The Road to Success in Homebrew Competitions

Homebrew competitions are a bit scary – after all, you are putting your treasured beers into the hands of strangers. My first two entries earned mediocre results (scores between 25 and 28 out of 50 – good, but not great), which was a bit of a disappointment. I thought my beers were better than that! But were they? What, if anything, went wrong?

Lager in glassAs I learned from reading many sources, it’s not enough to brew a good beer – you also have to brew a beer that hits the points that judges are looking for within a flight of entries. Time and introspection have shown the following:

  • Category matters (Part 1). If you’re going to enter a category, make sure you are brewing your beer within the overall style parameters. An otherwise good beer might get dinged for being outside of style, if it’s not a good match. For instance, I submitted a vanilla porter as a robust porter — and that was a mistake. The judges noted “odd” aromas that were almost certainly in part from the vanilla – in fact, one even stated that “The herbal flavor is vanilla, so this beer should have been entered as a specialty [beer].” This is a bit different from the oft-repeated advice that winning beers often push the bounds of categories; after all, a beer can push bounds while still being within believable reach of the style. Stretch boundaries, but not too much!
  • Category matters (Part 2). It’s easier to place in smaller categories, particularly against the odds in big categories with experienced brewers (and there are lots here in SoCal!). This is the reason I haven’t bothered with an IPA, for instance. I really like some of my IPA’s, but am not convinced they would score well against the excellent brews my friends and colleagues are brewing.
  • Fresh, fresh, fresh. I’m really proud of my oatmeal stout, and consider it a good beer (good enough to be a featured recipe in Zymurgy magazine, even!). The one time I entered it in competition, though, the bottles had been sitting around for a few months. One judge suggested some oxidized flavors were at play, and another noted that the beer was a tad thin. I suspect both of these were due (in part) to the age of the brew, with maybe a bit of secondary fermentation in the bottle. Surely there were other facets I could improve, but nonetheless resting at room temperature for months didn’t do the beer any favors. Lesson learned.
  • You have to be on top of your brewing game. I have definitely improved over the past few years, as I pay closer attention to fermentation temperature and such. For instance, I have drastically improved my carbonation procedures (either by carbonating with CO2 or more carefully measuring my priming sugar), which avoid over-carbonation. This can only help in judging!
  • Read the comments. Even if the judges’ assessments of the beer didn’t match my own lofty expectations, I needed to swallow my pride and take their comments seriously. Every entry has two score sheets, and there is naturally a bit of variance. One judge might pick up oxidation, but the other judge might not. Even so, I have seen enough commonalities between scorings that I am willing to listen. If both judges give middling scores, it is probably a middling beer for the purposes of that category.

Although I was disappointed that I didn’t get any medals in my first two competitions, they were a valuable learning experience. Firstly, I gained confidence that my beers weren’t awful. Nothing the judges said indicated that I had tremendous process flaws–it was a matter of relatively minor tweaking to transform decent beer into good beer into great beer. I also gained an understanding of the competition process – brewing for a medal can be (but isn’t necessarily) different from brewing for personal satisfaction. I might have the best vanilla-infused porter on the planet, but it will never do well if the judges are expecting a standard porter.

Renewed Efforts
Based on my initial adequate, but not great, performances, I was a little cynical on competitions. I liked my beer, and many of my friends said they liked my beer, so why bother with the dog-and-pony show of a formal beer competition? I had accepted the lessons mentioned above, but wasn’t confident enough or filled with enough energy to test the waters in another competition.

Thankfully, Horse Thief Brewers kicked my butt into gear. Our president let us know about an upcoming competition, and even graciously offered to transport our entries in person to the drop-off spot.

I submitted four entries, all crafted with competition in mind. To my surprise, I earned two medals! It was a nice boost of confidence to get external validation for some of my brews, particularly after the learning curve of earlier competitions. I don’t know if I’m going to enter every competition that comes my way, but I’ll certainly be trying a few more in the future. The overall process has forced me to consider my technical processes more carefully, and provided some helpful feedback along the way. That has definitely added up to better beer overall. I don’t expect to have such success every time, but I am hopeful for future efforts as a whole, regardless of whether they go to competition.

–Andy Farke, a member of Horse Thief Brewers Association, blogs at www.andybrews.com. This post originally appeared there, and has been edited for length and content.

Meet the Horse Thief Brewers Association!

The Horse Thief Brewers Association is a homebrew club based in San Dimas, California.  Our members are all active in zymurgy pursuits creating beers, meads, ciders and wines in our garages, kitchens, basements and back yards.

Our club meets every third Thursday of the month.  Generally these meetings will occur at Clayton’s Brew Pub located at 661 West Arrow Highway in San Dimas, California.  If you are looking for a new club to join or even just happen to be in the neighborhood don’t hesitate to contact us at info@horsethiefbrewers.com and get more information!

Our meetings average around two hours.  Initially we will talk about any pressing club business followed by enjoying the home brews that everyone brought!  Each homebrew brought to the event is judged using the BJCP 2015 Style Guide to allow honest, subjective feedback to the brewer.  After we’ve enjoyed everyone’s beers and found the best beer brought to the event, we have an educational session.  These educational sessions last around 30 minutes each and focus on a variety of topics revolving around home brewing.  The HTBA is dedicated to increasing the knowledge base and experience level of each and every member.

Join the HTBA today and meet like-minded folks who are enthusiastic about the brewing process!  Members also get a discount at two local homebrew shops in San Dimas and La Verne.  We hope that you will come by and join us; our members are of all experience levels so don’t be shy about bringing some homebrew out if you are new to this amazing hobby!

Make sure to follow us on Facebook, we will update there before and after all our meetings!  We can’t wait to meet you and enjoy some amazing beers in the future.