Brewing beer is reward in itself. You get to take part in a centuries old craft, turning simple ingredients into something so much more. You even get to enjoy fresh beer in the style of your choosing. What more could you want?
Well, some also seek affirmation from their peers that their efforts are worth it. It’s not too hard to get positive feedback from family and friends after quaffing a free home brew. While appreciative of their approval, I’ve found I can get more critical feedback by entering homebrewing competitions.
I’ve only entered 2 BJCP sanctioned competitions the Samual Adams Longshot competition, and the New England Regional Homebrew Competition. These are large scale competitions, with hundreds of entries, and bjcp certified judges. The BJCP program trains judges to detect beer flaws and rate beer against it’s guide lines. Which means you’ll get qualified feedback, in a standardized format (BJCP scoresheet).
The feedback on my score sheets has been useful, and has provided information I’m certain will help me score better in future competitions. Note, I didn’t say help me brew better beer/cider. I find there is subjective feedback about brewing methods or assumptions about brewing methods that I don’t think are very helpful. I also think the rigid structure can lead to judging against how a beer is to style, more specially being dead in the middle of the style guidelines appears to be goal, and this may not reflect how good a specific home brew is. However, there are some very objective feedback about how various aspects of the beer can be tweaked, and what flaws the judge identified that is very helpful. After all, the judges have a well train taste buds. There are also some guidelines I feel aren’t about the beer, but rather about presentation. Meaning you can get dinged for things that otherwise are meaning less in the big scheme of things, such as bottle fill level, or higher levels of hop flavor or aroma for a particular style. With that said, it’s an opportunity I think a home brewer should take the time to do at least a few times, perhaps even while trying to hone a particular style. To get impartial feedback on your beer.
Here are some recommendations for picking a competition for your first entry, and how to prepare your entry.
First off, pick out a local competition. Having the competition local will make it a lot easier to drop off your entries, rather than shipping them. There are complications to shipping that are better dealt with after you’ve figured out the other competition logistics. It also gives more time to brew, if you have up to the last day to drop of the beer, and don’t have to wait for delivery. You want to ensure is that your beer isn’t going to be mishandled during delivery. When picking the competition, make sure you have enough time to get the beer packaged for it. Enough time to brew, dry hop, carbonate / bottle condition, etc. You don’t want to trying to force your beer to be ready for drop off. If bottle conditioning, make sure your beer is at the proper carbonation level. For your first competition, you may want to consider a style that doesn’t require being at the peak of freshness, or a very popular category (IPA/Pale Ale), brew something you know you do well, but more importantly brew something you know you brew well that is in the middle of the road for that category. Brewing a hoppy wheat, or some other beer outside the style guidelines isn’t going to score well, no matter how good it tastes. I recommend picking bottles that have the right fill level, don’t grab any low or high fills. Make sure if you’ve bottle conditioned, that they are carbonated to the correct level, if you are using a counter flow or other bottle filler, the same goes. Ensure you have a good fill level, and after a few days, make sure your carbonation holds up. These are easy items that will keep you from getting dinged for ‘free’ points. Also make sure you read the style guidelines for the category you are submitting. For example, if you are submitting a cider, make sure to specify the adjuncts and flavorings used, as well as the carbonation level. I’m unsure if that is required for other styles, but I certainly got dinged for not including ginger as a flavoring in my cider.
After brewing, bottling, dropping off, whats next? Unless you are a winner, expect to not hear anything back for some time. It takes a while for the organizers to get those sheets back into the mail. When you do get them back, expect 2-3 score sheets, and an assigned score sheet. The individual score sheets will contain the judge info, including an email address and the scoring. Which might be helpful if you have questions about specific feedback, but keep in mind judges reviewed many beers that day, and unless your beer was really good or really bad it’s unlikely to be memorable for them. Keep in mind that feedback is both subjective and objective, and that it’s intended to be constructive, not tear you down, It’s trying to point out where you can improve in the future. Don’t get down if you beers only score in the twenties, that’s the best mine have done so far, it’s just more room for improvement.