When I started brewing my own beer many yeast generations ago, I couldn’t wait to get feedback on my brews from family, friends and neighbors. Unfortunately, not all of it (actually, not much of it) was complimentary, and practically none of it was helpful. Wrapped in my nascent beer snobbery, I consoled myself with the thought that these people were mere beer peons, accustomed to numbing their brains and their palates with chilled swill-water. “What do they know?” I’d sniff.
Undaunted by half-hearted compliments and feigned nods of approval, I eventually searched out homebrew competitions in my area. I was ready and willing to take my licking from the pros. I dutifully filled out the required paperwork, signed and dated a check, properly boxed up my entry bottles and drove them over to the local UPS dock for delivery (my, how times haven’t changed!).
I remember winning my first ribbon in 1987. It was a pale ale that took second place in the category, one of only four categories judged at that event. Nevertheless, my beer had bested others ... and I wanted to repeat the accomplishment as often as I could. Sixteen years later, that little red ribbon now hangs proudly among nearly 50 other brewing awards that decorate my store’s back wall.
I was also anxious to participate in the other side of competitions. After becoming a certified beer judge, I worked hard and traveled often to events in my area. Educationally speaking, there’s nothing quite like learning about competitive brewing from the inside out. Becoming a beer judge undoubtedly made me a better brewer. I’d like to share what I’ve learned, both as a brewer and a beer judge, to help you gear up for beer competitions.
SIX Quick Competition Tips
ONE: Stay true to style
One thing I learned early in my competitive career is that what you set out to brew is not always what you end up making. If you fail to achieve the appropriate gravity in your planned Scottish Export Ale, it might only make the grade as a Scottish Heavy in competition. For coming up short on IBU’s, your supposed IPA may be an APA to an experienced judge’s palate. And for using that higher Lovibond crystal malt in your hefeweizen, you may have inadvertently strayed into dunkelweizen territory, according to the style guidelines.
I recall a situation long ago where I was judging a beer in the Märzen/Oktoberfest category. It was fruity, floral, buttery and loaded with a whole bunch of other aromas and flavors that suggested it was anything but Oktoberfest. Later, when I had the opportunity to discuss this brew with its creator, I learned that the beer had been warm-fermented with a packet of dry ale yeast. When I pointed out this apparent fermentation faux pas to the novice brewer, his not-entirely-unexpected response was, “But the kit said Oktoberfest on the label!” Caveat Emptor — let the buyer (and homebrewer) beware.
If you take homebrew competition seriously (and who doesn’t?) it’s imperative that you have at least a rudimentary knowledge of beer styles. Since the vast majority of sanctioned homebrew competitions across the United States operate in accordance with Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) rules and guidelines, it makes good sense to familiarize yourself with these beer style guidelines. You can find all of this information and more on the BJCP website at: www.BJCP.org.
TWO: Keep it fresh
Freshness counts! Though it might seem to belabor the obvious, using fresh ingredients is another imperative for brewing competition-quality beer. Using old hops, grains and malt extract to brew beer makes no more sense than using old and stale ingredients to create a gourmet meal. Buy and use the best-quality and freshest ingredients available to you.
THREE: Sip before you ship
Be sure to re-taste your brew just prior to entering it into a competition — a beer that tasted good and hoppy last month may have suffered a notable loss of hop flavor and aroma since. Likewise, a gently carbonated beer may have kicked on the carbon-dioxide afterburners in the last few weeks and it now may border on explosive.
It’s a good idea to taste your beer with the style guidelines right in front of you so you can match your beer point-for-point with the parameters of the style. Keep in mind that several sub-style parameters for gravity, color and bittering — such as those in the bitter category — change very little from one sub-style to the next, so evaluate your beer intently. Similarly, consider the possibility that your beer may safely straddle two similar styles or sub-styles and be a legitimate contender in either category. There are no rules against entering the same beer in more than one category.
If you lack confidence in your palate or objectivity, have your beer tasted by discerning friends or fellow brewers. Be flexible; remember that your beer has to conform to the dictates of the style guidelines. This means that you may have to enter what you’ve been calling a porter in the brown ale category.
FOUR: Let history be your guide
Learn from past experiences. If you’ve entered a beer in a previous competition, you should have received the scoresheet with the judges’ comments on it. Keep these on file and refer back to them — especially if you intend to brew the same style beer again. If you are not familiar with the peculiar jargon used on scoresheets or used by beer judges in their commentary, it’s in your best interest to learn this judging vocabulary.
