Who wouldn't want unbiased and valuable feedback on how to make better beer? And maybe a little bling.
This was originally a Powerpoint presentation used for an in-person meeting. Instead of attaching the .pptx file I'm opting to go through each of the individual slides one by one. If there's a strong desire for the .pptx file later though I'll make sure to get it up and available.
Here's the breakdown of what we're going to talk about in this post:
So let's start with why we should even care about entering competitions.
Raise Your Game
Brewing for a competition can make you really take stock of your brewing practices and your recipes. As for competitions of just about any kind, if you're going to enter it the goal is to do well. In order to do well it helps to really sit down and think about how you're making beer. Are you using appropriate malts for the style of beer you're making? Are you pitching enough yeast? How are you controlling fermentation temperature (be it fermenting really warm on purpose, a cooler lager temperature, or in between.)
Diving into some of these questions naturally leads to understanding more about the beer that you're trying to make. Saisons are usually pretty dry, so how are you going to accomplish that? Asking questions and finding answers helps you understand styles better and the better you understand a style the better beer of that style you can produce.
Honest Unbiased Feedback
So, as homebrewers we generally have far far fewer people trying our beer than a commercial brewery would. Generally if we put our beer on Untappd we know the names of everyone that's going to check into it. All three of them. We're usually friends with the people we share our beer with and in turn those friends naturally compliment our beer. It's just the way it is, it's being human.
As it turns out though, biased feedback isn't super helpful with improving. If you were a professional weight lifter and continued to lift weights with bad forms you'd be likely to hurt yourself. With beer, brewing styles in improper ways or with bad methods will lead to off flavors and a poor quality product. Nipping bad practices in the bud will allow them to be corrected with little pain. As we all know, brewing isn't always inexpensive so the less bad beer we make the better!
This is where blind and unbiased feedback is really great. Judge John Doe out of Portland, OR doesn't care who you are or how you made your beer. He cares about the style you entered and how close your beer is to a shining example of that style. He will let you know what's good, what's bad, and hopefully what could make it better. No hard feelings attached.
There's not much to say about performing well and building confidence that isn't probably intrinsically understood. If you've ever won something in your life that required a skill of you, not just by chance, then you know the feeling. There's a pride and sense of accomplishment that just can't be undervalued. It's an acknowledgement from a completely unbiased party that you did something well. Even if you're not placing in the top three those high scores are really nice to see.
Doing well in competitions puts your name out there. Be it online, Facebook groups, just in your local homebrew club, or wherever you can start to become known for something. This is especially true for certain styles of beer. When I think of pilsners, stouts, sours, rye beers, and IPAs names come to mind immediately. I know that if I need some advice I can reach out to individuals with some specific knowledge in specific areas and get the right answer. If you're someone who likes being a "go to" person this is for you.
Not a lot to say here either! Medals and prizes are cool. I brought a few into work after MHF last year and it was a cool conversation starter. It's okay to toot your own horn here and there!
Tips for Entering
Know the Style Guidelines
You can find the 2015 BJCP style guidelines here. If you're brewing a certain style read up on how it should turn out here. Where the color should be, how the carbonation should be, how it tastes. Use this as a reference but not a bible. Your beer will certainly do better if it ticks all of the boxes but if, say, your ABV is too high or too low don't count it out. Remember, your beer is being judged on observations, not hard facts.
Because it's not being judge on hard facts we can also get away with a few things, the first of which being entering your beer into a category that you didn't originally intend. Did you brew an American IPA that came out at 8.5%? Maybe it's actually a double IPA. Did it come out a little less hoppy than you intended? Maybe it's closer to an American Pale ale. Did you brew it 10 months ago and now it's hardly hoppy at all? Maybe it's an American Strong Ale now. It can be hard to let go of your beer being the style that you intended, everyone wants to brew perfectly every time, but every batch should be a learning experience! Learn from that brew, enter it into where it should go based on how it came out and take what you learned and apply it to your next batch.
