Homebrewing competitions: what is it like to enter a beer

Silver medal - Scottish Homebrewing Competition
photo by Karen Howie

Well I promised an update on my entries to the home brewing competition but I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a little more than an update. I thought this was a good chance to talk about what it’s like to enter a home brewing competition and what to expect if you do. I know from experience that it’s intimidating to take your beer and have someone you don’t know drinking and judging it but hopefully in this blog post I can put your fears aside and show you that it is a very worthwhile endeavor.

So what is and what happens at a home brew competition?

It kinda does what it says on the tin, you enter beer to be drunk and then judged. Now I know you are thinking “but my friends do that for me”. Well yes this is true, however you don’t get the same beneficial feedback from friends drinking your beer as you do from someone completely impartial who doesn’t know you  or even who’s beer they are drinking. The judges at home brewing competitions are specifically there to give you feedback on how you can improve your beer, where it may have flaws and what could have caused them, as well as the good feedback when it’s deserved obviously.

So how does it work?

Most competitions are fairly similar, there is a set of guidelines on the beers you can enter and what they should be like. For me, this tends to be competitions using a system called BJCP. BJCP give very specific guidelines on everything to do with a style of beer. That way every IPA is being judged based on a style guide which means they should all meet similar standards for colour, bitterness, body etc. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to judge a beer competition where you could enter a porter against a bitter against a rye beer?

So once the beers are all entered, different judges are assigned to taste and judge the different beers, in most cases there will actually be more than one judge who will taste and give you feedback on your beer. Because the styles are set before the competition, the judging should all be fairly similar as they are all looking for the same things.

What is the feedback like?

Well the feedback is way more in-depth than you are going to get from friends, not only do they tell you if there are flaws or off flavours in your beer, but they tell you what in your process may have caused them and how you can correct it next time. It really is invaluable feedback to improve your brewing. Importantly, you don’t have to be nervous, the feedback is always constructive and never nasty. Truthful yes, but never nasty. To let you see, here are two judging sheets from my recent entries.

This one shows some really positive feedback, it described what they tasted, tells me the beer was good but also tells me what I could do to improve it…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next sheet is the one with the least positive feedback, this is the beer which scored the lowest but as you can see the feedback is not personal and not nasty, it just states mater of factly what’s good and what’s not and gives pointers on improving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How do I go about it then, how do I brew a competition beer?

Let’s be honest, while we enter competitions for a source of objective feedback about our beers, deep down, we want to win. Isn’t that why they’re called competitions? The simple answer is brew the best beer you can that fits the style you plan to enter, but that’s easier said than done.

Follow the Style Guidelines
Beers in competitions are judged based on how accurately they exemplify the style. The judges will be reading the style sheet over and over as they taste beers and comparing the beer they are drinking with the guidelines. When most people enter a competition, they brew a beer that sits slap bang in the middle of the style guidelines. It’s a safe way to make sure your beer is “to style” right? Well maybe not. If the judges have to taste 30 beers that all taste similar, pushing your boundaries a little can help your beer stand out. Think about it, if you taste 10 bitters and they are all of a pretty same colour, malt profile and IBU, your palette will lose its excitement but if that second to last beer you taste is a little bit punchier, a little bit hoppier etc., it’s going to stand out from the rest. Ok this could backfire if your beer is the first one tasted but you get my idea. I usually try to enter a middle of the road beer and one that’s a little bit closer to the “top” of the style.

It’s a risk, but playing the odds can sometimes make a difference.

Good technique and controllable fermentation
This is the most general tip, but also the most important. It’s really hard to score well in competitions with beers that have flavours caused by stressing out the yeast. Use the proper amount of yeast, whether dry or liquid, and control the temperature you ferment at.  More often than not, this alone will put your beer ahead of the group.

If you haven’t done this already, I absolutely recommend building yourself a fermentation chamber where you can control the temperature. I build one out of an old fridge.

See my post on how I did this.

Bottling
If you bottle your beer rather than keg, find a way to reduce the amount of yeast in the bottle. Cold crash, or consider a secondary. You want only a thin layer of yeast at the bottom of your bottles. If there’s too much yeast at the bottom, that’s most likely going to be stirred back up and your beer will not be as clear. You won’t lose a huge amount of marks but it’s about giving the right impression.

First Impressions
Appearance and carbonation might only count for a few points on the score sheet, but they have a much greater effect on the judges perception of your beer. If the bottle is a gusher, their mind will instantly jump to it being infected. If the bottle is flat, the flavors in the beer will be subdued. If the beer is crystal clear they will assume you know what you are doing. First impressions go a long way. A properly carbonated, brilliantly clear beer makes a great first impression on the judges. They’ll have that in their mind as they evaluate your beer, and you may score higher even if there are some slight flaws in other areas.

Results
However, when you get your score sheets back, take the scores you receive with a grain of salt. One judge may love IPAs and so score yours well where the next judge may not be a fan and so not score you as highly. The important thing is the feedback not the score. I showed you the score sheet which had the most negative feedback and the lowest score of 13, however that same beer was scored in the high 20s by another judge, although the feedback was still pretty similar.

Lastly, don’t be upset if your beer doesn’t score as well as you hoped. Competitions first and foremost should be fun, and are an excellent source of objective feedback. Crack open a bottle of your beer as you read the judges notes and try to see if you can tell why they gave each bit of feedback. This will go a long way towards helping you evaluate your beer, find flaws, and improve your technique. And isn’t that what the point of all this is, better beer?

Gold , silver and bronze medals - Scottish Homebrewing Competition
Photo by Karen Howie

So how did I do?

 

  • Gold for my bitter
  • Silver for my American Pale
  • Gold and Bronze for my English IPAs

Incidentally, that Bitter got silver last year and didn’t place at all the year before. Good feedback from the judges each year has helped me make the necessary improvements year on year.

 

 


My favourite recipes from this years medal winning beers

Bespoke Bitter – Gold Medal

Beer Style: Ordinary Bitter
Recipe Type: all-grain BIAB
Yield: 10 litres
Original Gravity: 1.034

Ingredients:

  • 1.4 kg – Golden Promise (84.8%)
  • 0.1 kg – Cara Malt (6.1%)
  • 0.1 kg – Dark Crystal 77L (6.1%)
  • 0.05 kg – Munich (3%)
  • 7 g – Challenger 6.5% Boil 60 min
  • 5 g – East Kent Goldings 5% Boil 60 min
  • 8 g – Styrian Goldings 4.2%Boil 20 min
  • 15 g – East Kent Goldings 5% Whirlpool 20 min

Additional Instructions

Boil: 60 Minutes
Mash: 67c for 60 mins then 75c mash out  for 10mins.
Ferment: 2 weeks at 18c

Watch me making this beer on my youtube channel

 

 Fixed Gear  – Bronze Medal

Beer Style: English IPA
Recipe Type: all-grain BIAB
Yield: 10 litres
Original Gravity: 1.037

Ingredients:

  • 2.3 kg – Golden Promise (97.9%)
  • 0.05 kg – Dark Crystal 77L (2.1%)
  • 37 g – East Kent Goldings, Type: Leaf/Whole, AA: 5, Boil 60 min
  • 12 g – Fuggles, Type: Leaf/Whole, AA: 4.5, Whirlpool
  • 10 g – East Kent Goldings, Type: Leaf/Whole, AA: 5, Dry Hop for 4 days
  • 20 g – Target, Type: Leaf/Whole, AA: 11.5, Dry Hop for 4 days

Additional Instructions

Boil: 60 Minutes
Mash: 66c for 60 mins then 75c mash out  for 10mins.
Ferment: 2 weeks at 18c

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