Behind the Scenes at Homebrew Competitions

It’s no understatement to say that these are boom times for homebrewing with the number of US homebrewers now currently estimated to be over one million. The growth in homebrewing is also fueling an increase in the number and size of competitions. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) reports the number of registered competitions has more than doubled in the last six years, while the number of entries per competition has also increased. With all the new brewers and interest in competitions, many wonder how competitions actually operate and how they might host one of their own.

How Competitions Operate

Most homebrewers don’t get to see how competitions work unless they are judges or competition staff. But even then, all the preparation work is a big unknown unless you’ve actually been involved in the process. Let me first describe the mechanics of a competition from the entering and judging perspective before turning to the secrets only competition organizers know.

Brewers enter a competition by registering their beers with a competition, which is typically done online. The entrant must decide how to categorize and describe their beer, which usually means identifying a subcategory from the BJCP Style Guidelines, and possibly including additional information that helps judges properly evaluate your beer (like saying what’s special about your experimental beer). During the registration process, beers are typically assigned an entry number to ensure blind judging.

Once registration closes, competition organizers take the entry information and organize the beers into judging categories. Depending on the number of entries and judges, individual style categories may be judged by themselves, be grouped with other styles or be split into multiple flights.

Judging panels normally consist of two or three judges, some of which should be BJCP judges. (The ideal is to have all BJCP judges, but this is often not possible). Competition organizers like to put BJCP judges on all panels, normally so that higher-ranked judges are spread around as much as possible. If a competition can’t draw enough BJCP judges, they may use whoever they can find that claims they can judge beer. Hopefully, these people will be brewers or at least beer aficionados, but it’s up to the competition organizer and judge director to decide who is seated as a judge.

Judges are given information about their flight by the organizer. They normally are told the entry number, the style of beer (BJCP subcategory, typically), and any special information provided by the brewer. Judges decide the order in which beers will be judged, but they tend to follow the ordering of subcategories in the BJCP Style Guidelines.

Judges taste the beers and fill out scoresheets, assigning a consensus score to each beer. They repeat this for every beer in their flight, then they select the top three beers for medal purposes, and send the top-ranked beer to the next round (typically, the best-of-show panel). Beers are judged against the criteria in the style guidelines, and are evaluated for style fidelity and technical merit.

If a competition category is judged by multiple judging panels, then a mini-BOS (best-of-show) is used to select the winners from the combined flights. Categories with a single panel directly award winners. In a mini-BOS, the top beers from each panel are judged again, this time without scoresheets. The senior judges from the category simply select the top three beers from those passed along to the mini-BOS table. These judges do not see the preliminary scores or rankings.

In some larger competitions, there may be a second round of judging, as opposed to mini-BOS panels. This is usually done without scoresheets, but exceptions exist.

During the best-of-show round, the top beers from each panel are judged again. Scoresheets are not prepared during BOS judging, and preliminary scores are not provided. Judges typically kick out beers one by one until they have a small number left, then discuss the relative merits of each and pick the best one for overall winner. Awards are presented to the category winners and overall champion.

Planning a Competition

In successful competitions, a lot of work goes on in planning and preparing for a competition before the beers are actually judged.

A quote attributed to famous military leaders from Napoleon to Omar Bradley sums it up: “Amateurs study tactics, while professionals study logistics.” This quote applies to homebrewing competitions as well, especially those that are sizeable. If you think of the competition as a way to get all the various beers moved through the judging process in good order, then you’ve got a good start.

I like to break up a competition into specific phases: planning, registration, handling entries, judging and close-out. Some of these phases may overlap, but each has unique tasks to solve. The first year a competition is held may require some additional planning, including determining state and local laws that may apply to the contest.

In the planning phase, you should first identify the essential staff, which you can think of as the competition committee. Designate individuals as the organizer, the registrar, the judge director and the head steward. In smaller competitions, some of these jobs can be combined. In larger competitions, the key staff members may need assistants.

The organizer must set the name and date for the competition, select a proper venue that can handle the event, register the competition with the BJCP, advertise the competition, set up competition guidelines, order awards, procure raffle prizes (if used), field questions and oversee task completion of staff members. In larger competitions, some of these tasks will be delegated. I’ve seen very large competitions where the organizer is essentially a project manager who only tracks assignments and completion of tasks. A person with project management skills often does well in this job.

The registrar will maintain the database of entries registered, track payments, check in entries, and record results. This person may be an IT person who can set up an online registration system or database, or may get additional help. It is critical that this person not judge, since they will have access to entry information. Any others who can associate entries with entrants should also not judge.

The judge director is responsible for recruiting judges (the BJCP supplies a list of regional judges when the competition is registered), creating judging flights and assigning judges to categories. During the competition, the judge director handles issues related to judging, shifts judges around if necessary due to no-shows or conflicts, and determines judge eligibility for the best-of-show round.

