Imagine two hypothetical homebrew contests. In the first contest, every homebrewer submits a 5-gallon (19-L) Corny keg of homebrew. The judges taste a sample from each keg and then are free to drink from whichever keg they want. After the initial sampling, the contest becomes a party where judges hang out, listen to music, chat with other judges and — of course — drink beer. The first keg that is “kicked” wins Best of Show; the next, First Runner Up and so on.
In the second imaginary contest, every brewer submits a bottle a beer. Judges take one sip of each beer and assign it a score; highest score wins. If the exact same line-up of beers were entered in both contests, would the Best of Show winner be the same in both cases?
I think one can put together a fairly logical case that the two different contests would favor different types of entries. In the first case, judges would initially favor beers that made a good first impression, but they would settle on beers that proved nice to drink a whole pint of, or several pints of. Some beers that “wowed” the judges initially would prove to be tiresome in the long run while other beers with less initial impact might reveal their charms as session beers. In the second type of contest, all the judges have to go on was their initial impression.
In reality, homebrew contests are much more similar to the latter type of contest. (And, thankfully so — who wants to submit a whole keg to a contest?) Judges have limited contact with each entry and first impressions count. When brewing and submitting beers to a homebrew contest, it pays to think about the mechanics of how beers are evaluated. In this installment of Techniques, I’m going to discuss tips for brewing competitive beers for homebrew contests. I’ve judged at many homebrew contests and have submitted beers to a few. Of the beers I’ve submitted, some have done quite well while others have gotten shelled. (Many times, I’ve been surprised at which did well and which did poorly.)
The advice I give below will be useless if you can’t brew a decent beer. Although some strategy — and a bit of luck — does play a role in homebrews contests, they are not complete crap-shoots. Quality beers rise to the top in homebrew contests and have a shot at winning. Poorly-made beers never go anywhere. If you’ve entered contests before and always scored poorly, you need to review your brewing fundamentals. On the other hand, if you’ve entered contests before and your scores have been all over the place and you can’t figure out why, read on.
Enter Your Beer, Not Your Plan
The first thing you do when entering a homebrew contest is to decide on what category to submit your beers in. When doing this, forget what you intended to brew and examine how your beer actually turned out. Did you miss the target OG on your IPA? Then consider if it might score better as a pale ale.
Homebrew judges will not know what style of beer you were trying to make, what your ingredient list was, what procedures you used or anything other than the category you submitted your beer in. Evaluate your beer from this perspective when deciding on which category to enter. Read the style guidelines looking for any beer style that seems to describe what your beer tastes like. If you know someone who has judged at contests before, ask them for their help.
There are a few “oddball” categories where it really pays to think about this. For example, if you added smoked malt to a beer but you can’t taste any smoke in it, don’t enter it in the smoked beer category. Likewise, if you made a fruit beer, but the fruit flavor is MIA (which can happen in dark styles like raspberry porter or cherry stout), don’t enter it in the fruit beer category.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
In some categories you are instructed to tell the judges about any special ingredients you used. In the fruit beer category, or the spice, herb and vegetable category, for example, you are supposed to indicate which fruits, spices, herbs or vegetables are in the beer. Before simply listing everything on your recipe sheet, taste your beer and see what ingredients you can detect and which you can’t. If you made a holiday ale with cinnamon and nutmeg, but all you can taste is cinnamon, don’t write “nutmeg” on your entry sheet. If the judges are expecting a dark ale with cinnamon and nutmeg and they can’t taste the nutmeg, you will be “dinked” for not having nutmeg in your beer. On the other hand, if they are expecting a dark ale with just cinnamon, this same beer will score much better. Don’t give the judges information that will only work against you.
Think of the Flight
When you enter your beer in a category, it will be judged alongside a flight of similar beers. If you are brewing a beer specifically for a homebrew contest, think about the likely competition when you formulate the recipe and brew the beer.
Whatever that beer category is about, your beer should show this character in spades. If you’re entering the IPA category, big malt and — more importantly — big hops are the order of the day. If you’re entering barleywines, your beer should be big. Fruit beers should be fruity. Smoked beers should be smoky. If the judge has to hunt to find the main attribute of a category in your beer, it will not score well.
Judges only have a few minutes with each beer. As such, the best contest beers tend to be “caricatures” of the style rather than “photographs.” This doesn’t mean that contest-winning beers are bad beers, just that they are often the kind of beers that stand out in a crowd. And the aspects that make them stand out sometimes come at the expense of drinkablity. (Sometimes. Not Always.)
For most categories, this means formulating your recipe so that the “main things” in that category are emphasized. Thus if you’re entering a category where hop presence is a main feature of the beer style, brew the beer so it’s at the top end (or even a little over the top) of the category range.