FIVE: Timing is everything
There are two basic types of brewers when it comes to competition: those who brew a beer and casually enter it into competition, and those who brew beer with competition in mind. Members of the first group brew the types of beers they like when they have the time and resources. If that beer seems worthy of competition and the brewer is motivated enough, he or she will send it off to compete in hopes that an award might be in the offing. Members of the second group often schedule their brew sessions according to upcoming competition calendar entry-date deadlines. They are intent on nailing a specific style and have every intention of winning something — if not everything.
If you identify with the first group, there’s little I can say that will change your motivation; if you identify with the second group, however, pay attention. As I’ve already said, freshness counts and timing is everything; this means you’ll probably want to plan a brewing schedule according to upcoming competitions (check with your local homebrew club or do an online search). Keep in mind appropriate aging and lagering periods for high gravity, specialty and cold-fermented brews.
SIX: Size does matter
Another consideration is the size of the competition. If you are simply on a ribbon quest, it’s always easier to be a big fish in a small pond. Seek out the smaller, local events across the country that attract fewer entries. If, however, you want to go “head-to-head” — so to speak — with the best brewers in the country, shoot for the biggest and the best competitions. Awards and judge feedback value and quality are usually commensurate with the size of the competition. Just remember that it’s kind of like playing the lottery; as the size of the jackpot increases, your odds of winning decrease.
Best-Bet Beer Styles to Brew for Competition
Beer judges and long-time competitors have kind of an inside track on how to improve your chances of winning an award. For instance, certain beer style categories make easy targets, while other categories are best avoided. Much of this assessment is also based on numbers. Some popular, easy-to-brew categories, such as pale ale, are perennially saturated with entries. This means that your odds of winning in this category are usually diminished.
Conversely, there are other categories that typically don’t get many entries, thus increasing your odds of winning. There is a caveat to this, however — many of the low-entry categories, not surprisingly, are also the more difficult-to-brew beer categories (if you’ve mastered the Berliner weisse style, there are plenty of awards out there with your name on them).
ONE: Go big, dark and hoppy
Using sweeping generalizations, I would recommend brewing and entering big, dark, hoppy ales. Big — meaning high gravity — because they tend to have more flavor and complexity, dark and hoppy because fewer flaws show through, and ales because they tend to exhibit a much wider spectrum of acceptable aromas and flavors.
So which categories should be targeted and which should be avoided? My list of targeted styles would include: American brown ale (dark and hoppy), Irish dry stout (dark and complex), foreign style stout (dark and complex), Belgian strong ale (big and complex), dunkelweizen (dark and complex) and California common beer (hoppy).
TWO: Think twice about lagers
Which categories should be avoided? Well, I hate to discourage anyone from expanding their brewing horizons, but if you are on the hunt for awards, you may want to limit your focus. On the list of styles to avoid would be most of the lager categories — especially the light colored and bodied American sub-styles. Not only are these beers difficult to brew, their lightness of body and color betray every minute flaw in the beer.
Lagers in general have what some might call a “narrow” flavor profile, meaning that due to the long and cold lagering process these beer styles exhibit very little, if any, fermentation characteristics. These beers are generally clean and refined; their aroma and flavor is based almost entirely on the malt and hops (what little there may be) and occasionally the water quality, with very little character attributed to the yeast or fermentation.
If you are determined to make a lager beer, I would recommend shooting for doppelbock, schwarzbier, German-style Pilsner and American dark lager. The doppelbock and schwarzbier follow my earlier prescription of big and dark. The German style Pilsner is relatively easy to nail due to the fact that it is drier and hoppier than the other Pilsner styles and doesn’t necessarily require a decoction mash. The American dark lager is also somewhat dry and the round malty notes of a Munich dunkel are not expected of it.
THREE: Score in specialty beers
There are a few more styles I would like to recommend, but not without a full explanation and caution. Specialty beers are given a fairly wide berth; their parameters may run all over the map. This can work in the brewer’s favor, but specialty beers also require the brewer to exercise a little restraint.
Fruit and vegetable beers should adequately represent their spotlighted fruit or vegetable without completely overshadowing the underlying beer. Balance and drinkability are important; overly sweet or sour fruit beers don’t usually score well. These suggestions also hold true for herbed and spiced beer. When it comes to spicing your brew, less is usually more. Overly aggressive herbed and spiced beers are not particularly enjoyable to drink and may take a long time to age and meld the spice character into the beer. Be patient, though — sometimes good beers turn into outstanding beers over time. I once had a seven-year-old spiced beer take first place in the specialty category.
