidelines.
Secondly, not all defects are necessarily bad. Take redhook ESB, for example. It’s loaded with the butterscotch notes that often signals too much diacytel in the beer. But for many years, Redhook’s ESB was wildly popular. Again, by strict style guidelines this beer would have faired poorly indeed in a judging. Who’s right? I think in these cases, the public is the one who’s opinion counts. After all, from the point of view of a brewery if you can’t sell your beer, who cares? But if you find a beer that may be technically flawed to a miniscule bunch of curmudgeons but to whom thousands believe it to be delicious by all means keep making it and ignore the stubborn purist. I think most beer jugdes actually do recognize this point today and most I know adapt themselves to what’s in front of them depending upon whether it’s homebrew or a commercial beer.