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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.