This is the most positive type of feedback you can receive on your homebrew, right? It encapsulates everything you need to know about the quality of your hand crafted liquid art. Unfortunately it is likely completely false.
Feedback from your buddies, coworkers, and even fellow homebrewers is almost entirely biased, and this is especially true if they are giving the feedback directly to your face. The good news is they aren’t necessarily lying to you, at least not intentionally. Most people try to avoid any form of conflict, including negative feedback. They know you’ve worked hard on this beer, they see the pride in your eyes, and can sense the overwhelming need of affirmation you are craving. We can’t fault our friends for being so, well, friendly.
Luckily there is a way to receive critical, non-biased feedback for those who really want to become better brewers. Homebrew competitions are designed around the premise of providing you with the details of the aroma, appearance, mouthfeel, flavor, and finally, the overall impression of the beer. Each of those sections are scored independently, and summed together to give a final score. The overall impression area is also used as an opportunity for the judge to provide tips for improvement.
Sounds perfect, right? Unfortunately not all competitions are created equal. The quality of the judges, the competition organizer, etc. all play a huge role on how well a competition is ran. This can have a direct effect on the quality and speed you receive your results. How can you be sure the competition you entered is worth-while? There are a few things to look for:
Clubs that consistently put on well ran competitions will see themselves growing the number of entries they receive. It is unlikely homebrewers will keep reentering year after year if the quality of the competition is poor. Though don’t discount smaller competitions entirely. Many comps will set an entry number limit as a hard number they know they can effectively and efficiently manage well.
Another goal for a competition is to ensure each entry is judged by a pair of judges, where at least one of them is a certified beer judge (we can cover the process of the Beer Judge Certification Process (BJCP) in detail in a future posting, but for now you can check out www.bjcp.org). In a nutshell, there are various tiers of certification, which should help recognize those that have spent a considerable amount of time and effort learning about the beer styles, techniques, ingredients, palette training, off flavors, etc. A beer in one competition may score really well, but do poorly in another. This could be from aging, handling, sanitation, or even the judges’ perception. It is important to remember the judges are human, and they are all subject to their personal biases. I have always heard if you want to truly know how your beer is, enter it in at least three competition to get a wide range of feedback.
Now this is the fun part! Most competitions will award 1st through 3rd places in each category with either medals or ribbons. Often times they will have a few large prizes to recognize the top beers in the entire competition, known as the Best of Show. These are usually high-value items and/or plaques designating the great achievement. A few of the best competitions will be able to offer prizes to each of the category winners, in addition to the BOS. Most of these prizes are donated via a sponsorship from the particular vendors. Half Yankee Workshop helped sponsor the Kansas City Bier Meister’s 33rd Annual Competition in 2016. It was a great opportunity to allow the participants to view the quality of the tap handles and bottle openers, as we had them on display throughout our competition (which is a multi-day event) along with other great prizes from many other vendors.
Now we know the benefits of entering competitions, how exactly do you do it? We will focus on the Brew Competition Online Entry & Management (BCOEM) application. It is the most widely used competition entry software. It also has the benefit of being open-source and free. I’ll use screen shots from our recent competition to guide you through the process.
Click on the Register link from the menu bar to begin signing up. Here is also where you will select if you are available to judge or steward. I would highly recommend to volunteer for one of these roles if you are able. It is a great experience, and you can learn a lot observing the judges.
Next you will enter your personal information to create an account with the competition.
Once your account has been setup, you can start detailing your entries into the system. Click on Add an Entry. You can give your entry a creative name, which in itself can be fun. Many competitions will read the entry name out loud during their awards ceremony. You will need to select the category/subcategory for the style that matches your beer. Some categories will require additional information in order to provide the judges with everything they’ll need to properly evaluate it.
While logged in, you will see a listing of all the entries you have submitted, and their current status (i.e. if the entry has been marked as paid). It also allows you to edit your entry’s information.
When you are all done, you can click on the Pay My Fees link. Many competitions accept various methods of payment, including PayPal and Google Wallet.
You’ll need to print and attach entry labels to each of your bottles (use a rubber band to secure the label to the bottle. Avoid using tape, glue, or other adhesives). Typically you will not be able to print the labels until your entry has been flagged as paid in the system.
If the competition is local, it is best to drop off the entries in person, at the last possible date they allow. After it leaves your hand, you are no longer in control of how the bottles are handled and treated. Delaying your entry gives you the most possible control, which may help give you a slight advantage.
Careful attention is needed if you are shipping your entries. DO NOT SHIP VIA US POSTAL SERVICE.
Title 18, Part I, Chapter 83, Section 1716, Paragraph (f) of the United States Code:
All spirituous, vinous, malted, fermented, or other intoxicating liquors of any kind are nonmailable and shall not be deposited in or carried through the mails.
Images from: http://homebrewhacking.com/preparing-and-shipping-beer-for-the-national-homebrew-competition/
If you become serious about competitions, you’ll pick up a few strategies. Keep detailed notes on beers you brew – not just during the brewing process, but also tasting notes as the beer ages. Many, if not most, beers have a definite peak when it is at its best. Try to plan your brewing schedule out ahead of the competition, so your entry is submitted at its optimal condition. For example, a 1 month old IPA and a 6 month old imperial stout are likely to be better than a 6 month old IPA and a 1 month old imperial stout.
You can try playing the odds, and enter categories that typically have a lower number of entries (e.g. Amber Hybrids, Dark Lagers, etc). You’ll have a higher likelihood of placing, but typically these categories can be more difficult to brew (such as requiring lagering abilities).
Evaluate your beer, and determine if might fare better in a different category. Maybe your Munich dunkel actually resembles a Marzen/Oktoberfest more closely. Many competitions allow you to enter the same beer into multiple categories as well.
Entering competitions is a fantastic way to receive feedback, including tips on improving your beer. Whether your goal is to brew the best beer possible or receive medals and recognition, it really can be positive. The Kansas City Bier Meisters host their competition each February if you are looking for a well-ran competition. The American Homebrewers Association also maintains a list of upcoming competitions on their website (http://www.homebrewersassociation.org/). You can also find a list BJCP sanctioned competitions here. This is just another rewarding area of homebrewing to experience and enjoy.
Caleb Schickedanz has been a homebrewer for over six years, and president of the Kansas City Bier Meisters the past two years. He resides near Kansas City, KS, and has actively been involved in the homebrewing and beer community in the area. He holds a National rank in the BJCP, and hopefully soon will be a certified mead judge. Caleb's brew system includes both a typical three-tier gravity setup, as well as an electric brew-in-a-bag system. He enjoys brewing (and drinking) almost all beer styles when he is not busy working as an IT manager.