As brewers, we can be an awfully self-critical lot. “Do you want to try my Mosaic pale ale?” we ask. “It’s not really where I want it yet, and I was out of crystal 40, so I had to substitute 60, but it’s okay.”
And then our best friends rave about how it’s the best beer they’ve ever tasted.
But deep down, we wonder whether they really like it or whether they’re just being nice. Can you really trust friends and family members to be honest? Would you ever tell your dinner host that their homemade simmered-for-hours pasta sauce could use a touch less garlic and a little more salt?
If it’s honest impressions you’re after, entering a homebrew competition is an excellent way to get feedback from trained judges. Maybe you repeatedly brew the same beer—tweaking it from one batch to the next to precisely nail your vision. Or maybe you brew by the seat of your pants and on a whim. Either way, entering a competition is only partly about getting a score. The most valuable part of the experience is the impartial assessment you’ll receive.
Here are a few tips to help you prepare.
Know the Style Guidelines
Beer competitions are most often judged according to the style guidelines published by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). As I write this, the 2008 edition of the style guide remains the most commonly used standard, but a draft of the 2014 guide is available and expected to be made official at some point. The Great American Beer Festival also publishes annually revised guidelines, but these are reserved for GABF.
Beer judges look for very specific things when evaluating the samples they judge, and the scores they assign reflect how well or poorly the example fits within the established style parameters. But a good judge won’t just tell you that your saison needs more yeast character. He or she will also evaluate your beer on its own merits, looking for fermentation flaws, attenuation issues, and other aspects. So even if your beer doesn’t exactly fit the style, the feedback you receive can help you figure out where to tweak your process.
Enter the Right Category
What’s the difference between an English pale and an American pale ale? How about a Northern English brown and a Southern English brown? Where does Bock end and Doppelbock begin? It’s not always clear, but style guidelines are very specific about what belongs where. You can submit the most balanced, fully flavored imperial IPA to ever pass a judge’s lips, but if you enter it as an English pale ale, it probably won’t score very well.
Use Boring (But Clean) Bottles
This isn’t the occasion to break out the bench capper and Champagne magnums. Nor is it time to wash the swing-tops you’ve been saving for a special occasion. Standard unlabeled brown longneck bottles with plain caps are expected unless otherwise specified in the call for submissions. Most judges will assess your beer in the bottle with a flashlight before opening it, and the more closely you stick to the tried-and-true standard, the better.
Unless you live within convenient driving, biking, walking, or hitching distance of the competition center, you’re going to have to ship your homebrew. Do everything you must to ensure that it will be protected en route to the judging center, and then cushion some more. Broken bottles can’t be judged. And before you seal up the box, double check that you’ve followed all of the rules and filled out the right forms.
Don’t Be Afraid
There’s never a wrong time to enter a competition. I submitted the fifth or sixth beer I ever brewed to a competition, and while my scores weren’t high enough to justify heading off to Germany to buy conicals for the world’s next nano, the feedback was incredibly valuable. Perhaps most importantly, the judges actually liked my beer, even though it was out of style for the American pale ale category I entered.
I’m not a competitive person, and I rarely brew specifically for competitions. But every time I’ve done so, I’ve valued the honest feedback of a trained beer enthusiast. I’m sure you will as well.