FOUR: Smoke it if you got it
Another specialty style I’d like to recommend is smoked beer. I think one of the most sublime brews in the world is a good smoked porter. Smoked beer is also pretty easy to make and it finds few challengers in the average homebrew competition.
The key is to brew a killer porter. Make a base beer that’s excellent in its own right, one that can support the smoke aroma and flavor. Then be careful not to ruin it with a heavy-handed smoke character. Smoked beers are more challenging to the palate and seem to be less universally appreciated by judges, but when done right they receive appropriate accolades.
What The Judges Look For
Knowing the criteria by which the judges evaluate your beer is pretty important. At a BJCP event (and virtually any other accredited competition), homebrew is judged in four basic sensory categories: sight, smell, taste and feel which are broken out into five different scoring areas on the scoresheet: aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression.
ONE: It all adds up to 50
The BJCP scores brews on a fifty-point scale. The scoring guide ranks beers like so:
World Class (45-50): “A world class beer with great character and no flaws.”
Excellent (38-44): “Beers in this range have no flaws but may be missing the intangibles for that world class beer.”
Very Good (30-37): “Beers in this range may have a minor (technical or stylistic) flaw, or may be lacking in balance or complexity.”
Good (21-29): “A satisfactory beer that generally fits the style parameters.”
Fair (14-20): “This beer has its share of problems that may include missing the style parameters, off flavors and aromas, balance problems, contamination or other major flaws.”
Problem (0-13): “A beer with a major problem (usually contamination) that overwhelms all other flavors and aromas.”
TWO: Looking for flaws
Homebrews are also rated on three scales of Stylistic Accuracy, Technical Merit and Intangibles. BJCP trained judges are proficient at spotting flaws in beer and, like police dogs sniffing for drugs at an airport, they are quick to hit on them. Judges are looking first for “clean” beer — meaning one without bacterial contamination and defects. Next they are looking for stylistic integrity, or adherence to style guidelines. Finally, beer judges love a beer with real character; beers that tempt and tickle their taste buds. Nuances and complexity always account for higher scores.
The vast majority of beer judges I know and have had the pleasure of judging with are accomplished brewers who have a very good working knowledge of brewing procedure. They’ve also undergone the same testing procedures to become BJCP ranked beer judges, so their evaluation methodology is rarely in question. Despite this educational background, however, there are quite a few judges out there who lack familiarity with certain beer styles. A good part of this problem is due to the lack of good commercial examples of specific regional styles of beer, such as Kölsch, altbier, Vienna lager, Flanders brown ale, Belgian saison and faro lambic; a fact that can sometimes be exploited by savvy brewers.
THREE: Push the limits
In addition to brewing beer as close to style parameters as possible, I also suggest “brewing boldly”, or pushing the upper limits of those parameters. Winning brews are typically those that are the most exciting or memorable — they stand out in a crowd of equals. After a long day of evaluating as many as two dozen different beers, and with palate fatigue setting in, subtlety is lost on many judges. Perhaps this is why most beers that win the best-of-show awards tend to be big, complex and alcoholic brews. Which reminds me of one infamous judge who brought with him to competitions two rubber stamps which read simply: MORE MALT and MORE HOPS!
Shipping Your Beer
How good your beer is matters little if it doesn’t make it to competition in time and intact. Always pack your brews well and allow for sufficient delivery time whether the competition is across town or across the country.
ONE: Pack with care
The standard packing procedure suggests that you to wrap each individual bottle in newspaper — bubble wrap is even better. Place the bottles carefully in a properly sized box that has a bed of wadded newspaper or foam packing “peanuts.” Be sure to line the box with a garbage bag or something similar (some brewers even double-box their entries for added protection). Fill in all voids and air spaces with wadded paper or packing peanuts and close and tie off the bag. Before closing and taping the box, be sure that all gaps have been filled in; loose bottles may not endure rough handling. Also be sure that all competition paperwork has been filled out and included in the box (outside the bag) before sealing.
