Wyoming Man Says Becoming A Certified Beer Judge Harder Than Masters In Biology

Paul Dey of Cheyenne has an enviable hobby — he’s a certified beer judge. And he said earning that certification was harder than getting his Master of Biology degree.

Renée Jean

May 26, 202411 min read

Paul Dey, official and certified beer judge, enjoying a Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co. beer at The Safari Club restaurant in Thermopolis.
Paul Dey, official and certified beer judge, enjoying a Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co. beer at The Safari Club restaurant in Thermopolis. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

THERMOPOLIS — Tell Paul Dey what you like to drink, and chances are he knows a beer just right for you — even if you think you don’t like beer.

Dey, who lives in Cheyenne, is a bonafide and certified official beer judge. One of the things he likes best about his hobby as a master beer judge is telling people about unusual beers that they might love, but never even knew existed.

That skill was demonstrated recently at the Safari Club in Thermopolis, where Dey was enjoying a beer from Wyoming’s Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co. Dey was talking to a man drinking a gin and tonic, who told Dey he hates beer. All beer.

Those are almost fighting words to Dey, who loves everything about beer. It doesn’t matter if a beer is dark or light, bitter or sweet. Dey loves them all.

“You’d be surprised,” Dey told the man. “I bet I could find a beer you’d like.”

Odds are against the man who takes that bet, and Dey already had the perfect beer in mind for his new drinking buddy.

The beer he would recommend to the gin and tonic lover is called Sahti. It’s a primitive peasant brew — among the only primitive beers still brewed — and, in Finland at least, it is still made much the same way it was back in the 1500s.

That is, it’s brewed in saunas. Lots of Finnish homeowners have their own sauna, where they’re considered great for all kinds of things — deal making, smoking meats, baking bread, brewing beer and even having babies.

“They take what they call a kuurna and they line it with these spruce boughs,” Dey told the man. “Then they take the wort in a ladle and pour it in the vessel, and it all sort of filters down.”

The spruce boughs are typically juniper, and their main purpose is to separate wort from grains in the mash. But those wonderful little berries on the spruce boughs also lend their spicy gin and tonic flavor and aroma to Sahti beer.

“It brews really fast, and they make it super strong,” Dey said. “It’s a very interesting beer, but it’s got kind of a nice gentle sort of juniper taste to it.”

One doesn’t necessarily have to travel to Finland to enjoy a Sahti beer, though. There are some American craft brewers who make the concoction.

Beer Makes Good Friends

As a certified beer judge Dey has been up and down the Front Range, as well as across Wyoming and Colorado, tasting beers for homebrew competitions, brewfests and festivals.

It’s not something he gets paid to do, but it’s something he loves. It keeps him on the cutting edge of what’s new in the homebrew world.

“One of the cool things about judging has just been learning to appreciate the diversity of beer,” Dey said. “There’s so many different kinds out there, and the nuances, it’s just a fun thing to learn about.”

Dey’s home brewing activities always feature something interesting for family and friends, and that’s always informed at least a little bit by all his beer-judging trips across Wyoming and Colorado.

“Beer always makes good friends,” Dey said. “People want to come and help you make it, and they want to come and help drink up the supply.”

On tap now, Dey has got an Italian pilsner, a dry-hopped beer; a Rauchbier, a smoky dark lager; a Saison, which is a Belgian farmhouse ale; and an Imperial Stout.

The latter, though, is actually destined for a 53-gallon rye whiskey barrel from Pine Bluffs. The barrel will be filled with Imperial Stout made by himself and other members of the Cheyenne High Plains Drafters for the annual Wyoming Brewers Festival. The members will share the finished product based on how much of the stout each contributed.

Dey is excited to see how that one turns out. The barrels are going to imbue the beer with interesting flavors — rye, whiskey, oak.

“With oak you can get vanilla flavors,” Dey said. “You can get all sorts of interesting flavors.”

Help A Homeboy Brewer Out

Dey also loves the sense that he’s helping other home brewers just like himself to craft better and better beer. That keeps the scene vibrant for everyone, including himself.

“People enter beers in competitions for different reasons,” Dey said. “Sometimes it’s for the glory, but mostly it’s for a lot of feedback. They pay good money to enter a beer, and it’s a beer judge’s job to give them their money’s worth.”

For that, Dey has to turn on a different part of his beer-drinking brain. He’s no longer just enjoying a beer’s flavor, he’s thinking critically about the brew.

Does it match the style of beer it’s supposed to match? Does it have the right flavors? Are there any technical problems with the beer?

“If there’s technical issues with the beer, you provide feedback on how to fix that,” Dey said. “So, you’re really giving them two things. It’s how well the beer fits the style that it’s supposed to be and whether it’s conforming to that style, and then the other thing is whether there are any flaws, technical issues, or that sort of thing.”