The head steward recruits, trains and assigns stewards to various competition tasks, including setting up the room for judging, making sure tables are properly set, ensuring entries are properly sorted for the table and making sure the judging paperwork is handled correctly by the judges and returned to the registrar afterwards.
The people on the core team will work together during the planning phase and competition; good communication skills are essential. Other members will be recruited for the team to cover particular duties through the competition, such as handling the cellaring duties.

Key things to consider when selecting a competition site include the size of the available space, amenities, price and the ability to bring homebrew onto the premises.

Cold storage for entries is necessary, and can be handled via refrigerated space on-site, rental refrigerated trucks or a series of large coolers. Think about how judges and the entries will get on-site. How easy is it to load and unload large items (cases and cases of beer)? Can judges park easily or reach it via public transportation? Is the space available for the full time of the competition? Will it be shared with other events? Understand that judges should be in a quiet, well-lit room that is free of strong odors. The facility should also have ample tables and chairs for the judges; you will need to know how many categories will be judged simultaneously and how many judges will be present in order to estimate the space.

Try to have the cold storage space (where beers are kept prior to judging) as nearby the actual judging room as possible – this will make it much easier on the stewards. Note that the cold storage space on-site for the competition may be different from where the beers are received. Beers dropped off or mailed-in before the judging date need to be stored cold as well.

Finally, consider the transport issue between storage and competition sites. How will the beers be moved? How many people and vehicles are needed? Strive to minimize jostling and heating of the entries.

The judging space should also have access to clean drinking water, or bottled water must be brought in. The ability to dispose of old entries and competition materials is also necessary. A homebrewing competition can generate a lot of waste when you consider all the judging supplies and entries consumed. Make sure the location has adequate and accessible restrooms for the number of beer judges and other staff expected.
Other considerations for a judging location are the restaurant facilities, if food will be purchased on-site. In private locations, food will have to be brought in. Judges will be expecting food before they judge. They may want to enjoy craft beer after judging is over, so also consider whether beer will be available to them. The better the experience for the judges, the easier it will be to recruit them.

Plan to register your competition at least 60 days in advance with the BJCP. This will allow time to have it shown on the BJCP and AHA competition calendars. This is the most basic of publicity. Most competitions do much more, such as posting on online forums, sending emails to regional clubs, posting flyers at local homebrew stores and making announcements at other competitions.

Each competition will have its own special rules, although most are very similar. Consider whether you want to have any special judging categories, or if you will just use the BJCP Style Guidelines. Will you accept all styles, including mead and cider? Do you have judges qualified to evaluate all of them?

Some decisions to make in setting your competition rules include:
*eligibility (state residents or club members only, must be made on homebrew system, etc.)
*number of bottles per entry (generally two or three)
*bottle sizes accepted (oversized bottles are harder to sort and stack in case boxes; you may accept draft beer in kegs or other containers)
*entry fees (most competitions charge $5-10 an entry)
*entry deadline (how far in advance of the competition, to allow for sorting)
*whether late or walk-in entries will be accepted (some competitions allow out-of-town judges to bring their
own entries)

The registration process involves collecting information you need from the entrants and judges, collecting payments, and feeding this information into the databases or competition software you will be using to manage the competition. Most entrants today expect online registration software that has a decent user experience, and most also will expect to provide online payment. Anything paper-based will likely limit your entries rather than increase them, and it will definitely cause more work for your staff.

The best systems will handle both the registration of entries and judges/stewards. If you are building your own system, remember to capture all data you need to have for the competition, including the brewer’s name and contact information, and all pertinent information that judges need to know about the entry. It does no good if this information is collected and not passed along to judges, so if the brewer provides supplemental information, be sure judges see it.

The same registration software may also provide competition management features, such as assigning beers to flights, assigning judges to flights, recording scores, and printing out results. If these are separate systems, it is important that data collected by the registration system be transferred to the competition management system. Lists of potential BJCP judges will be provided to the organizer; many systems import this data as well. Several systems will also prepare the organizer’s report for submission to the BJCP. If not, the online reporting system used by the BJCP is web-based and easy to use. Competition management software may also assist in formatting address labels, creating pull or flight sheets, printing best of show lists, and other such tasks. The BJCP website ( has links to downloadable competition management software. Some larger competitions have developed their own software.

When creating labels for the entries, consider whether you want to expose the entry number to the entrant. Since homebrew competitions are anonymous, you don’t necessarily want the entrant to know their entry numbers (particularly if they are judges or staff). Your software may assign temporary entry numbers so the beers may be tracked during submission, but then use different numbers in the competition. If you do renumber entries, understand that this could be a potential cause for confusion.

