The Proving Grounds

A lot of people have asked me recently about competition brewing.  As the world of craft and homebrewing continues to grow the want to showcase your created brews and see how they hold up against those made by other people continues to gain popularity.

Truth be told, there is no shortage of competitions out there.  There are competitions on nearly a daily basis somewhere in the states or throughout the world.  However, while it would be easy to enter one competition after another, for anyone interested in getting involved with competitions it is incredibly important to not only understand the rules and regulations, but also learn how to pick and choose the “correct” competitions to enter.

So first, what should a person look for in a competition?  There are several different types of competitions, however brewers are not necessarily eligible for every type of competition, nor should a brewer believe they are qualified for everything out there.  Competitions are not free, in fact with the cost of shipping, entry into a competition is not cheap, therefore it is important to know what competitions you are entering so that your efforts, time and money are not wasted.

BJCP Sanctioned events:  The gold-standard in competitions, BJCP sanctioned events set the bar in terms of competing.  When looking for a competition to enter the first thing anyone should look for is to make sure that the competition is BJCP sanctioned. (Here is a list of current competitions) While there are plenty of unofficial competitions, such as local homebrew club competitions, the truly worthwhile events, the ones that will truly test your beer and see how it holds up against other quality competitors are those sanctioned by the BJCP.  These events are judged by licensed BJCP judges, experts in the world of beer that have gone through rigorous and incredibly difficult testing in order to be deemed qualified to be named judges.  These events are of high quality and standards.  They are not easy but they will be the best possible barometer to test your beer’s quality.

Location:  BJCP events occur on a global level.  However, just because you think it would be exciting to enter and possibly win a competition in Argentina does not mean that entering that competition is a logical idea.  Keep in mind that when entering a competition this means that you are required to find a way to get your beer, cider or mead to the competition safely, timely and efficiently.  Keeping this in mind, I encourage anyone new to the competition scene to remain somewhat local for at least their first few competitions.  By remaining “close to home”, you garuntee a couple of important things.  First that your beer will be as fresh as possible, and secondly that you won’t break the bank attempting to ship your beer across the country, or even more costly to another country all together.  I have entered competitions all across the United States and one thing I have learned is that sending a beer to Las Vegas as opposed to New York City from Massachusetts results in the judges drinking two very different beers.  Temperature changes and handling during the shipping process cause flavor development (most often of the negative type) to occur.  When you ship a beer via UPS or something along those lines, they are not treating your package in a way that ensures “freshness”.  I remember entering the same beer in both a Boston based compeitition and one in Vegas.  The beer came in 2nd place in style in the Boston competition, (a competition I personally delivered the beers to), but scored extremely low in Vegas.  I honestly believe this was not a discrepency between the quality of judges, but rather over the course of the shipping process the beers sent to Vegas were “compromised” leading to less then quality beer during the competition.  I encourage joining local competitions at first for two major reasons.  First fresh beer delivered safely results in the best possible score your beer could receive.  In order to avoid discouragment that is unwarranted reducing the number of possible variables will help give you the best possible experiences with your beer.  Secondly most of these competitions are part of a larger festival and there is nothing like attending the festival in person and being there for the announcement of the winners, regardless of if you placed or not.

Requirements and Limitations:  Not every competition is a wide open event.  Read the fine print and know what you are attempting to enter.  There are competitions that are style based, such as lager only events.  There are mead and cider events that won’t even recognize beer.  There are brew club only events where anyone not a member of a qualifying homebrew club are not eligible.  In other words, while most of these competition coordinators will inform you that you are not eligible before taking your money, there are exceptions.  Nothing is more aggrevating then sending a check and beer to a competition only to find out that your check was cashed but your beer was ineligible.  You are not protected and people will take your money.  Make sure you are entering an event that you qualify for, you won’t always win, I promise you that, but getting your scores and critiques back help you become a better brewer, so at the very least you want to be in the proper position to do that.

Presentation:  This is not an exterior beauty competition.  Labels and caps won’t earn you any sort of brownie points, in fact, they will get you disqualified.  In terms of visual reprsentation let your beer do the talking.  In regards to the packaging, “keep it simple stupid”.  Judges want absolutely no distinguishing marks.  Use plain unlabeled brown 12 oz bottles with plain caps.  If you have caps with some sort of a design, take a sharpie and black it out completely.  Competitions are meant to be completely anonymous

The Drop-off:  This pertains mainly to anyone doing a local competition.  Obviously if you have to ship your entries then the care and delivery of the beer is out of your hands.  However, if the competition is local you are in control of who you ask to deliver your beer.  Generally, every competition has mutiple drop-off points, ranging from restaurants, to local homebrew shops, to breweries; more often than not there are several place you could bring your beer to drop it of as an official entry.  However, and I hate admit it, not every drop-off spot “cares”.  Let’s be honest these people have no stock, or anything to gain in your beer winning, never mind “entering” the competition.  While they don’t purposely “misplace” or forget to drop of your beer, it happens.  My suggestion is to find a reliable source, a place with a high volume of drop-offs that you know the competition coordinators will follow up with to make sure they collect the beers.  In other words, make sure your beers make it to the competition.

