“If you ain't first, you're last.”
- Ricky Bobby
You’ve heard it before: winning isn’t everything. And certainly when it comes to a brewing competition (homebrew or professional), your beer may be great even if you don’t take home a medal or trophy.
Nonetheless, winning brewing awards can have its advantages. For commercial breweries, awards can help them sell more beer which adds to the bottom line. For homebrewers, awards can provide some validation that the brewer’s recipes and brewing skills are in good working order. And some of those award-winning homebrewers have even turned a buck selling their competition-proven recipes in a brewing book or use these recipes as an important part of planning a commercial brewery.
Not to mention, brewing awards sometimes come with valuable feed-back concerning what things might need to be tweaked to improve said beer.
So as someone who’s won brewing awards and judged in professional and homebrewing competitions, let’s talk about how to maximize getting awards for yourself, or at least improve your odds.
1. Brew to-Style
Like it or not, most brewing competitions are not creativity contests, particularly those like the World Beer Cup, Great American Beer Festival (GABF), Nation Homebrew Competion and any competition judging according to the BJCP Beer Style Guidelines. First and foremost, in such competitions judges are looking for one thing: how well does the beer being judged represent the style of beer in the category in which it was entered. In other words, is the beer brewed to-style? Because beers are judged against certain criteria like those found in the BJCP Beer Style Guidelines or the BA Guidelines (which are both pretty similar), it’s important that the brewer checks which guideline is being used and is familiar with that guideline, and brews their beer accordingly. In other words, creativity counts, but only within the limits of the style guidelines. But to be clear, even within beer style guidelines, there are typically free-for-all (specialty) categories where you can be as creative as you want.
In brewing competitions that don’t judge beer according to a style guideline, check to see what the criteria is and have fun. Yeah, that advice was a bit Captain Obvious, but tips 3-15 below still apply to those random competitions.
2. Know the Best to be the Best
Although knowing the beer style guidelines that you’re being judged against and even closely following a style-appropriate recipe will take you far, they are no substitute for having gained an understanding of the style by experiencing world-class commercial (or homebrewed) examples of the particular beer style that you’re brewing. The BJCP Style Guidelines will often list excellent commercial examples of respective beer styles, but you can also find highly rated beers of a given style on various beer ranking websites like RateBeer or BeerAdvocate. Depending on where you live, it might be difficult to track down a few world-class examples of the beer style you’re interested in, so you may want to consider a beer trade or a trip to a bigger city where you can get your hands on a greater variety of beer.
When sampling examples of world-class beer, do yourself a big favor and TAKE TASTING NOTES! When taking notes, it pays to be analytical, focus only on the beer, pick apart the aroma and flavor components, and understand the balance of the beer. If you’re new to beer tasting, consider using a BJCP beer score sheet to help guide you on what things to look for when evaluating beer, and use the descriptions in the BJCP Style Guidelines to help develop your tasting vocabulary. The more world-class examples of various beers you can experience, the more you gain an understanding of the essence of the underlying beer style. When brewing, it’s not necessary to replicate a specific world-class example of a particular beer style (although awards can certainly be won doing so), but it is necessary to express the essence of a given style as closely as possible, and that is best done by first experiencing those beers that have come the closest to perfection within their respective style, and then researching how that beer style is brewed.
Arguably, even the best examples of a given beer style do not perfectly reflect the style of beer they are attempting to represent, therefore it is possible to exceed the best by more closely approaching perfection, and this is your target.
3. Name Changer = Game Changer
Sometimes you brew a recipe of one style of beer, and for whatever reason the beer ends up tasting more like some other beer style. In these cases, you increase your odds of winning by entering your beer into the style category that the beer best appears to be, and not necessarily according to the style you believed you brewed.
For example, in a commercial beer judging competition, a brewery produced a beer that the judging panel thought of as a wonderful Sweet Stout, but for some reason the beer was entered as an American Porter. Had the beer been entered as a Sweet Stout, it may have swept the entire competition. Unfortunately, the beer didn’t even place in the top three. A simple change of the style name could have made all the difference. And think about it: when it comes to awards, if a brewery says that a certain beer of theirs has won multiple awards, how many people do you think question or care if that beer only won those awards for the same beer style?
4. Don’t Mention It
Some brewing competitions will ask you to list any special ingredients used in making your beer, and if you mention an ingredient that isn’t clearly detectable, your score can and likely will suffer. Case in point: I entered a Hefeweizen that was bottle primed with honey, so the beer exhibited only a slight honey character. However because I listed the word “honey” as an ingredient used, my score took a hit and I received notes back indicating I was docked due to a lack of obvious honey character. Lesson? If you brewed with an ingredient that isn’t clearly identifiable in the beer, don’t mention it. Unless you brewed with nuts or fish--- some people are allergic to nuts and fish.
5. Bubbles Matter. A Lot.
Oddly, one of the most overlooked features of beer on the pro and homebrew side is carbonation. Some might think that carbonation level isn't that big of a deal because it only affects mouthfeel which is only worth 5 out of 50 points on a BJCP score sheet, but carbonation actually affects every other section as well.