The second thing to note as far as style guidelines go is that some styles are very very close to each other. If I placed two beers in front of you and told you one was a porter and one was a stout you might be able to tell me which was which. On the other hand, if I placed a stout in front if you and told you it was a porter you might be hard pressed to tell me otherwise. Same goes for many of the sour categories, Pale Ale / American IPA, some lager categories and so on. Most breweries that brew Pale Ales are calling them IPAs now simply because they sell better that way. It's okay for you to enter your beer into any and all categories you think it could fit into. You'll learn about your beer better that way and may even end up medaling in each if the beer is particularly good.
Most BJCP competitions these days allow you to enter one beer per subcategory. As an example, let's use category 21: IPA. In 21 - IPA there are two subcategories which are 21A - American IPA and 21B - Specialty IPA. Within 21B - Specialty IPA there are multiple...sub-sub categories? Not sure what the word here is, but styles like Black IPA, Belgian IPA, and NEIPA all fit in here. In any case, because there are only two subcategories you can only enter two beers for category 21, one for 21A and one for 21B. For 21B it can only be one of the styles that falls under that subcategory. Because you can enter multiple beers per category, however, that means that it's entirely possible to place multiple times. You could take first and second in IPA if you entered 21A and 21B as categories are usually judge together with all subcategories.
As with anything, check the rules first though. That's not a hard and fast way each competition is ran. Some may just allow one per category and some may just be one beer total!
If you have the time, the energy, and the beer make sure to enter competitions whenever you get the chance. I like to a max out the number of entries allowed and plan what I'm going to brew from there. It's not uncommon for me to have a few bottles of beer that "ages well" like an RIS or Wee Heavy so those will occasionally fill up a few spots and the rest get planned accordingly. Take the opportunities to get that precious feedback. One off pieces of feedback may not reveal a lot about your beer but if common patterns start emerging you can use that to dial in changes that you may need to make. Repetition is key!
Don't Mention It...
If the competition doesn't require you to give them information about your beer don't give it to them. If you added coffee and vanilla into your stout let them pick that out. If you specifically point out that you added these two things the judges are going to be looking for them and looking hard. If those flavors are too weak or too strong for what they feel is appropriate for the style you'll get dinged some points. If you didn't mention it, they may pick those up on their own and judge your beer completely differently.
In a real example from Jason:
Don’t say it’s a vanilla java milk stout if you cant clearly taste the vanilla and the coffee…. In my first version of my Raspberry Milk Stout I was actually going for a Peach Melba flavor, this is a desert with Peaches and Raspberries over vanilla ice cream. I added 5 pounds of Peaches, 5 pounds of Raspberries, a few vanilla beans, and some lactose. However the peach flavor was completely undetectable. In one small competition where I mentioned all the fruit additions, I was marked down for no peach and very little vanilla flavor. I entered the same beer in another competition as a Raspberry Milk Stout and it took a gold. So do not set the judges expectations unless you can deliver.
Make it Your Own
Everyone sort of has a "house flavor". Use that to your advantage. If you have awesome well water for stouts make some bangin' stout. Use specialty malts (potentially sparingly) to bring out extra flavors. Maybe just a little more biscuit malt here or a little honey malt there. Differentiating your beer can be the difference between gold and silver when the tastes start to blend. Jason mentioned that palate fatigue is a very real thing and if your IPA just has a little bit more of a hop bite or potent aroma that may put you on top.
Timing your brew day in relation to when the competition is can be crucial to the quality of the end beer. Some beers taste better the fresher, some like to age a bit, some take longer to ferment, some have multiple stages of fermentation they need to get through, and the list goes on. Your beer is also not likely to be drank right away either. It's not uncommon for the time between shipping and judging to be a few weeks or more. NHC is notorious for this, with some judging centers being more than six weeks out from the time that shipping took place. If you account for the time that you spent brewing, fermenting, and carbing your beer it would be likely that any beer sent to such a judging location would be at least two months old by the time it's tasted! Not only this, but if you have a plan to send in multiple beers then some organization needs to take place in order to gauge what fermentation vessels you have open, when you have space in your fermentation chamber, when you need to buy ingredients, make starters, brew the beer. It can be a mess!
