Opportunities to join homebrewing competitions are available and participating can be quite rewarding. What do I need to know going into a competition? I'm glad you asked.
Many of the competitions are BJCP Sanctioned, which means there is a method and process to scoring the beers. Straight from the website, bjcp.org:
"The purpose of the Beer Judge Certification Program is to promote beer literacy and the appreciation of real beer, and to recognize beer tasting and evaluation skills. We certify and rank beer judges through an examination and monitoring process."Certified judges are experienced and have taken tests to qualify their knowledge of beer and styles. It's not just some newbie saying, "yo dude, that's a mighty fine beer there bro." The BJCP Style Guidelines set the bar for what qualifies as a good beer within the particular style.
While the information below is catered to BJCP Sanctioned competitions, it is good information to follow for any competition. So here is the list.
Four things you need to know before entering a brewing competition.
1. Follow the Entry Rules: Competitions receive hundreds, or even thousands of entries, and at 3 beers per entry it is a lot of bottles to keep track of and sort. Chances are the rules for entering are in place to help ease the work load of managing so many entries and bottle. If you submit your entry without paying attention to the rules, you will easily and quickly be disqualified. Some common rules and good practices are as follows.
- Use clean brown bottles with no labels and no raised logos in the glass.
- When in doubt, use silver or gold crown caps.
- Follow instructions to label your bottles, which usually include a rubber band and a Entry slip of paper for each bottle
- Get the beer to the competition on time. I've seen an entry show up 5 minutes too late and get rejected.
Know also that the rules are meant to help keep things organized and prevent any possibility for special treatment or cheating. "Hey man, that stout in the Sam Adams bottle is mine! Score it high."
2. Brew to Style: In a BJCP competition, beers will be categorized by style and judged according to the style as outlined in the BJCP Style Guidelines. Copies of the Guidelines are available for reference and review at the judging table. You may have the best beer in the world, but if it is entered into the wrong style category it will score low. We judged a beer entered as an Oktoberfect/Marzen which scored low because of caramel flavors. It would make a terrific Scottish Ale but not a Marzen. "I hope he/she entered this as a Scottish too, said one of the judges." Here is a tip...if you aren't sure which style or if is boarders on similar styles, enter it into both. There is no rule against entering the same beer into different styles.
If you are an out-of-the-box type brewer no need to worry. There are specialty categories where your beer will fit. An IPA with peaches added should be entered into the Fruit Beer category. Did you add pumpkin to your Porter? Put it into the Spice, Herb, or Vegetable category. Aged on oak chips? You got it, Smoke-Flavored/Wood-aged beer. Those categories can be catch-alls of sorts. It is important to name your underlying style for the specialty beer, as it will be judges in conjunction with that style, if that makes sense. It's important to outline what you have done and intended to do with the Specialty categories.
3. Know the Judging Process: It is not just a room full of beers and everyone sipping and declaring the best beer. Many brewers can be relieved to know there is a process, which is consistent and will give equal treatment to the beer which have been entered.
- Beers are grouped by Category number. All IPAs for example will be Category 14. Note that there are three subcategories in 14. 14A English IPA, 14B American IPA, and 14C Imperial IPA.
- Beers may or may not be separated by sub category. Remember you will be judged on the sub-category you selected for your beer.
- 1st round beers are judged in groups of 5 or 6 called "Flights" Judges will taste one beer at a time and complete the score sheet for that entry. Often the judges collaborate with each other and come to a consensus overall on the beer. Each judge will maintain his/her own scoring and comments on the scoring sheet.
- One or more beers from the Flight may be "Pushed" to the second round. Generally the highest score in the flight will go to the second round, but if there are three fabulous and high scoring beers, all three can be "Pushed" based on the judges discretion.
- 2nd round consists of a Flight of beers and several judges. They line up the beers in order, taste them and discuss them as they sample. From that flight, the judges will one by one eliminate beers, and decide upon the best beer, second best and then third best. Keep in mind, that all are still judged against the sub-category, even though different sub-categories in the same category will be present.
- Most competitions will do a Best of Show Award, which is basically another second round type judging with the second round winners which have been nominated.
4. Understand the Scoring: A perfect score is a 50 of 50 possibly points, with points allocated based on the following criteria.
- Aroma - 12 points
- Appearance - 3 points
- Flavor - 20 points
- Mouthfeel - 5 points
- Overall Impression - 10 points
Notice that the Style Guidelines are broken out with descriptions in these same criteria. Remembet that each criteria is judged according to the style. A great hop aroma may be lovely, but it will score low as a Belgian Witbier. The Overall Impression gives the judge offers his/her impressions of the beer, often offering input for improvement and praise for what was nicely done. Judges are cognizant to offer productive feedback, while being truthful. It does no one any good to be told to give up brewing and take up knitting, for example.
Review the Style Guidelines and work toward crafting the beer to fit into the characteristics of the particular style. Pay attention to the number of points for each criteria also. A cloudy beer can be difficult to avoid, so rest assured that the maximum it will cost you is three points. Similarly, the mouthfeel won't cost you too much. Over or under carbonating fall into this criteria. The point allocations allow you to focus on the flavor, aroma, and presenting a great Overall Impression to the judge.
To the wild experimenters it may not sound as fun. Realize though that these styles have stood the test of time and often come with rich history. And a word of caution...you may find it quite rewarding to brew a classic example of a style. It's about learning, experimenting, working on the process and the ingredients and ultimately hitting a style and making a great beer.
Once you win in a competition, your friends will approach and taste your beers differently. That is when the real pressure to continue to make good beer begins. A metal says congratulations, you have brewed a beer that doesn't suck. It's your responsibility to continue to brew great beers while you improve upon your process and knowledge. And oh yeah, remember to have fun!