This is why ensuring that you achieve THE APPROPRIATE CARBONATION LEVEL for your particular beer style is vital to competition success.
Whether you keg or bottle-condition your beer, make sure to do a taste-test of the carbonation level of your bottled beer BEFORE you send it into competition. Some argue that a bottle-conditioned beer will taste better than a keg-to-bottle beer as a result of the mini-fermentation that takes place from priming and naturally carbonating a beer, a practice basically essential for Belgian brewers.
If you keg but want to compare your keg-to-bottle beer against a bottle-conditioned version, simply bottle-condition a few bottles of beer right before kegging, wait three weeks or until the bottle is properly carbonated, and then bottle a second beer directly from the keg. Wait 5-10 days after bottling your kegged beer and sample both to determine which of the two you prefer. Pay special attention to head formation and retention, lacing, mouthfeel, and comparative carbonation level. All of these factors can affect your score.
Special Notice to Pro Brewers: If dropping off a growler or keg-to-bottle beer to a competition, drop it off on the last day to enter so that your beer is as fresh as possible and doesn’t lose carbonation and character like other beers that may have been sitting around for days or weeks.
6. Survival of the Fittest
Create multiple test beers from the same batch by splitting the wort into smaller vessels and make minor tweaks to the mini-batches (like pitching different yeast strains, dry hopping with different hop or wood combos, adding different kinds and amounts of fruit, etc.). Not only can you potentially create multiple beers to enter into different categories by doing this, you can also cherry-pick whichever beer turned out the best to enter.
7. Beta Test
Have your friends and family evaluate your beer and give you honest feedback, particularly those familiar with different beer styles. Take your beer to your local homebrew club and get some feedback from other brewers, some of whom may be beer judges. (Here's the most thorough directory of homebrew clubs in the U.S.) This works especially well if you’ve brewed multiple test beers from the same batch (see tip # 6) and want to poll the audience for which one they like best.
Brew a variety of different beers and enter them into multiple categories to increase your chances of winning awards. You never know, maybe your fruit beer will take it all!
9. The Assistant Brewer Loophole
In some brewing competitions, there are restrictions regarding how many beers you can enter. For example, let’s say you brewed two different, but amazing IPAs. Some competitions mandate that you may enter only one beer of a particular style or particular category. However this rule typically applies only to the head brewer. In other words, if you are brewing with a buddy, you may be able to enter one beer of the same style as the head brewer, and the second beer of the same style as the assistant brewer. After all, there is often little or no difference between the head brewer and assistant brewer. If it makes you feel any better, just swap the head brewer hat during brewing, and voilà you’re now both the head brewer and assistant brewer. We’ll leave it up to you to fight over the awards.
10. You Don’t Have to Outrun the Bear
If you know there are mild to obvious flaws in your beer, expect it to be reflected on your score sheet. That said, it is still possible to win awards with lackluster beer, especially if your competition is weak or there are few entries competing in your category. Moral of the story? You don’t have to outrun the bear to get away; you just have to run faster than the guy next to you. Granted, this strategy is more of a "throw it against the wall and see what sticks" approach, but still stands more of a chance of winning than not entering at all. And yes, this tip is a bit of a double-edged sword because you can win awards this way, but it may depreciate the value of brewing awards by rewarding brewers for brewing meh beer--- not that it’s going to stop breweries from doing it though! (Now you know why average beers win awards.) But to be fair, some people may just be over-critical of their beer and it really is better than they think.
11. Enter, Enter, Enter
If you’re looking to rack up brewing medals and awards, enter your beers into as many brewing competitions as you can. While some brewing competitions enact restrictions on who can enter (like state-specific or club-only competitions), other competitions are open to just about anybody, even out-of-state folks. Here’s a schedule of all BJCP-sanctioned homebrewing competitions in the world. If shipping beer to a competition, take a look at the given competition’s suggestions on how to ship beer. One tip though: if you’re in the U.S., do not use the US Postal Service to ship alcohol… it’s one of those "illegal" kind of things. Other commonly cited tips on shipping beer for competitions are package your bottles carefully, ship with FedEx or UPS, and label your shipment as “liquid yeast samples”.
12. Follow Brewing Best-Practices
Despite many of the competition-winning techniques described in this article, the bottom line is the better beer you produce, the greater your odds of winning are. And sometimes there are just a few simple tweaks that stand between good beer and great beer, so read and apply The Top 40 Ways to Improve your Brew.
13. Takes One to Know One
Want to know first-hand how beer judges judge your beer? Then consider becoming a beer judge yourself. It’s often a lot easier than you might think. For example, many beer competitions require no experience or special knowledge to judge a beer. Just register and show up. Of course in BJCP homebrewing competitions, those who have little or no judging experience are often paired with a more experienced judge, so you can learn the ropes. How do you find these homebrew competitions? You could join your local homebrew club (Here’s a directory of all homebrew clubs in the U.S.), or just go straight to the source and check out this list of all BJCP sanctioned homebrew competitions in the world.
If you actually want to become a real-deal BJCP beer judge, it’s also not terribly difficult. Here is a thorough and straight-forward tutorial on how to become a BJCP judge.