The process of handling entries is often the most time- and labor-intensive part of the competition, and should not be underestimated. Most competitions will have a shipping window, or a timeframe when entries are accepted. Make sure there is cold storage at the facility to store the boxes as they are received, and ample room for unpacking and disposing of packing materials. Entries may be unpacked as they are received, but then they will have to be stored until sorting occurs. This helps save space, but can result in the beers being handled (and potentially mishandled) an extra time.

If entries are unpacked before they are labeled and sorted, it is critical that the packages be checked thoroughly before discarding. You may need to separate out any forms or payments, and to check that no bottles were broken or missing. Any exceptions need to be noted; for instance, if a bottle breaks, there may still be time for the entrant to send a replacement.

Breaking down and discarding packing materials is a messy job, and takes more space than you’d think. Check with the storage location; they might recycle some materials or otherwise have rules for disposing of packing materials (such as breaking down or flattening cardboard boxes).

Entrants: Do us all a favor, and please don’t use packing peanuts; they stick to everything.

Decide how you want to sort the bottles. Most competitions will sort by judging category, so that it will be easier on the day of judging to select the right bottles. If multiple bottles are required for your competition, decide if you want to keep all bottles together or in different boxes. Coordinate with the head steward to decide what will be easiest for judging. When a beer wins a flight or category, it is important to be able to quickly find the extra bottles for mini-BOS or BOS.

When bottles are sorted, any identification of the brewer is typically removed and a competition-specific label is attached. In some cases, this is just the entry number, but some competitions print custom labels that also include the flight number and entry category. This is a critical phase, and where it is easy to lose track of an entry. Make sure the bottles are identified properly for competition purposes.

If your competition will be judged in multiple sessions, it is often helpful to divide the sorted boxes into session groups. That way, all the beers for one judging session will be held together. If you have limited storage space or transport capacity, this allows you to bring out the beers for one session while keeping the others in reserve. It will certainly make it easier to find entries since the entire group of beers does not need to be searched.

If you have to make a decision about storing beer, try to make it easy to find and retrieve. If you optimize the process to make it easier for the cellar crew and stewards to find beers on the day of competition, you will go a long way to making the competition itself run smoothly.

In addition to the judging tasks, all other day-of-competition duties must be performed on-site. In large competitions, make sure you reserve some staff time to troubleshoot problems and answer questions as they arise.

In the closeout phase, all the final duties of the competition are handled. Scoresheets are sorted and returned to the entrants, including any prizes or awards won. It can save you money if you can have this done during the competition so on-site entrants can just pick up their sheets and awards. (Of course, some larger competitions run a closed competition, then give their awards at a later ceremony.)

The judging room must be cleaned up and returned to its original condition (very important if you want to be invited back next year). The judges, stewards and staff receive experience points from the BJCP for their work; the organizer or judge director must report this data to the BJCP using an online reporting system (also found at the BJCP website).

Common Misconceptions

Over the years, I’ve heard many wild-eyed conspiracy theories from homebrewers who aren’t involved in running competitions or judging. Let me debunk them now:

“That guy won; it must be fixed.” — I’ve heard this a lot over the years. BJCP-registered competitions use blind judging. Judges have no idea who has entered and only sees an entry number and a style category. If someone beat you, it’s because they brewed better beer, not because people  cheated. Judging can be fairly subjective, and some people will have good days. Making good beer improves  your chances.

“He won because he judges his own beer.” — Again, this is expressly against BJCP rules. Rarely judges might be seated in a category they entered, but I’ve always seen the judge immediately request to be put into another category. Other judges will know who judged that category, and would raise that issue with the organizer, likely resulting in a disqualification.

“I had the highest score; how come I didn’t win?” — In competition categories judged by multiple panels, a mini-BOS resolves who wins. Beers are not typically rescored. Since judging can be subjective and beers can vary bottle-by-bottle, the new panel might reach a different result.

“If I average my scores, it’s a different number than I got.” — Judges do not have to average scores to reach a consensus score. Each individual scoresheet will stand on its own,  and the cover sheet should show the consensus score assigned by the judges. It’s often the average score, but not always.

After having judged more than 200 competitions in my career, I can report that virtually all competitions are run by well-meaning people who want to do the right thing. If you do encounter the rare exception, be sure to tell the organizer your concerns. If they aren’t resolved to your satisfaction, do not enter that competition in the future.

If you’re an organizer and your judges and entrants complain, please take their concerns seriously. We run a largely self-policing hobby, and peer pressure does much more than anything else to help keep us in line.
If you’d like to know even more about homebrew competitions, volunteering to work as a steward (or judge) at a local competition is the right way to go about it.


Issue: October 2012