Three brewers who won medals at the recent Great American Beer Festival give us the inside scoop to competing in—and winning—homebrew competitions.
Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery
On the job training
Gold Medals for Arctic Ale and Hummingbird.
The Great American Beer Festival has 32 something categories. We make beer the way we want to. When it comes time to do the festival, we taste our beers, pick the ones we like the best, and try to find categories that our beers will fit into. The two categories in which we won golds didn't have a strict style requirement. They were simply for different beer.
We won in the specialty category which means we used something other than just barley or grain to ferment with. We used honey in the Hummingbird. The other category was the herb spice beer. We used the mint and lemongrass in the Arctic
It's really hard to match one particular idea of a style. None of our beers really match up with the festival's style categories so our strategy was just to enter the strangest categories we could find.
For homebrewers, it depends on what you are trying to do with your beer. If you are trying to emulate a certain style and think you've got it, entering a competition is a great way to tell how close you are. On the other hand I've never really liked brewing to style. I like to brew different types of beer that may or may not be related to an historical style requirement. It just depends on what the homebrewer wants to get.
If you are brewing to a specific style, really try to hit all the spots—from clarity to original gravity—particularly if entering an American Homebrewers' Association competition.
When and if you do enter your beer in competition, there are a few ways to give your beer a head start. It sounds shallow, but one of your big concerns should be presentation. A lot of judging is based on first impressions. Some of the things judges look for right away are the clarity of the beer and the level of carbonation. It's very important to make sure your beer is carbonated correctly. If the judges open up a beer and it's a foamer or if it's flat, that goes a long way to ruling your beer out. When you get down to things such as exact IBUs, that starts to become more and more just judges' personal taste.
Entering the competitions in a style category is a great way to learn a lot about your beer. The judges' comments are great, experienced feedback. That's the only reason why I would enter a competition. I think that drinking the beer is a lot more fulfilling to me than winning awards. At the brewery, we basically enter the Great American Beer Festival for two reasons: Everyone enters it and it's only a few miles away from here.
I prefer to bring my beer to tastings, rather than competition. Festival settings, celebrating the beer, letting everyone make up their own minds. As a professional brewer, I'm almost opposed to competitions. But competitions may be the only way for homebrewers to get their beer exposed to people other than their friends.
I'm in a local homebrew club here in Boulder and every month we do a tasting to choose the Beer of the Month. That's basically a competition and that definitely helps me with my beer. When I bring the beer from the brewery down there they don't let them win, but they don't mind tasting them and telling me what they think. I really appreciate that feedback.
Carolina Mill Bakery and Brewery
4.5 years pro, 6 years homebrewing
Siebal short courses
Medal here, Hornet Tail Ale, style here, all TKs
Professional and homebrewers have two different goals when entering contests. Homebrewers usually enter to get feedback and improve their beer. When professionals enter contests, they are trying to increase sales. Professionals want to enter a beer that is marketable and popular to the public. If you enter a beer such as a lambic, even if you win a medal the general public isn't necessarily going to like that beer. You want to enter a beer that most people are going to enjoy. That way you will benefit the most by winning the competition.
At the brewery, we take a little extra care when brewing the beer we're going to enter. But with the laws in North Carolina you can't change the recipes of beers without sending off a test sample to be tested by the FDA. Therefore, we really can't change anything for the competition. With the Great American Beer Festival, the beer has to be available on tap to the public in your restaurant. I just took three beers we had on tap and filled kegs up and sent them.
While I have never competed in a homebrew competition, I've judged them. As a judge, I think it's very important for homebrewers to try to match the guidelines for a style when brewing beer for competition. Any book on homebrewing will give characteristics on beer styles. We brewed our Hornet Tail according to the guidelines for alt beer. Try to create a very traditional beer. As long as you follow those guidelines, you have a very good chance at placing in a competition.
A lot of the things that knock a beer out of competition involve cleanliness. In a homebrew competition you have many different levels of homebrewers. You have some people in the competition that have only been brewing a month. Then you have people who have been brewing for 20 years. You run across all kinds of different beers and a lot of them will be infected or have a biological problem. The beginning homebrewer might not even know.
Most judges will pass on to the brewer what kind of problems there are and what the person can do to make their beer better. They'll have that on the results sheet. If the homebrewer reads the remarks, at the next competition he should place much better.
Entering contests is a great thing for homebrewers to do. It almost creates a support group. You are allowing your beers to be sampled by people who know what they are tasting. It enables you to learn more about brewing and about problem areas or areas where you're doing real well that you need to continue in.
I recommend entering every beer you brew. There's nothing to lose. You might win a medal or a ribbon, and if you don't you'll learn how to make better beer next time.
Great Lakes Brewing
4 years professionally, homebrewing for 9
Siebal short course
When deciding which beers to enter into contests, brewers have to look at the competition itself first. It helps to know what the competitions are looking for. A friend of mine told me once in college that you should never pick a class for the subject before you research the professor and find out what they are all about. Competitions can be the same way. The Great American Beer Festival is similar to a big homebrew competition and they are looking for certain profiles. The World Beer Championships in Chicago has different criteria that they're looking for. That determines the beer we send in, but it is not the sole determinant.
A lot of the decision is just based on what we think our best beers are. We brew a pretty broad range so we have a lot to choose from. When we decide on a beer, brew a few batches to try to fine tune it. I brewed the Peerless Pilsner here at the brewpub all summer long. I made a few small refinements. By the time the Great American Beer Festival rolled around we were pretty confident that it was as good as it could be.
Homebrewers tasting their beers should remember that for competition, usually the bigger beer is the better beer. A little more assertive flavors generally stands out in the crowd—a lot more than something that is thinner or less interesting.
When picking your beer make sure it is very clean beer. It should have no noticeable defects. Make sure it is carbonated properly. That can play a fairly big role. When a judge opens up a bottle, if it goes flying across the room you're not going to score too well. The same as if it's flat. In the end you'll lose points for it.
Entering competition is fun for people who want to see how their beer stacks up against everyone else. It gives you a little feedback too. Certainly it's a lot of fun if you win.
As a homebrew competition judge, I'm first looking for adherence to the style. The beer should match the style description as it was written down for that competition.
It is very helpful to attend a competition judging. I'm sure most homebrewers who enter competition probably haven't done this. Every local competition is always looking for help. Even if you are just a steward or observer, you can learn a lot by watching how the judges actually judge the beer. The more exposure you have to how the beer is judged, the better off you're going to do down the road.