14. Play to the Crowd
In competition, similar beer styles are often grouped and judged together as with the BJCP “Standard American Beer category” that consists of American Light Lager, American Lager, Cream Ale, and American Wheat Beer. The winner of that category may then go on to compete in the best-of-show category against a number of other beer styles. This means that even if you brewed the best American Light Lager the world will ever know, chances are it may not win against other beer styles in its own category, let alone make it to the best-of-show round against other more flavorful beer styles regardless if the other styles are technically not as well brewed as the Light Lager.
Is this fair? No. But that’s how competitions often work. So if it’s awards that you’re after, it pays to know the trends and play to the crowd. Nowadays, that often means an Imperial Barrel-Aged dark beer of some kind or a somewhat well-balanced sour will be favored to win, although keep regional tastes in mind too. Brewers used to play the crowd-pleaser card by entering IPAs and IPA variants, but with IPA styles having saturated both homebrewing and pro brewer circles, it means that the bar for IPA styles has been raised ridiculously high, making it more difficult to wow judges and win in that category.
15. The Numbers Game
Speaking of IPAs, the excessive popularity of this trendy style is often reflected in brewing competitions by the sheer number of IPAs entered. Assuming that all of the IPAs entered are about the same in quality, your odds of winning in that over-represented category are therefore reduced, which then further reduces your odds of making it to the final best-of-show round. The flip-side of this is to enter a flavorful well-brewed beer in a less crowded category to potentially increase your chances of winning.
16. Don’t Sweat the Uncontrollables
As objective as beer judges try to be, lady luck still has a hand in brewing comps. For one thing, placement in the lineup can influence success. For example, if your beer isn’t sampled until the end of the day, judges may be suffering from palate fatigue and varying degrees of intoxication, which can affect your score sheet. Other uncontrollable factors may also play a part, including the relative experience of the judges, style bias, how many beers are entered into your particular category, how tough your competition is, and beer handling--- particularly keg-to-bottle/growler beer losing carbonation if the beer sits around too long.
Serving temperature can also play a critical role in judging beer, a role that is often overlooked and uncontrolled. For example, an experiment was done where two of the same beers were entered into competition in the same category, and both bottles of beer were put on the judges table at the same time and judged one after the other, but one beer scored a 34 and the other a 40. How could such a large discrepancy in scores be possible for the "same beer"? Temperature change. Remember, both beer bottles were brought out ice cold at the same time, but both beers were not judged at the same time. One beer is judged ice cold over the course of anywhere from 10-20 minutes, which allowed the other beer to warm up. Because the cold can hide the character of a beer (flaws or not), the same beer served at two different temperatures can have differing scores. Long story short, your beer might be ideal served at one temperature, but there's no telling exactly at what temperature it will be judged.
What’s more is that often times a beer’s score and whether or not a beer advances depends on a conversation or a vote from the judges. Depending on how persuasive a judge(s) can be, regardless if that opinion(s) is correct, it can determine the fate of your beer. And then of course there’s always that judge who somehow manages to pick out diacetyl or under-attenuation in almost every beer he samples just so he can sound fancy by using the word “diacetyl" or "under-attenuated". To compensate for some of these uncontrollables, enter the same beer in multiple competitions to collect more data points for a fuller picture.
17. Goldilocks Timing
Different styles of beer reach peak maturity after different amounts of time. For example, big boozy beers often require several months before they are in their prime (certain sour beers can take years to mature), whereas other beers like bold hop-forward beers like IPAs are best served as soon as possible. Therefore, you can create a brewing calendar to brew certain beer styles based on their respective predicted peak maturity dates for particular competitions you want to enter, or just enter your beers into whichever competition is available once your beer hits peak maturity.
18. Many from the One
Sometimes you can brew a single beer that straddles two or more different beer styles and then enter the same beer under different styles or categories to rack up multiple awards. For example, the American IPA and American Pale ale BJCP beer styles overlap, so if brewing either beer style, you might enter the same beer in both categories and see what happens. You might do the same with other similar styles such as Belgian Quads, Belgian Strong Dark ale and Belgian Dubbel, or German Helles Exportbier, Kölsch and Munich Helles, even Irish Stout, Irish Extra Stout, American Stout and American Porter, and many more. Even experienced judges have difficulty determining the difference between some of the more nuanced beer styles, so have fun picking up awards in the gray area!
19. The Ringer
Doing well in one competition may be a fluke. Doing well in a dozen competitions against hoards of other brews means you have a battle-tested warrior of a beer that is your new ringer. Enter your ringer into as many competitions as possible, slay the competition, and reap the spoils of war. Uh, but be nice about it.
20. The Obvious
Last but not least, follow the beer competition rules especially with respect to deadlines, payments, quantity of beer required, and any rules regarding the type and condition of bottles submitted. Be mindful about which guidelines are being used to judge your beer (typically either the BJCP Beer Style Guidelines or the GABF Beer Style Guidelines), and label your entry accordingly. And last but not least, it behooves you to sample the bottled version of your beer before you enter it into competition.
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