TWO: Don’t break the law
It’s helpful to know ahead of time how you’ll be shipping your beer. It’s against the law to ship alcoholic beverages through the United States postal system so don’t even try. Private carriers such as UPS and Federal Express will ship your brews, but they have the right to refuse to ship your box if it’s not properly packed and labeled. Honesty is said to be the best policy, but it may also keep your brews grounded. Because of this possibility, it’s important to be as vague as possible about the contents of your shipment. Divulge only what you must. When filling out the shipper’s paperwork, describe the contents of your package as “liquid for analysis only” or something to that effect. My favorite was “live yeast cultures” — and it worked every time.
Two Final Notes
ONE: It’s the luck of the draw
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that there are a couple of givens when it comes to homebrew competitions. The first one — how well you do in competition — is only partly dependent on how good your beer is. If you submit a respectable beer in a category that is poorly represented, you stand a good chance of winning. On the other hand, if you submit a very good beer in a popular category, odds are that someone else may have submitted something better. In other words, a beer scoring a 36 in one competition might win a first place award while that same beer with the same score on the same day at a different competition may not place at all. It’s the luck of the draw.
TWO: Don’t get discouraged
The second given is that homebrew competitions are an imperfect science. As long as human beings are in a position to evaluate and score beer, there will be inevitable discrepancies and errors. Human beings are not automatons, their sensory evaluation skills are not constant or consistent. Thresholds for taste and smell may vary from day to day and morning to afternoon. Throw in variables such as the judges’ ability and experience, their health and mood, the ambient sound, temperature and lighting in the room where the judging is being done, and you’ve got a bouillabaisse of distractions that can lead to inconsistent evaluation. The only consolation is the fact that your competitors’ brews were getting the same treatment.
I think everyone who regularly competes in homebrew competitions has a horror story to tell about a bad judge or a bad score. And when it happens to you, don’t sweat it. It’s inevitable that some anonymous beer judge somewhere is not going to agree with your lofty appraisal of your own beer. These things happen. Don’t let it discourage you — continue sending your brews to competitions, and, regardless of how many awards you do or don’t win, use the judge commentary and feedback as the constructive tool for better brewing that it was always meant to be.Marty Nachel has been brewing his own beer and competing since 1985 and became one of the first 70 certified beer judges in North America the following year. Marty went on to write “Beer for Dummies” and “Homebrewing for Dummies” (IDG Books Worldwide) and he finally opened up his own homebrew shop in 2000.
Sidebar by Ed Measom
Winning shouldn’t be the only reason you enter a homebrew competition. But if you’re going to enter anyway, why not making winning one of your goals ... along with getting valuable feedback, supporting a homebrew club and having fun? I’ve entered lots of competitions and brought home my share of awards. I’ve also improved my brewing skills and become a better judge. Here are some tips to get you started.
Tip one: enter!
As the old saying goes, you can’t win if you don’t enter. Over the years I’ve heard a lot of excuses for not entering. “I know my beer is good. So why should I enter?” “I never win.” “I only keg my beer.” And so on.
There are many reasons for entering besides winning. I participate in several competitions just to support the club. Even if your beer is mediocre, entering is a good way to get feedback and improve your techniques.
I agree that counter-pressure bottle filling is demanding. One tip is to transfer directly from keg to bottle using a tube that fits into the end of a picnic tap and is the same length as the bottle. This procedure needs to be done over the sink, because the bottle will overflow with foam before it is full. The beer will also lose some carbonation, but not much, and this technique sure beats counter-pressure filling.
I brew in six-gallon batches. Then I keg half of each batch in a three-gallon keg and bottle the rest. This works great, because I always have bottles on hand to send to competitions.
Tip two: take notes
Detailed notes can be very helpful when developing new recipes or trying to nail a style. I used to hand-write the recipe and keep notes as I brewed the batch. I kept the notes in a three-ring binder, and when I got completed score sheets back from competitions, I put them in the binder with the recipe and my brewing notes. The notes and score sheets are invaluable the next time you brew a recipe. I’m always trying to improve, since I’ve yet to achieve a perfect 50-point score. Nowadays, I keep my notes in ProMash software.
Tip three: choose the best style
One lesson I learned the hard way is that what you try to brew is not always what you end up with. For new brewers, this can be a hard lesson. In fact, the notion is counterintuitive. “The recipe said American pale ale. I followed the directions and watched the temperatures and ...” This may be so, but the resulting beer may still be too dark for style or lack the proper hop punch for an APA. This beer may score better as American amber or something completely different.
