Make Your Beer Competition Ready

There are several reasons to enter your beer in competition. Entering a homebrew competition is the best way to evaluate the quality of your beer and to receive detailed information on improving your beer and correcting any faults it might have.

Another reason to enter contests is the spirit of competing — pitting your beer against others and finding out how well it measures up. There is great excitement in competing and an immense pride in winning, in knowing yours was one of the best beers entered.

Some homebrewers brew only for the thrill, excitement, and challenge of competing. One award-winning Texas homebrewer said, “I got into homebrewing only to compete. I do not brew to drink my own beer. I am a very competitive person, I’ve competed athletically all my life, and now I find competing in homebrew competitions helps fill that void.”

Doing some basic groundwork before you enter is necessary to give your beers a fighting chance.

Before You Brew

There are many factors to take into account when brewing for competition. It is important to know the rules and guidelines of the competition you plan to enter. Most competitions have fairly standard rules with some unique guidelines. If you don’t follow these rules, you may find yourself disqualified and all your work for naught.

One competition may allow only 12-ounce brown bottles while another competition may adhere to competition standards of 10- to 14-ounce green or brown unmarked bottles. Some competitions allow multiple entries in a category while others permit only one entry per category. Most competitions require three bottles to enter, but some smaller competitions request only two bottles per entry. Regardless, you must review the competition rules and follow them.

Another critical area to research is the styles guidelines for the competition. The majority of competitions follow the BJCP style guidelines with some minor deviations, such as establishing a unique category for the competition.

The Dixie Cup in Houston isone of the largest homebrew club competition in the United States. The Dixie Cup has its own styles guidelines. Three of the unique categories include “East Coast Porter,” less hoppy and assertive than traditional porter; “California Dark Texas Brown Ale,” a category for homebrew that has no commercial equivalent and that does not quite fit into any other category; and “Breakfast Cereal Beer” (first created by the Chicago Beer Society in the Midwest Invitational Brewoff), which requires at least one multi-serving container of a breakfast cereal to be used as a source of fermentables.

Brewing the Best Beer

Whether you are a beginning brewer or an experienced brewer, an all-extract, a partial-mash, or an all-grain brewer, do not hesitate to compete. Brewers in all of these areas have been successful in competitions.

All-grain brewers do have a clear advantage when brewing the light- colored lagers, such as American lagers, classic pilsners, and German light lagers, since it is very difficult to keep the color in the light straw to golden range (23 to 83 Lovibond) using extract malt. Partial-mash brewers can compete nose to nose with all-grain brewers, especially when brewing ales.

The key to brewing for competition is disciplined brewing: brewing to style and adhering to guidelines. When brewing a beer for competition, first determine the style you want to brew. If it is a style you have not brewed before, you will need to do some research to acquaint yourself with the style, its various characteristics, and its parameters. You may find recipes in brewing magazines, in books on brewing and beer recipes, from other homebrewers, and from your local homebrew supply shop. When you are familiar with a style, try developing your own recipes.

Pay attention to detail when brewing. Keep a close eye on developing the correct original gravity, final gravity, and color of the beer for the style. Carefully choose the variety of hops, grains, water treatment, and yeast strain to give the beer the
proper characteristics.

You need to establish a realistic time line, carefully planning out when you should finish brewing and bottling each beer you plan to enter in a given competition. It is imperative to start early and to brew the stronger, higher-alcohol beers first so they can mature. Some beers, such as barleywines, strong ales, and doppelbocks, can take six months to a year or more to peak, while other styles, such as pale ales and bitters, usually peak in freshness after three to six weeks in the bottle. The stronger beers and darker beers last longer and can be entered in multiple competitions. You are not restricted to entering one of your beers in only one competition.

You will want to taste and evaluate your beers before you enter them into a competition. By periodically tasting your beers, you will be able to ascertain how well your beers are developing and maturing. Ask others knowledgeable about the style to sample your beer and tell you how well it fits the category you plan to enter and if it has any faults. It is not unusual for a beer to turn out different than intended and have characteristics more closely fitting another subcategory or style.

A few years ago one brewer entered a beer in two categories in the same competition and took a second place as an India pale ale and third place as an English old ale. Later the same year that beer was selected the best Scottish ale in the brewer’s homebrew club and was entered into the AHA Scottish Ale Club Only Competition. Although not in the top three Scottish ales, it placed number two out of eight in the Scottish heavy ales subcategory. This would be much harder to do today, because the quality of the beers entered in competition is much better and the judging has improved markedly. Still, you can sometimes get a lot of mileage out of one beer.

Entering the Competition

You need to be discriminating about the competitions you enter. Select only the ones that best suit your goals. Why ship your beers all the way across country when there may be local events that will do just as well?

Check out local competitions such as a local homebrew-club event or a nearby state fair. If you are just starting to compete and your primary goal is to win rather than obtain feedback on your beer, stay away from the large competitions (200 entries or more) and enter the smaller events. For the best opportunity to compete, place, and sharpen your brewing skills, enter multiple competitions and submit multiple entries. In the larger homebrew contests the judges are generally more experienced, but the overall caliber of the entries is much higher. Once you have established yourself in smaller competitions, then enter the larger, more challenging events.

When it’s time to send your beer off to the chosen site, careful packing is important to ensure your entries arrive in good condition. A broken bottle can eliminate you from the possibility of first place or best of show. A good source of shipping boxes is from beer-of-the-month clubs. They usually hold 12 bottles (four entries). Do not rely on the boxes themselves. Add additional packing such as bubble wrap, popcorn packing, or even fluffed-up newspaper. You can also protect your shipment by packing the box in another larger box with packing all around the inside.

If you are a member of a homebrew club, encourage your club to hold packing parties to help members ship their beer to competition. One homebrew club regularly packs and ships more than 100 entries at its packing parties. Maybe a club member has business connections and can get the UPS business shipping rate, or your local homebrew supply shop might be willing to help you ship your beer at a discount.

Shipping is another area to which many competition entrants do not give adequate attention. Although alcohol cannot be shipped through the US Postal Service, it is legal to ship it through commercial parcel companies, such as UPS and Federal Express, for competition and tasting.

Find out what the shipping time will be, because you want your shipment to arrive in plenty of time to allow the beer to stabilize and settle before being judged. Some shipping outlets are not knowledgeable about the legalities of shipping beer. To avoid problems, be inventive in what you label your shipment. Call it “perishable food products,” “liquid bread,” or even “specimen samples.”

Avoid shipping over weekends, if possible, because the shipment may sit in a hot truck or in a freezing warehouse, ruining your beer. It doesn’t take much abuse to affect the flavor and taste of beer. Ship in time to arrive before the weekend, even if it is a week before the competition. The deadline for entries is often as much as five days to a week before competition judging. As a rule, the larger the competition, the earlier the entry deadline. During extreme weather or when you lack shipping time, consider spending a couple of extra dollars to air express your prized competition beer.

The Winning Edge

Brewing good beer and getting it to competition is a great start, but they are just small steps. Here are some hints that could give your beers a winning edge.

Brew the big beer. Big beer is generally at the high end of the scale for the style. Brew a beer that has a high starting gravity and a high hop rate for the style. While you are going for a very flavorful beer, make sure your beers have a good hop/malt ratio and are balanced in both flavor and aroma.

Always use the proper brewing ingredients for the style, including hops, malt, yeast, and water treatment. For example if you are brewing a classic English pale ale, use traditional English hops such as Fuggle or East Kent Goldings. Do not substitute Cascade, which is very citrusy, flowery, and floral in flavor and aroma. If you are brewing a German doppelbock, do not use roasted barley to darken the beer because it is inappropriate for that style (but essential in a dry stout).

Make a good first impression. Get off on the right foot with the judges by selecting your best-looking bottles for competition. Fill them to the proper level, one-half to 1 1/2 inches from the top.

Submit many entries. The more entries you submit, the greater your chances of winning.

Take advantage of regional beer preferences. An awareness of regional beer preferences can help make you more competitive when entering beer in these areas. For instance the West Coast is known for its hoppy ales, so make sure your ales are very hoppy for those competitions. The central part of the country, including Texas, has a strong German brewing influence that tends to emphasize less-hoppy styles of lagers. The Northeast, with its strong English influence, leans toward English styles, particularly the heavy ales such as English old ales, Scottish strong ale, and barleywine. In Florida they brew ales with a lot of hop character.

Do not get discouraged. It is extremely important to maintain a positive attitude when entering competitions. You will receive impartial evaluations of your beer, and as your brewing improves through experience and feedback, you will eventually start to win. Remember, winning in competition is to some extent a numbers game. If you are brewing clean, relatively faultless beer, you will eventually win. Also, just because you win in one competition, even if you win best of show, you may not win in another competition with the same beer. There are many variables that come into play including the quality of the other beers entered, the freshness of your beer, the experience of the judges, the size of the competition, and regional differences.

To bottle it up:

  1. Use your best bottles; you want to make a good first impression.
  2. Ship the right number of bottles. Most homebrew competitions require three for each entry.
  3. Pack well. Use bubble wrap or popcorn packing. Place one box within another if necessary.
  4. Don’t label your package “beer.” Call it “perishable food products” or another generic name.
  5. Use a private carrier such as UPS or Federal Express. It’s illegal to ship alcoholic beverages through the US Postal Service.
  6. Don’t ship over a weekend. Your package may sit on a hot truck.
Issue: January 1997