Beer Judge Paul Dey looks through photos on his phone of past beers he's consumed or judged.
Beer Judge Paul Dey looks through photos on his phone of past beers he's consumed or judged. (Renee Jean, Cowboy State Daily)

Beer Judge Certification Is Hard

Becoming a beer judge is not as simple as enjoying beer, though that certainly doesn’t hurt with motivation when it comes to drinking a flight of 8 to 11 beers as part of a brewfest or festival competition.

Certification begins with a written test, and eventually includes an actual tasting test. The judge-to-be is expected to fully and completely profile four to six selected beers, noting everything from appearance to flaws.

The profiles will be compared to profiles being done at the same time on the same samples by experienced judges.

“It was hard,” Dey told Cowboy State Daily. “Harder than anything I did in graduate school, believe it or not.”

When Dey took the test in 1996, it covered literally everything about every kind of beer style — from appearance and history to flavor profiles and alcohol content. No cheat sheets allowed.

With more than 100 beer styles out there in the world, a person has to be a bit of a walking beer encyclopedia to pass the written exam.

Then there’s the beer profiling itself, which is no cakewalk either.

“I’ve got a master’s degree in biology, and this was harder,” Dey said. “It helps to know brewing inside and out, too, so you can decide flaws and then tell the brewer how to fix them. You have to know a lot of background information. And a lot of the history and stuff that goes along with all of the different beer styles.”

The test has evolved over time since Dey first took it. These days, the tasting exam has been separated from the written exam, so it’s not quite as difficult to get started as it once was.

Under the new scheme, new judges might start out at the apprentice level, depending on how well they do at their exams. They can work at progressing through recognized, certified, national, master’s and grand master. There are lots of clubs out there that can help would-be beer judges with their advancement, including High Plains Drafters in Cheyenne.

Each level requires a particular combination of experience points and exam scores. Dey has achieved the rank of master.

It’s Just A Hobby Not A Living

Despite all the training required to be a bonafide master beer judge, Dey doesn’t really make any money at it. It’s more of a hobby than a job — and that’s true even for the top beer judges in the world.

“You might get comped a room now and then,” Dey said. “And you’ll get free entry to the competition.”

But that entry has to be earned, or a beer judge might not get invited back. That means providing meaningful comments about 8 to 11 beers in as many as three flights of a given beer type in a single day.

The beers are sipped and spaced out appropriately, but there’s only so many beers one judge can do in a given period of time before olfactory senses and taste buds become numb.

Meeting Beer Rock Stars

It’s work, but the hobby job is fun and fulfilling, and it’s brought Dey many unusual experiences over time, as well as made him lots of friends in the beer world.

He’s even gotten to taste beer with some of the beer world’s rock stars.

“This was earlier in my judging career,” Dey said. “And I was judging with this guy, we were judging traditional bock and Doppelbock beers, which is starting gravity 65 to 75, so they’re a moderate alcohol beer.”

Dey was scoring one of the beers he really liked pretty high, but when it came time for the two judges to reconcile their scores Dey was surprised to see his partner judge had given the beer he liked so well a much lower score.

“He was saying he agreed that he really liked the beer a lot, but he thought that it just seemed too high in alcohol for that beer style,” Dey said. “I didn’t really believe that, so we came up with a compromise score for the beer.”

Later, Dey had the organizer of the event do a check on the recipe for him.

“Sure enough, it was just slightly too high,” Dey said. “I was like, ‘Oh man, that guy’s got a good balance. He’s a good judge.”

And that’s when he learned who the man actually was. It was Keith Villa, the creator of the famous Blue Moon beer line, a Belgian-style beer loved by millions of customers for the bright fresh flavor, created by being brewed with crisp Valencia orange peels.

Wyoming Has Great Beers

Despite his status as a master beer judge, Dey is careful to avoid becoming snobby about beer. That means he sometimes turns off all the beer judgement, and just enjoys what’s put in front of him.

“You can’t always be judging the beers,” he said. “I’ll find myself like really getting into it, and then other times I’ve turned it off to talk and the beer gets out of the way then. It’s like lubricant for conversation. Or it’s supposed to be anyway, so you don’t want to get all geeky about it.”

But the skill is always there when he wants to share the beer world with others — which is often, particularly when it comes to Wyoming beers.

“Wyoming has great breweries,” Dey said. “There’s sort of a gem in Cheyenne, which I live there so I’m biased, but we have four great breweries in Cheyenne.”

Jackson, Sheridan, Ten Sleep — Wyoming has 43 craft breweries according to the Brewers Association, putting it sixth in the nation per capita for number of breweries. It even has its own official beer trail, listing both breweries and beer festivals.

Dey doesn’t have a particular Wyoming favorite — though he’s tried just about every beer in the state at one time or another. Most recently, he went to Roadhouse in Jackson to sample all of its beers.

Roadhouse bought out Melvins Brewery in Alpine, and has established a pretty big name for itself and has made some great beers, Dey added.

“I can’t think of any place that makes bad beer in Wyoming,” Dey said. “I couldn’t pick a favorite. I like them all for different reasons.”

Renée Jean can be reached at renee@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter