Preparing Your Beer for Competition

Some people want to enter competitions to win medals, others simply want to find out the judges’ opinions on what they think is a great beer. I remember a time when the latter was the only reason for entering a competition, largely because almost all homebrewers were just beginning to learn about brewing and were eager to find out what made a good beer. I’ll deal with that first, since that’s a simple matter — you already have the beer, and all you have to do is to send it off to the competition and await the results.

Entering for critique

But it isn’t that simple at all, because the first thing to do is select which competition you want to enter. There are quite a number of them out there, ranging from club competitions right up to the American Homebrewers Association National Home-brew Competition. What you have to decide is how much feedback you want from the judges. The most complete assessments will come from those competitions sanctioned by the AHA and the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program), and you can look up schedules of these on the two organizations’ websites. Other competitions may be less rigorous in their judging, but still give you the information you want. Some of these may be local, which can be a big plus in that your beer would not have to travel far and be subjected to rough treatment — best would be one where you can deliver the beer directly yourself.

Once you select a competition the next thing to do is to check out their guidelines on the various styles. Do this very carefully, because you have to select which category is best suited for your beer. That means you may have to enter a class other than what you intended the beer to fit. You thought you made a brown porter, but it came out at 8% ABV so it might be best entered as an imperial stout. The point about this is that judges will quickly reject a beer that does not fit the class they are looking at, which will mean you will get relatively little feedback. Perhaps the biggest point about entering homebrew competitions is that the judges sample only a small amount of your beer, and they are doing it blind without any knowledge of what you were trying to do.

Once you have decided which class to enter, make sure you complete all registration requirements precisely. Send or deliver your beer as required, making sure you send the required number of bottles, and that these are properly labeled. Remember you can’t use the US Postal Service as they will not ship alcohol, so you will have to go with services like UPS and so on. Do pack the beer very carefully, since the package may be handled in a cavalier fashion during and after the trip. It might be a good idea to incorporate two or three of the freezer packs used to ship perishable goods as well. And do send in your samples early enough for them to arrive several days before judging so that they can rest and clear properly before being poured. You would also be well-advised to keep a few bottles back, and to drink the beer critically as you read the judges’ remarks to see how well they correspond with your own view of the beer’s flavor and appearance.

Entering to win

If your goal above all else is to to win a medal in whatever category, then study winners from previous years in that competition, and choose one or more of the categories with the least number of entries. That done, proceed as you would for the first approach by deciding what style of beer you want to enter. Then read the competition guidelines very carefully, and it will also be useful to read the appropriate book in the Brewers Association Classic Styles series (disclaimer: I wrote two of them!) and Jamil Zainasheff’s “Style Profile” column in BYO on the style. It will also be useful to check the successful recipes in the previous year’s competition if you can. Not all competitions publish these, but the National Homebrew Competition winners are published in Zymurgy.

Once you have done this you have to formulate a recipe using this information. But that entails some choices, for the competition guidelines will give only a range of original gravities (OG) and final gravities (FG), as well as color and international bittering unit (IBU) levels. So bear these points in mind:

1. You want to make your beer stand out, so go for the higher end of the OG range.

2. Similarly, with a hoppy beer, aim for the top of the IBU range. Consider where the competition is held and whether the judges might have a bias, say for brutally-hopped West Coast IPAs over more balanced East Coast versions.

3. Use hop varieties you know and trust — a good guide for aroma hops is to use a variety that you know to be used in a commercial craft version of this style.

4. You do not want your beer’s FG to be too low, as that may mean it tastes thin and may easily be pushed aside by the judges. Look for the middle of the FG range for the style, but be careful not to under-attenuate it either!

5. Consider point 4 when choosing your yeast, which usually means selecting a strain with medium attenuation (65-70%).

6. It is not mandatory, but it is probably best to use an English ale yeast for English-style beers, an American yeast for American-style beers and so on.

7. Again, keeping point 4 in mind, do consider adding specialty malts to improve the body of the beer. But do not overdo this, and use only malts that match the flavor you are after. For example, low roast caramel can work well in an IPA or pale lager, but Belgian Special B® might give too much malt flavor and color in such beers.

8. Whatever you do, do not throw in every kind of malt or spice that you can think of; you want to get a balance in the beer so think your combinations through carefully. Remember that some flavors mask others, and that too many flavors can make the beer taste “muddy” and not at all distinctive.

When you are working out the recipe it is useful to use a spreadsheet, or a proprietary brewing program, such as BeerSmith. This will allow you to do “what ifs” and to see the effect on OG and color of any given ingredient before doing any brewing.

Brewing the entry

I cannot do a step-by-step procedure here because I do not know exactly what beer you are planning to brew. But there are some major points to be made, attention to which will help you to put your best beer forward.

First, be as clean as you can. Scrub and sanitize as you have never done before! I know this advice is given and re-given by every professional, every expert and every writer, but cleanliness is even more important than ever in this case. Your entry may have to travel long distances, be exposed to varying temperatures and generally bounced about. In other words, a slight infection that may not even be noticeable to you will have time and conditions allowing it to develop into its own particular nastiness. Again, if your entry is infected the judges will kick it out of consideration quickly and will not give you much positive feedback.

Second, pitch the right amount of yeast. Under-pitching is the biggest problem, and the best comment I can make is from Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery: “The most important factor to brewing any style, at home or professionally, is making sure you start from the very beginning with a healthy population of yeast. You should see the fermentation take off sooner rather than later. For example, for most ales, you ought to see a very active fermentation in under twelve hours. A beer from a struggling fermentation has a certain flavor. It’s one of the main things that tends to distinguish what a professional might say is a homebrew flavor.”

Over-pitching can also be a problem. Among other things, it can result in over-attenuation and a low FG, which I pointed out above is not at all desirable. The proper pitching rate will vary according to what beer you are making.

Third, you must incorporate a diacetyl rest; for a regular ale fermentation allowing the beer to rest 2-3 days in the fermenter after fermentation is complete should be fine. But in the case of a cold lager fermentation, once that first stage is complete you should take the beer back to 65-70 °F (18-21 °C) for 2-4 days before cooling for racking to secondary. Judges will be looking for any hint of diacetyl (a buttery or butterscotch taste and aroma) and will severely mark the beer down if they detect any hint of it.

Fourthly, do not over-age the beer. Months and months of storage may be okay for an imperial stout, but the same with a big hoppy beer will result in significant loss of hop aroma and character. Most beers are best consumed while still fresh, which is within a few weeks of brewing at most. Try to plan your brewing so that when the beer is ready to drink it is time to ship it. When it is ready you should check out its taste and your brewing notes. If you haven’t quite got the flavor and balance you were looking for, or if you missed your gravity targets, do not hesitate to enter it into another class more suitable to what the beer is rather than what it should have been!


A question you need to answer is whether you ship the beer with sediment and risk losing marks because the judges find it cloudy, or whether you should filter it to ensure it is brilliant when it comes before them. If you do decide to filter it you should design the recipe to allow for this — for further advice see the May-June 2013 BYO “Techniques” column. You might be better off allowing the beer to clear in a keg, then bottling from that using a counter-pressure filler. You must, of course, ensure that both this and the bottles are clean and sanitized. One advantage of this technique is that some fillers permit you to purge the bottle with CO2 before filling, thus helping to limit the presence of oxygen in the beers, which can easily cause off-flavors, especially during rough transport conditions. And, of course, for similar reasons you should use oxygen scavenging caps when sealing the bottles.


When the beer is ready, pack it carefully and ship it as discussed in the first part of this column. Register it carefully, and provide any recipe information required, set out in a clear and easily legible manner. After all your efforts, you don’t want your beer to be rejected simply because you were sloppy with the paperwork.

Final words

My advice may seem a little long-winded and make you think that entering a competition is complicated and difficult, and perhaps not worth your time. Well, most of the points I have made are really what you should be doing in trying to brew good beer consistently anyway. But if your beer is rejected and marked down for any of the reasons I have mentioned, I can assure you that you will be devastated. Whereas, if you follow these strictures and your entry achieves a medal that you can proudly display to your friends and even any craft brewers you know, you will be extremely satisfied. Go for the gold, and if you win it send me one of those bottles!

Issue: May-June 2014