Homebrew competitions take a little bit of luck and a lot of practice to win. this issue, get some expert advice from three Beer Judge Certification Program-certified judges to help you brew your best at the next contest.
Scott Bickham, Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Grand Master III judge, BJCP Exam Director and Northeast Representative from Corning, New York. Scott was responsible for the creation of an online entrance exam system for BJCP that was launched in 2012.
One mistake I notice when I’m judging is mislabeled or miscategorized entries. In fact I would say that that there are usually one or two per flight. Some of them are minor — like a porter in a stout flight — but some are pretty far off the mark. A lot of beginning brewers will enter a beer and think it’s pretty good but are not sure what style category it belongs in. A good judge will note that in the tasting notes.
As for common flaws in beer tasting, things I notice most often are phenolics from wild yeast, ester profiles from fermentation and high amounts of esters from poor aeration or poor temperature control.
If you are entering competitions to brew better beers, pay attention to judges’ feedback. For example, if there is a consistent flaw in your beer each of the judges will pick up on it.
If you are entering to win, there are a couple of schools of thought on how to do that. You could find a competition or style that’s not heavily entered, or enter categories with not many entries. I think if a brewer is competent at brewing a particular style, however, I would try to enter competitions where you know that those particular judges know about that style. Before you enter a competition, know who the judges and the organizer are. Research what styles they know. It’s discouraging to brew a good beer and have it tasted by judges who don’t know the style.
Also, enter your local competitions. If your local competition is small, you can use that feedback to enter beers into larger, more prestigious events.
Phil Farrell, Grand Master Level II judge and the South Regional Director for the BJCP from Alpharetta, Georgia. Phil was the Beerdrinker of the Year in 2011 and has judged beer on three different continents.
I notice that brewers can rush when getting ready to enter a contest. Very rarely is waiting an extra week going to make a beer too old, but it can definitely be one week too early when they are rushed. Give your beer time to finish. Once it’s in the bottle and away from the yeast it’s not going to finish in the bottle and what the judges taste will be under attenuated, too sweet or too malty.
Another contest skill is packaging. I’ve noticed in my time judging that the hardest skill for people to learn in this hobby is to take beer from your house and get it to the contest in the same shape. They haven’t really thought about what happens after the beer leaves his or her hands. It could be turned upside down 15 times in shipping and holding, experience temperature changes, and so on. One way to mirror what happens to your beer is to treat a bottle of it as it might be treated after you ship it. Try taking a bottle out of fridge for two weeks and letting it sit at room temperature and then tasting it.
Also, do your best to clear the beer. There are some styles that benefit from being on yeast, but if it’s being shipped, which can mean warehousing and temperature changes, that yeast can turn on you in a heartbeat. I’m not a big believer in filtering in homebrew as there too many chances to oxidize, but I sometimes use gelatin, and I always cold condition it to get as much of the yeast out of suspension as possible. Take the clearest beer off the top when you transfer between vessels and use CO2 to purge your kegs or bottles when transferring to prevent oxidation. I use a lot of CO2 in my homebrewery.
David Teckam is the West Representative for BJCP and a Grand Master beer judge from Elk Grove, California. David is also a respected beer educator. His website, www.beerjudgeschool.com is an online guide for passing the BJCP exam and becoming a better beer judge.
In my years judging I have noticed that often brewers don’t know quite how to enter the beer in terms of styles, or they don’t provide enough information for the judges to give the beer a proper evaluation. For example, at one competition the entrants did not provide some of the most important information we needed for judging meads, such as the sweetness level, carbonation, etc. It makes me think that people are not looking up the style details they need.
I do find common faults, such as high diacetyl, or also oxidation in the form of poor handling (which can be the fault of the entrant or even the organizer handling the beer). But more often I see stylistic inaccuracies — usually made when a brewer is brewing something for the second or third time and trying to dial it in.
If you want to do well in a competition, going for more obscure styles makes sense. IPAs are a dime a dozen. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t popular with the judges, but we also don’t want to blow our palates on hops either. Try brewing something like a Schwarzbier or a bière de garde — although you do have to know the style, however.
Each competition you enter depends on the quality of the judges and you adhering to the style guidelines. Even then it is still kind of a gamble — you could have a great beer that could get by a judge, or you could have entered the one bad bottle in a batch. There are a lot of competitions that are free to enter — if you have a few bottles from a batch, enter it in more than one competition. You might be surprised at the feedback you get from judge to judge. It’ll make you wonder if they’re drinking the same beer. And, if the judge puts their contact info on the score sheet, don’t be afraid to contact them. They usually don’t mind giving extra help.