Getting Judging Feedback on your Homebrew: Tips from the Pros

Judge: Annie Johnson,  nationally ranked BJCP judge in Seattle, WA

The two most common reasons brewers send off some of their precious homebrew to competitions is for the judging notes and for the bragging rights. Whatever side of that reasoning you fall on, or if it’s somewhere in the middle, having trained judges critically analyze your beer is a great way to get honest feedback that can then be used to improve your brewing. We gathered two experienced Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) judges with many medals to their names for advice on what, why, and how to enter, as well as how to best use the feedback you’ll receive.

There are multiple benefits to entering competitions — self-serving included. Feedback is the best reason to enter beers into competition. And the brewer shouldn’t limit themselves to just the local competition but enter multiple competitions with the same beer around the country. This provides detailed feedback from multiple sources. Feedback that can actually be incorporated to change the beer. The other is, of course, bragging rights. Who doesn’t want a wall of ribbons?

Personally, when I feel I have mastered a style then I put that beer into competitions. I’m not a big believer in flooding a single competition with a dozen or more entries. Winning isn’t everything, nailing a style is. Sometimes your beers win and sometimes they don’t. Don’t take it personally if a beer you brewed doesn’t get passed up to 1st, 2nd, or 3rd. If you follow my advice of entering the same beer in multiple competitions and improving the beer from the judge’s feedback received, your chances are greatly improved for bringing home that blue ribbon, if that’s your goal.

I always chose the storied competitions; the ones that have been around the longest. They are well done in every aspect of how a competition is run. The Mayfaire (organized by the Maltose Falcons), Bluebonnet Brew Off, America’s Finest City (organized by Quaff), are just a few I’d recommend. When I lived in California I always entered the State Fair or any competition put on by the Bay Area Mashers or the DOZE homebrew club. The National Homebrew Competition remains the hardest competition to place in — do not let this one competition influence your decision of whether to enter others. It’s a unicorn.

When you receive judging notes, read that feedback carefully. Your hope is that a judge’s feedback was written objectively but many times it’s subjective. Always take it with a grain of salt. You’re the best judge of your beer.

As a judge, the most common faults I find that can easily be avoided — and that I would warn potential entrants to be mindful of — is under-carbonated beers, low fills, and oxidation in samples. Basically, bad bottling. How you send your bottles in may be overlooked, but it shouldn’t be. Bag those bottles! Use those rubber bands and fill out the forms electronically or with ink that doesn’t run. Bubble wrap is good for packaging. The goal is to not have the bottles touching each other or the sides of the box. Send two boxes if you have to, don’t crowd a box with more than 12 bottles.
A last piece of advice: Take everything with a grain of salt. If your brewing is not fun and satisfying, you’re not doing it right. Also, give back to the brewing community and become a BJCP judge. The best judges are brewers and the best brewers are judges. It really is that simple!

Judge: Josh Weikert,  BJCP Grand Master Judge and Certified Cicerone

There aren’t many ways to get truly objective feedback on your beer, but competitions are definitely one! Your entry is judged anonymously against a known standard, and good competitions and judges work hard to make the process as objective as possible. It’s priceless, and the feedback you get gives you good guidance to improve.

I would suggest entering all of the beers you brew into competitions, multiple times. The more times you enter them — and the more comprehensively you do so — the faster your beers will improve. If you have to sacrifice one of those two, though, I’d say to focus on entering the same beer multiple times. Every competition gives you one data point for that beer. One competition might score it well, another poorly — how do you know which is correct? The answer is “you don’t.” However, if you enter a beer four or five times over a 5–6 month period, you’ll start to see a pattern in the results that helps account for those outliers. I try to enter every beer four times, and over the years it means

I’ve developed a great database of results and feedback that let me make solid inferences about my overall brewing practices, quality, longevity, and common mistakes! Unless it’s a style that absolutely must be served fresh to shine (some IPAs, I suppose), I don’t worry about coordinating my brewing schedule to competition schedules. There’s a lot of conventional wisdom out there on beers that age well, have to be aged, can’t be aged, etc. Most of it is well-meaning but probably wrong. My Old Ale does as well three weeks in the bottle as it does a year later. My Berliner Weisse (a low-alcohol, low hops, continuing-to-sour wheat beer – in other words, a beer with zero flavor stability) has won Best of Show at more than a year old.

When you receive the results, look for patterns, even across styles. Don’t take any one judge’s comments as gospel (though consider that they might be right). Instead, see if multiple judges find similar faults in your beers. Whatever mistakes you made on one beer, you’ve likely made on others. Keep a spreadsheet of noted faults, and break them out by age and style. You may find that you have beers with a short shelf life, which could suggest oxidation at packaging. You may find that you routinely have diacetyl and need to add a diacetyl rest at the end of fermentation or swap out yeast strains. See the forest, not the trees.

Winning medals is fun but, in my opinion, shouldn’t be the reason you enter. If you are seeking medals, however, here are my tips: Focus on less-crowded styles. Lager categories typically see fewer entries, though competition can be intense in those categories. Still, if there are only 10 Pilsners, yours has a better chance of coming to the fore than being one of 50 IPAs. Second, learn how to evaluate your beer in style terms. I’ve won lots of medals by taking what I thought I brewed (a raspberry porter) and re-branded it as what it tasted a lot more like (a raspberry Munich dunkel). Third, brew “clean” beers. A lot of competition success is in not being a beer that offends one of the judges. In any competition, a lot of medals are going not to the “best” beers but rather the beers that everyone can agree aren’t bad or what can be interpreted as an obvious fault. Lastly, keep all of your beer cold after you’ve carbonated. Staling and flavor instability are greatly slowed by near-freezing storage!

When deciding what competitions to enter, look for ones with some age on them. Newer competitions might be run by people without much experience, and if that’s paired with a lot of infrequent or new judges you can end up with lackluster feedback. Also, contact the organizers for any reason at all. Invent a question. If they respond within 48 hours, they care about their competition. If they don’t, they might care, but they’re probably overworked and/or stretched too thin. Lastly, ask your fellow homebrewers, especially the BJCP judges: They know which competitions to avoid, and which generally do well! But try to enter in competitions where you can drop off rather than ship; shipping is rough on beer.

Issue: July-August 2017