Nothing beats the satisfaction of impressing your friends with homebrewed beer. It’s great to accept their praise, but even if you’re confident your latest batch is amazing, you have to admit that your friends are a biased audience. Homebrew competitions, on the other hand, offer the chance to get unbiased, honest feedback that may confirm your brewing skills but will certainly help you hone your craft. The possibility of taking home a medal is a great motivator, but even if you have a problem beer, it’s worth entering just to get advice on how to make it better. Some brewers even come to love the challenge of picking a category they don’t already brew and perfecting a recipe. Regardless whether you’re convinced you’ve got a winner, there are some good things to think about before you pack up your beer and send it off to a competition.
Winning Formula: Good Beer That’s in Style
The most important point to remember is that your beer will be evaluated against two different standards: technical execution and how well it matches the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style description. For that first part, the judges are looking for flaws such as off-flavors or signs of infection. Whether these are significant or fairly subtle, they will lower your beer’s score.
At the same time, the judges compare your beer against the details of the BJCP category. For instance, a beer may be technically perfect, but its strong hops flavor would be out of place for a beer entered in the Scottish Heavy (14B) category. So, even if your homebrew is wonderfully drinkable, it may miss the mark for style.
Choose Your Ground
Knowing that your beer will be held to a standard, you should carefully select which category to enter. Read the BJCP Guidelines to understand the nuances. Let’s say you’ve brewed an IPA. The beer’s stats may be within style at the lower end (say 40 IBUs and a starting gravity of 1.056), but unless the hops character is quite assertive, it could do better if you enter it as an American Pale Ale (18B) rather than as an American IPA (21A).
This consideration is particularly important because competitions tend to favor the bigger entries. Extra hops, malt, or other character (within reason) can help a beer make a bigger impression. Similarly, if you can’t really detect the spices or other special ingredients that you experimented with, your beer won’t do well in a specialty category. Instead, you should consider entering it under the base beer style. Finally, there’s the situation where your beer was never intended to fit in a particular category. In this case, you just have to find the closest match based on the style descriptions.
Handicapping the Race
If you’re interested in challenging yourself, it’s good to know that some categories are harder to win than others, either because of the technical difficulty, how much competition you’ll face, judges’ expectations, or rigor of the style specification. A category such as American Light Lager (1A) is very tough, even though you probably won’t be up against a big field; it’s difficult to brew well, and judges will eagerly pounce on any deviation or off-flavor. American Amber Ales (19A), American IPAs (21A), and the various stout (16) subcategories can all be very crowded, which means that it’s harder for your beer to stand out from the herd.
German Wheat Beer (10), on the other hand, is generally an easier category to win. It has a clearly defined style that still allows for some variation; it’s not that hard to brew given the right yeast; and you’ll have less competition. Lager categories such as Märzen (6A) or Munich Helles (4A) are also a good bet if you’re an experienced brewer with the skill and equipment to make them. Clean fermentation and good malt expression can be enough to sweep the judges.
To get a good idea of how many entries a given category might receive, you can check out the American Homebrewers Association’s results for the National Homebrew Competition. Select a year and a judging center, and you’ll see the number of entries under each category name.
Despite all of this, even if you enter the best beer you brew, you can’t directly control how well it does. Maybe you’ll get bragging rights or have a well-scored also-ran. Regardless whether you win, you can make the most of the feedback you get and apply it to your next brew and your next competition. In next week’s article, we’ll look at how to de-code the judges’ score sheets so you can do just that.