It's because of all of the organization required that in the last year I've began using a spreadsheet to help with my timing.
You can find the spreadsheet above here.
Using this I'm able to gauge what fermentation vessel I have open (they're different colors), when I need to cold crash, when I need to keg, when I feel I can pull my beer out of my fermentation chamber, and so on. Not necessarily all in that order...
Utilizing this method I can figure out when a beer needs to be shipped and work backwards from a date and plan my dates.
Score Sheets and Scoring
I'm not going to retype the scores from the slide but I will go into just a little bit of detail regarding some of the individual scoring pieces and scoring tiers.
First, take a close look at where some of the points are coming from. Appearance, for example, is only worth 3 points. That's out of 50. If your pilsner has just a bit of haze in it it's not the end of the world, you're not missing out on much. If, however, it tastes incredibly hoppy and bitter you may lose out a lot of points on Flavor which is worth 2/5ths of your total score. Try to hit those high point pieces first and worry about the rest as you're refining your recipe and processes.
With regards to the scoring tiers, first you're never going to see a 50. There's just no such thing as a perfect beer, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try! The most common scores that win are going to be in the 30-37 and 38-44 tiers with, I believe, the 30-37 being more common. Tiers do tend to waver a little from category, however. Sour / Wild beers are often scored very high in general, as are most high ABV beers. A winning score could very well be something like a 33 for Czech Beer while a 44.5 (Sorry David) Wild Ale only nets you an honorable mention.
Along with your scores judges will often provide written feedback. Sometimes it can be more helpful than other times but try to take it to heart regardless. Generally the feedback points more to specific strengths and weaknesses that the beer has and will leave it up to you to figure out how to play on said strengths and resolve said weaknesses. Sometimes the feedback won't be helpful and that's okay too, judges are pressed for time so take it with a grain of salt that they probably would have given better feedback had the time allowed. Jason has taken a 19.5 point beer and, with feedback from competition comments, raised that score to a 42 at it's highest (so far).
Packing and Shipping Beer
Lastly some tips on actually getting your beer to the place it needs to go.
Ensure proper bottling, capping, and labeling:
- Use 12 oz plain brown glass bottles
- Use high fill levels, less O2 in the top of the bottle means a fresher beer
- Use unmarked or blacked out caps
- Rubber Band competition label around bottle. DO NOT TAPE THEM.
- If not individually bagging your bottles put your labels in a plastic bag before attaching with a rubber band. In the case of an accident this will help keep your bottles identifiable.
To help prevent breaks and leaks:
- Wrap bottles in bubble wrap and seal in zip lock bags
- Line your shipping box with a trash bag
- Consider using beer shippers
As far as actually shipping the bottles:
- DO NOT USE USPS, it's illegal to ship beer through USPS. At least for us as homebrewers. With FedEx and UPS it's against policy but you can get away with it
- Look into pre made shippers. Popular ones as of late are Spirited Shipers
- It’s recommended to weigh and label your package before dropping off at the shipping center to avoid conversation
- If asked, do not specify that you are shipping beer. Instead use:
- AHA Recommends “Glassware”
- Yeast Samples
- Home made soda
- Jam / Jelly
- Custom Glass Trophies
- Snow Globes
The following homebrew competitions are taking place locally so make sure to check them out! We can't wait to hear about how you do! More information on the competitions that don't have websites yet to follow as information comes up!
C.R.A.F.T. Vs Cancer
Michigan Homebrew Festival Collab Brew
Michigan Homebrew Festival Gang Brew Competition
O’Connors Store Homebrew Competition
Keeper of Craft Draft
Bell’s Homebrew Competition
Stormcloud Brewing Homebrew Competition