I thought I would do a little primer on picking out homebrews for competitions since MN State Fair and Byggvir's Big Beer Cup are both coming up this month. There comes a time, (usually at the last minute with only a day or two left for entries,) that you have to look at your stock and decide what is worthy to send on to win a medal. A lot of this depends on what you have in your cellar, how it is packaged, and also what competition it is going into.
Competitions are an interesting microcosm of beer geekdom. They serve the functions of reinforcing good brewing practices and knowledge of beer styles. If you win a medal or ribbon in a style category, you will feel good about your beer and keep up those types of practices. If you don't win and get good feedback on your score sheets, hopefully you will be able to fix problems for next time. Consistency is where good brewers are made, and competitions can help keep you calibrated. That being said, judges are human with their own preconceptions and tastes, which can influence your results. I've had a beer score 41 out of 50 in one competition and 29 at another in the same month! The skill and BJCP rank of your judges can contribute greatly to feedback. Does everyone need to compete? Not at all, but a lot of us like the thrill of it and it gives us a good excuse to share the fruits of our labors with knowledgeable beer people within the context of a predominantly private hobby. And it's sweet to win medals and prizes and get your name and brewclub out there in the homebrew community.
There are some tricks to picking out beers for competitions I've learned after competing at, judging in and running. No order to them and not all-inclusive.
1) Put the beer in the category that it tastes like--not the category you meant to brew. If you brewed an IPA but it doesn't have quite the high hop character you planned, and is maybe a bit too malty: put it in as a pale ale. Did you brew a oatmeal stout but it is lighter in body and color than expected? Maybe it is a brown ale or a porter. Have a judge or fellow homebrewers try your beer blind and see what they think it is. I just did this last night with a couple friends and we were able to fit some beers into styles they weren't meant as.
2) Put a beer in to win. If you don't enter you won't win! I have won awards for beers I didn't think were great, and totally flopped on beers I thought were amazing. Sometimes we are our own worst critics. Again, have friends help with tasting.
3) Know your comp. For example:
a)Byggvir's Big Beer Cup is based on continental and historic styles, not accepting American styles of beer. On the other hand, the special Historic category comes with a special medal and prize, and in the past has only had a handful of entries. That one is easy to win if you have a funky kvass or gratzer or birch beer, etc. This comp has had about 150 entries each year so is a smaller one and is less frequented by the big name brewers who hog all the medals in the bigger comps. A good place to get your feet wet. And this year the grand prize is possibly getting you beer brewed at Town Hall Brewery!
b) State Fair is also upon us. Historically, this is a big comp, with 500-1000 entries, so it will be tougher to win. Look at last year's entry list--if you want to win in a smaller category put a lager in!
c) Upper Mississippi Mash Out in January is one of the biggest in the world and is amongst the "most prestigious" to win a medal at. Your 40 point beer will probably do significantly less well here. Don't bother putting your first homebrew in this one, it will just make you feel bad.
4) Learn your BJCP style guideline. Ideally take the class, take the test and become a judge. Otherwise the guide is free on the internet and they have a nice app. If you know the ins and outs of the styles, you will be able to tell if your beer fits in the style. Beer judging is based on how well your beer fits in the style category you put it in. I can't stress this enough. If you have an amazing vanilla porter and put it in under porters rather than the spice/herb/vegetable category, you will get crappy reviews or get it disqualified. Taste the commercial examples listed in the style guide to get aquainted with what the style should taste like.
5) More info! Most competitions ask for recipe. The judges don't have this when they judge, so I usually don't even bother. There is usually a space on entry forms for special info/remarks. That is where you need to put any special info about your beer that you want the judge to see. This is most important in fruit, spice, specialty, and wood styles. What is it that makes your beer a specialty beer? What type of wood did you add? What type of fruit did you use. The judges also don't have the name of your beer, so if you felt that by calling it a raspberry wheat all the info you needed was there...you are incorrect! Also only mention an ingredient if you can really pick it out on tasting. If your honey addition didn't add a good honey flavor...don't mention it or you will get dinged for not enough.
6) Base beer style. Before you add fruit, spice, wood, etc, you need a good base beer. Practice your brewing of a good base beer before you start adding crazy stuff to your beer. Or brew a batch and add stuff to half only. Also make sure to mention the base style in your competition entries. The judges might be able to tell what your cherry wheat is, but they might be unsure and will dock you points.
7) Don't be disappointed in results. You will get some lousy reviews for beers you think are good. Some may be wrong (bad judges) others may be style problems, others may be flaws that you aren't used to picking up. Learn from the feedback and try to fix any problems that you figure out. And remember, if you like to drink your beer it is a good beer, just maybe not worth throwing in competitions!
8) Go big or go home. Often the beer that wins a category stands out because it is a bit more flavorful or higher alcohol than the others. If your beer is slightly outside style, but you think it is very good, go ahead and try. Also the judges don't know the ABV of your beer, just the percieved alcohol levels. A nice mild easy drinking smoked beer will get spanked next to The Baconator Smoked Imperial Doppelbock.
9) Double down! If you have a beer that straddles the line between categories, you can put it in under each category. I've seen some friends win two medals with one beer. You can not put the same beer in the same sub-category though!
10) Learn the limits of the system. This one comes with time and experience. I've found that certain categories are hard to win. Braggots are one: no one has ever had a commercial braggot so you will get crappy judging on this. Specialty category is hard to win due to the extreme nature of these beers. A subtle beer will not do well here. IPA is the biggest category, so you will be up against a ton of beers.
All this being said, just put a beer in and start learning! I'm ready to take home some bling this month.