The Winner's Circle
There are two good reasons to enter a homebrewing competition, and neither involves adding to your trophy case. Number one is to challenge your brewing skills by trying to brew your own unique product within the guidelines of a specific style.
Number two is to get objective feedback on your beer from people who are trained to evaluate it. And of course, because this evaluation system takes the form of contests, it’s a thrill to be recognized with a blue ribbon.
Most of us brew because we enjoy the process and we enjoy the results: good fresh beer. We also enjoy that knowing smile and the warm feeling we get when someone else appreciates our labors. How many times have you handed your pride and joy to a friend or relative or even a total stranger and seen their eyes open wide, heard them say, “Wow, you made this?” It’s a rush, isn’t it?
Still, if you want honest, detailed feedback the only way to do it is to get an objective opinion. That’s why thousands of homebrewers each year submit their beers anonymously to local, regional, and national competitions.
There, trained and certified judges taste, test, and analyze each beer, write up a brief report, give it a score, and rank it against similar beers. If you’re interested in improving your beer, you can read that report and learn from it. If the system works right, the report will contain information that helps you make your next batch even better.
What Beers to Enter
There are essentially two schools of thought regarding competitions. The first says enter your best efforts only, and try to garner as many prizes and kudos as you can. Find out how your best beers, of which you are justifiably proud, stack up against the best beers of other brewers.
The second says submit beers you are not sure of, to find out what you are doing wrong or doing right, what you could improve, and how. Tap into the experience and objectivity of knowledgeable judges.
It is also possible, of course, to do both. What follows is meant to be advice for those who are steering this middle course, brewing good beer already but still looking to improve and also looking to do well in competition.
Judges have a different insight into what works in a competition. Each judge has his or her own preferences, pet peeves, and perception threshold, but most would agree on certain basic things regarding what makes a good entry and what
doesn’t. The first consideration must be an awareness of style. Put simply, know what style of beer you have brewed, or plan to brew to the style you want to enter.
There are three elements to this, and failure to pay attention to these elements is almost guaranteed to knock your beer out of the running. First and foremost, get a copy of, and read carefully, the style guidelines the competition is using. There are some differences in category names, descriptions, and numbers such as bitterness and color measurements from one sanctioning body to another, so be sure you know the expectations up front.
These guidelines include original gravity and terminal gravity parameters, color scale and bitterness levels, as well as descriptions and limits for other flavor, aroma, body, and appearance characteristics. If you want your entry to do well, be sure it fits these descriptions and ranges.
Second, familiarize yourself with the style. Taste recognized commercial examples or award-winning homebrewed versions, if possible. If you have homebrewing friends or are a member of a club, exchange information and samples, compare notes, critique each others’ efforts.
Read up on the history and traditions of the style. Start with any of Michael Jackson’s books (but don’t neglect Fred Eckhardt’s either!) and go on to style articles in Brew Your Own or other publications, the 12 volumes in the Brewers Publications Style Series, and other sources. Then go back and check your recipe and taste your beer again.
Last, get acquainted with the processes involved in the brewing of the style. Not the basic universal mechanics, but the specific pieces that make this style distinct: mash temperatures, hopping rates and schedules, boiling times, yeast cycles, fermentation temperatures, carbonation levels, and conditioning times and temperatures. How do they all affect the recipe? Do they contribute something to the style, above and beyond the ingredients? If so, make sure you control the process at every stage to ensure the best, most appropriate use of the recipe and ingredients.
Another concern in judging beer is, of course, the ingredients used. The best recipe, the perfect process, will still yield an inferior beer if you are not using good ingredients. This means two things, freshness and appropriateness. If you use stale, slack grain, poor quality or old extracts, cheesy hops, or funky yeast, you have very little chance of brewing a good, to-style beer. Likewise, if your water isn’t the best, the quality of your beer will be diminished.
Crack your grains just before using them. Use extracts and yeasts that are freshness-dated (and not yet expired). Use hops that have been properly packaged and stored. Weigh things carefully.
Also, take into consideration the appropriateness of the ingredients. Don’t use any old English pale malt and expect to be able to brew the perfect Czech pils. Don’t use black malt when roasted barley is called for, if you want your stout to be a stout. German hops will not work the same way as English or American hops in an IPA. And you probably do not want to use a high-alpha hop (such as Galena or Chinook) to give subtle hop aroma to a kölsch. A Belgian Trappist yeast will definitely change the nature of your Munich dunkel, and probably not for the better.
Two major pieces of the process will strongly affect how your beer scores at a competition. A trained judge will instantly recognize a beer that has been produced with these in mind.
First, cleanliness. Keep it clean, at every phase. If you have gotten any kind of contamination or impurity at any point in the process, it will show. If you’ve rushed the process or done anything less than a “clean” job, there will be traces of it. It may be a taste: an off-flavor, a sourness, a bitterness, a harshness. It may be aromatic: skunkiness, dimethyl sulfide, acetone fuminess. It may be a cloudy or hazy appearance, a discoloration, excessive deposits of proteins or something else in the
bottle, a ring around the neck.
Most of these flaws can also be the result of poor handling after the brewing is done. If the beer is too old, past its prime, it can have stale, cardboardy, vegetable, sherry-like flavors and aromas, even metallic or minerally harshness. Green
beer (racked or packaged before completion of the fermentation cycles) will often be cloudy, harsh, overly sweet, out of balance, even overcarbonated.
Storage at an improper tem-perature promotes the growth of contaminants, accelerates oxidation and staling flavors, and turns your beer to vinegar in extreme cases. This is one of the leading causes of a judge’s favorite, the gusher. Beer stored and aged too cold may fail to carbonate properly.
So if you’re sure you’ve brewed a beer that fits the style guidelines — you’ve used fresh, appropriate ingredients and you’ve kept it clean and handled it well — you’re ready to enter.
Think ahead; know when the competition will take place, and set aside the beers you wish to enter (most competitions ask for two or three 12- to 16-ounce bottles of each entry). Allow enough time for the beer to condition and carbonate properly but not to age too much.
A couple of weeks before the entry deadline, double check your stock to make sure you have enough to enter. And then taste one. Try to think like a judge, if you aren’t one. Ask the questions a judge might ask. Read the guidelines and descriptions as you taste it. If you can get hold of a scoresheet from a competition, try your hand at filling it out (it’s very difficult to be objective!).
Fill out the entry forms, again making sure you have the right category and subcategories, recheck the deadlines, fees, and addresses, and send it off. And stop worrying. It’s now out of your hands. You’ve done all you can do. But be sure to save a bottle to drink when you get the scoresheets back.
When the scoresheets do come back, read them carefully. Hang up your ribbons, cash your prize checks right way, but then read the scoresheets again. Take out that bottle you saved, open it, and rescore it along with the judges. They will most likely have judged it with less information than you have about the ingredients and process that you used.
You may find some of their comments irrelevant, but don’t take that personally. On the other hand, because they don’t have anything personally invested in it, they may be closer to the truth than you can hope to be. Take their comments, suggestions, and questions seriously but not personally. If you’ve made a brewing mistake, if your beer has a flaw, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Sit down immediately and tweak your recipe so that you can brew it again, only better. That’s why you entered it in the first place.
Scott Russell is a BJCP-certified judge and co-author of the Seven Barrel Brewery Brewers’ Handbook (G.W. Kent Inc.).