Keep in mind that the judges’ palates can easy be saturated by elements of the beers being judged, and these are often the elements the category revolves around. A super hoppy beer in a lineup is going to make all the beers following it seem less hoppy. A very alcoholic beer can make the beers following it seem anemic. (Smoke is actually one of the characters that can “blow out” a judge’s palate the easiest.) Brew your beer so it can stand up the “heavyweights” in its category.
Don’t Attenuate Your Chances
One of the biggest problems beginning homebrewers face is having their beers finish at a specific gravity that is too high. Thus, at any large contest, your beer will likely be in a line-up with some beers that are a little sweeter and have a little more body than a properly attenuated beer. It’s been my experience that properly-attenuated beers — beers whose final gravity is within a reasonable range — get “dinged” for having too little body (or even being “watery”). This even happens for beers in categories, like dry stout, that are supposed to be well-attenuated. To combat this, brew your contest beers to have as much body as they reasonably can without being sickly sweet or inappropriately thick for the style.
Know the Definitive Beer
If you really want to do well in contests, you should know each category you enter well enough to know what the definitive type of beer in that category is. When most judges think of a dry stout, their mind flashes to Guinness. When they think of an American barleywine, they think of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot. When a category has a very definite “style defining” commercial example, it pays to emulate that beer.
Brewing towards “oddball” examples of the style — even if they fall within style guidelines — will, more often than not, lead to lower scores. For example, a dead-on clone of Schneider Weisse — a classic, but somewhat dark, example of a hefeweizen — will likely score less well than a more standard golden-colored example unless the judges really know their hefeweizens. (Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won’t.)
Some categories, of course, don’t have a single definitive beer — quick, what’s the definitive Belgian ale? In that case, you have a bit more freedom to “wander” within the confines of the category guidelines.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
Under the current BJCP guidelines, there are a few categories where “non-beer” ingredients are added to beer. These include the fruit beers, smoke beers, wood-aged beers, spiced beers and experimental beers. As someone who brews a fair number of “out there” beers every year, I like to judge in these categories so I can see what other brewers have come up with. One thing I’ve noticed is that many brewers add multiple “non-beer” ingredients to their beers in these categories. Often, the ingredients don’t really make much sense together or can’t all be tasted in the beer.
Holiday beers are the worst offenders. Many seem to have every spice in the rack thrown into them. If you’re making a beer of your own creation for one of these categories, think about whether you need all the ingredients you’ve planned on. Do they go well together? Will you be able to taste them all? Unless you have a good reason not to, stick to one “non-beer” ingredient in specialty beers or pairs of ingredients often found paired in foods. More isn’t always better.
Judge For Yourself
One thing you can do when entering a contest is to judge your own beer for yourself. When I enter a contest, I sometimes set aside an extra bottle of each entry to evaluate on or near the day of the contest. When doing this, I emulate how the beer is judged as much as possible. I pour out just a few ounces into a glass and sit down with a score sheet and judge the beer. If possible, I try a commercial example of the beer alongside mine and score it as well. Then, when I get the real scoresheets back, I can compare my own comments with the actual score sheet.
Judging your own beer forces you to look at your beer objectively, warts and all. When you brew and drink your own beer, you tend to take pride in that beer — and rightfully so. But it’s always easy to overlook faults in your beer because you know of the times when you’ve done it better. You may know the reason for a fault in your beer and “forgive” yourself for it because you know you’ll fix it next time. You may also know how the beer tasted a couple months ago, when it was at its peak. And, you have in your mind’s eye what you were shooting for, and this mingles in with what your actual beer tastes like.
The judges, of course, know none of this. They are simply out to assign a score to your beer, which they are encountering for the first time, and they have no attachment what-so-ever to your brew. Slipping into their shoes for a few minutes will help you understand why they scored your beer how they did. And, this understanding will help you when brewing the beer again for the next contest.
Judge (or Steward) for Others
The best way to understand what judges are looking for is to judge (or steward) at a contest yourself. Most contest coordinators are happy to let a novice judge sit in at their contest. Judges have to start somewhere, afterall. You will likely be paired with an experienced judge the first few times you judge and you’ll find that — although it may seem overwhelming at first — you learn the ropes quickly.
Keep Some Perspective
Finally, if your beer scores lower than you would like at a contest, remember that your beer will always taste better to you than it ever will to any judge. This is not a wishy-washy, “everyone’s a winner”-type statement; it stands to reason.
You will have tasted your homebrew at the peak of its conditioning; this may or may not be the case with the judges. Your beer will likely have been stored with care at home, while your contest beer will have been shipped — and likely heated and jostled — before the judges sample it. You probably don’t drink your beer in a line-up of other beers, so other exaples don't dull your palate while you're drinking your own beer. And, of course, you likely brewed your beer to suit your taste buds, and everybody's taste buds are different.
BYO editor Chris Colby rarely, if ever, stands out in a line-up.