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Popularity of amateur craft beer judging on the rise in renowned Hunter Valley wine region

Ben Freeburn sits at a table with three beers sitting on it.
Ben Freeburn is an amateur craft beer judge in Newcastle.

1233 ABC Newcastle: Robert Virtue

For many thirsty people, the crisp sound of a beer can being opened can be a welcome end to a busy week.

Increasingly, the beverages being opened are different varieties and styles of craft beers.

In the New South Wales Hunter Valley — a region renowned for its wine production — there is a growing demand by people wanting to become accredited amateur craft beer judges.

Similar to those who judge vintages at wine shows, accredited craft beer judges are on hand at exhibitions and agricultural shows to taste and rank the ales on offer.

"You've got to like your beer for starters [and] if you like your beer and are involved in the brewing community, it just comes naturally," Newcastle-based amateur beer judge, Ben Freeburn, said.

"Sometimes a good beer isn't necessarily judged 'good' because it might be entered and it's got inappropriate flavours for that style of beer, but still tastes great.

"You've got to judge it according to the style it was entered against.

"The other thing is flaw detection. Flaws are generally obvious because they make the beer taste bad, but you as a judge, you need to be trained in how to identify those flaws."

Love of beer turns into judging

Three beers sit on a table.
Mr Freeburn said every beer is 'like a snowflake' - different.

1233 ABC Newcastle: Robert Virtue

Mr Freeburn's interest in craft beer came after a friend showed him how to brew. He then joined the Hunter United Brewers Club.

"I started making beer — some of it good, some of it not so good, then started reading and doing more reading. [I] drove myself nuts then decided to get active in the scene," he said.

"I took to it, I quite enjoyed it, and the judging was a flow-on from that.

Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) is the sanctioning body of craft beer judging.

A glass of beer sits on a table.
Mr Freeburn said there is increasing interest in becoming an accredited craft beer judge in the Hunter region.

1233 ABC Newcastle: Robert Virtue

To become an accredited amateur judge, people need to study various elements of craft beer, from off-flavouring training to telling the difference between an Irish ale and a wheat beer.

They then sit an exam, but Mr Freeburn said only 12 people were allowed to take part in each location.

"They are very strict, I guess because they're trying to run it all from one place internationally," he said.

"They want to ensure the bar is set high enough, and they don't want it to just be a 'rock up, and then tick-and-flick'. They want to produce good judges that they know can get the job done."

Mr Freeburn is running a 12-session course for people in the Hunter interested in becoming accredited amateur judges.

"I've definitely got more demand for that than I've got seats for that exam," he said.

"We haven't got a lot [of accredited judges] actually in Newcastle. We lean a lot on the industry guys to help us out with the judging.

"There's nothing stopping us from doing another exam in a year's time, for example."

Every beer 'like a snowflake'

Mr Freeburn said hi passion for craft beer brewing was constantly growing.

"There are a lot of [craft beer] styles out there that aren't popularised yet, and are still very hard to get a hold of," he said.

"Getting involved in the community has allowed me to sample these flavours that are wild, that are different, and that you wouldn't otherwise get if you weren't involved in the community.

"With the small batches, every beer's like a snowflake, every beer's unique. It's a discovery thing for me."