Shipping:  Keep in mind that it is technically illegal to ship alcohol, and that broken bottles broken during shipping are not insured.  Therefore I give you the following pieces of advice.  NEVER ship USPS, use a private sector like UPS or FEDEX.  Also take time to package your bottles well.  Wrap them individually, use plenty of protective packaging and make sure they are secure.  It is expensive to ship beer, if a bottle breaks your package will be returned and your money wasted.  It is no impossible to ship beer, but make sure to do it right or it will become a major headache.

Intermission…. Enjoy the tunes!

 

So the good news is, you now, hopefully, know how to select and get your beer to a quality competition, but how do they work? How do you enter?  The first thing to do is to find a competition you wish to enter.  Here is a link to the BJCP sanctioned events.  When looking at the list pay close attention to the entry date.  Most competitions are steadfast in their cutoff date.  Be sure to give yourself the necessary amount of time time to get your beer to the proper people/place.

Once you have picked your competition, it is time to officially enter the competition.  Just about every competition at this point in time has online registration.  Simply follow the websites directions and enter your beer.  When entering a beer keep these important factors in mind.  First enter your beer in the correct category.  The testers/judges know their beer, if you enter the beer in the incorrect category you will be heavily penalized.  If you created something unique even if it is a pale ale at heart, it probably belongs in the specialty category.  To get a better idea of what each specific style entails use the BJCP style guidlines when placing your beer.  If you are ever truly confused over which category your beer belongs in, yet you are very confident in the quality of your beer, my suggestion is to enter it twice in two separate categories.  While it will cost a few extra bucks, (most competitions average about $7 dollars per entry) it will at least ensure that your beer gets correctly judged at some point during the competition.

Finally, if you use specialty ingredients and the entry form asks you to list them…do it!  You can get docked points for failing to explain what that crazy flavor or adjunct is in your beer.  It is always better to be safe than sorry.  While a lot of the entry forms will give you a place to right out the recipe, you don’t necessarily have to.  However, in the case of unique specialty flavors I highly suggest that you do.

One other major suggestion, simply to protect yourself and your beer, is to read the fine print.  Some competitions, where the grand prize BOS winner gets their beer brewed on tap at a certain brewery or restaurant or location, can result in that recipe becoming the property of said location.  Protect your recipes.  If you are ok with possibly losing the rights to your recipe then that is fine, but if you are trying to keep your creation in the family, understand the rules and regulations of the competition you are entering.

Competitions are a ton of fun.  They are stressful and sometimes disappointing, but if you take pride in what you have created and want to see what other, more specialized people think of it, then getting into the world of competition brewing is a must.  Thus far I have received two medals a second place for my 11:11 Tough Udder Milk Stout and a 3rd place for my Rye Humor RPA.  While getting the medals and the prizes were fun, it truly is the feedback and honest opinions of the judges that make it all worthwhile.  I have gained just as much in winning as I have in not placing but learning how to improve the beer that failed to place.  Yes, it is a competition, but it is also an opportunity to get outside taste buds to compliment, critique and ultimately judge the quality of your brewing.  The only true way to get better at craft brewing is to practice and learn from your mistakes and the world of competition brewing is the perfect place to identify, isolate and correct those mistakes.

Before I wrap I figured I would take a chance to show you all what the scoresheets look like and how to read them.  Below are the scoresheets for the 11:11 Brewing Tough Udder Milk Stout.

Page 1 of the scoresheets

Above is the cover sheet from a typical score report.  The cover sheet states your entry number, your averaged score and if your beered placed, what award it was given.  This sheet also explains about the BJCP and their judging program and also explains what the final scores mean in terms of beer quality.  In case the photo is to small to read thr beer rankings are as follows.  (45-50) World-Class, (38-44) Excellent, (30-37) Very Good, (21-29) Good, (14-20) Fair, and (0-13) Problematic.  Furthermore it discusses and explains how each beer is judged on intangibles, technical merit and stylistic accuracy.

Judges scoresheet

Second judges scoresheet

The two photos above show the actual scores presented by each of the two judges.  The judges names as well as their BJCP judging rank are shown at the top followed by an explanation of all the different flavor marks that could be in your beer.  The scoring is then broken down into five categories, Aroma which scores up to 12 points, appearance which scores up to 3 points, flavor which can earn up to 20 points, mouthfeel which can earn up to 5 points, and finally overall impressions which can max out at 10 points.  The sum of these scores give the overall rating for the beer and then that is averaged together with the other judges score to get the beers final rating.  In this case the Stout scored a “40”.  There are also plenty of comments left by the judges in each category that allow you to see both the positives and flaws of your beer.  Finally at the bottom of the page is the score for technical merit, style accuracy and intangibles.

Regardless of what you scored the information and notes that the judges leave you are invaluable, especially when it comes to improving your beers and eventually scoring better at competitions.

Feel free to contact me with any questions about competitions, and if this has helped you decide to jump on board, congratulations and good luck!!!

 

~Until next time….

Categories: Beer, The Mead Corner

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