I set aside four bottles for each competition. Just before entering, I invite a qualified judge or two to my house and we taste the contents of the fourth bottle. I know what I was shooting for, but the other judges don’t. We talk it over and choose the best style. Sometimes the results are surprising.
You may also have a beer that fits more than one category. Enter it in both. I know one brewer who developed a beer that fit all three sub-categories of American lager.
Speaking of choosing a style, you might want to pay attention to the less popular styles. Not only will the numbers favor you, but also you may discover some interesting nuances in a more obscure type of beer.
When brewing for competitions, go a bit heavy when possible. For example, shoot for the high end of the hop bitterness when making an American pale ale. Do likewise with gravity for any of the high-alcohol beers. Similarly, when entering a beer that is close to the low end of a style, enter the next-lowest style.
Tip four: set aside entries
At the time of bottling, I set aside entries for my own club’s competition as well as the three other events in our circuit (the Gulf Coast), the AHA nationals and several local competitions. I set up a case box for each of these competitions and put four bottles of each batch in the case.
Of course some beers are best if fresh. Conversely, some beers are better after aging. The lighter ones are only put aside for competitions in the next month or two. The bigger the beer, the longer I’ll save them. Don’t forget to taste a bottle before entering.
Tip five: brew early and often
Of course, you first need to brew in order to have entries. And the more you brew, the better you’ll get. So my suggestion is to brew a lot. Then you’ll always have entries and plenty of beer for meetings, parties and friends.
Make the brewing session as fun as possible. I brew outside, next to the house, and I set up stereo speakers so I can listen to tunes. Longtime club members are always invited to join me, and I call new members or those who’ve expressed an interest in a particular style or technique. Every time I brew with someone else, whether it’s a novice or experienced brewer, I’ve learned something.
Tip six: all-grain or not
In my club, the all-grainers used to look down on the extract guys. This ended after one competition in which the extract-and-grain brewers kicked the all-grainers’ butts.
That said, I still brew all-grain for competitions. First, I like to control the mashing process. Second, I can create a lighter beer when I use grain. Third, I think all-grain techniques help brewers better understand the process.
Tip seven: do your homework
Read everything you can get your hands on about homebrewing. There are lots of great books, magazines and Internet forums.
Join a homebrew club. This is a great source of ideas and feedback. Go to the meetings and bring samples. If you get the chance, travel. When traveling in the United States, I always do some beer hunting. The local homebrew shop is a great source of information on local brewpubs and beer. And if you ever get the chance to visit any of the world’s great brewing regions, do it! This is by far the best way to taste classic styles.
Tip eight: become a judge
Enroll in the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). There are some really good brewers and judges that are not BJCP, but all BJCP judges have a set of qualifications that will help in brewing, including having the discipline to learn the various styles and judging techniques.
The best way to get started is by being a competition steward. Then progress to judging when you’re ready. But whatever you do, go to competitions and participate.
Tip nine: constant temps
I’m not going to go into a lot of brewing technique. But I do want to stress one point: Keep a constant temperature during fermentation. Much is written about the ideal temperature, but not the negative impact of variable temperatures. Yeast likes a stable environment and produces better beer when the temperature is consistent.
Since I live in a warm climate and ferment ales outdoors (lagers are strictly in the fridge), my struggle for 11 months of the year is to keep the beer cool. I place the carboy in a water bath formed by a cooler and a self-constructed lid made of Styrofoam and duct tape. The water is circulated with an aquarium pump through copper tubing that has been placed in a dorm refrigerator. A temperature controller triggers the pump.
Tip ten: have fun!
Think of ways to make entering competitions more enjoyable. For example, give your beer a lighthearted name. These are usually read by the emcee and everybody gets a kick out of the funny ones. My club organizes our shipments to other competitions. We call this a packing party and the name is appropriate.
Don’t take homebrew competitions too seriously. After all, it’s just beer and this is supposed to be a hobby. Competitions are a bit of a crapshoot, anyway. I’ve had the same beer score 20 points different from one competition to another. This is due to any number of factors, including the ability of the judges, how the beer was handled at the competition, shipping degradation, the other beers in the flight and more. The best way to overcome these factors is to brew good beer, have multiple entries and not take the results (good or bad) personally. As we say in my club: “Drink Better Beer.”Ed Measom is president of the Central Florida Home Brewers in Orlando. He is a nationally ranked BJCP judge and has won more than 100 ribbons and medals in homebrew competitions throughout the Southeast. He can be contacted at www.cfhb.org.