Monday, June 10, 2013

Homebrew Competition Packaging and NHC Second Round

When I first got a taste of winning medals and prizes from homebrew competitions, I found that a little wasn't enough and I needed more!  Back then there were not as many competitions as there are these days and I found that I had to try my hand at sending brews to distant shores.  That was also the beginning of the Pro-Am competitions and I really wanted to get one of my beers brewed professionally.  I won my share of awards by sending out beers,  (no Pro-Am) but the cost became prohibitive and I now mostly stick to local competitions with physical drop-off sites.  Paying for entry fees is enough without adding on shipping costs. 

By doing this for a while I did discover significant regional differences in judging and taste.  Send an IPA out to the West Coast and it better be a hop bomb or you are wasting your time!  I won tons of medals in mead around the country, but can still rarely win around here--mostly because the majority of BJCP Mead Judges are from MN.  Those guys are hard-core and in the larger competitions you are also in direct competition with them.  On the other hand, you usually get helpful feedback on those failing meads...

One of the exceptions to my keeping it local is NHC.  The First Round of Nationals (the biggest homebrew competition in the world) is held in different regions.  Each of those 11 regions had over 700 entries for a total of about 7,767 entries this year.  There was a major mishap with most of the servers crashing and lots of people didn't get beers registered.  A lot of my local friends (Primary Fermenters Yo!) didn't make it.  When things went live again they had allowed too many entries from some of the other regions and ended up shuttling many of them into our not-filled-yet roster.  I noticed that many of the winners in our region (St. Paul/Midwest) were from Maryland, Texas and other non-Midwest states.  A lot of unhappy Minnesotans this year.  Somehow I made it in before the crash.  After First Round judging, the top three from each of the 28 categories (provided they get a score of at least 30) go on the Second Round competition which takes place at the National Homebrewer's Conference.  Now we are down to about 924 beers total for Second Round.

Since the first round was local I put about 5 beers in it this year.  One of them tasted lousy by the time I had to drop it off, and I had missed the cut-off for switching beers, so I ended up actually putting in four.  I had pretty good scores on all my beers, though overall less than at Mash-Out a few months ago.  One of beers that medalled at Mash-Out was my 5th beer that went south.  My English mild (named Mild Mannered) was the dark horse third place winner in the English brown ale category.  I feel pretty proud of this well-named 3.2% ABV beer that I've had on tap for the last 7-8 months. 

Feeling that this aged low alcohol beer probably wouldn't be in any shape to send out to second round, I saved 5 bottles and then re-brewed the recipe.  The second batch is just now carbonated.  I bottled 5 bottles of that one with my Beergun and did some tasting.  The first time was just myself and Sj: the older version was the clear winner with more aroma and estery character.  I took the last free bottle over to Tim Roets' place last week and we came up with the same opinion.  The old one goes on!  Of note, Tim has 5 beers/meads going on to second round! 

Now I had to get my three final bottles of Mild Mannered shipped off to Philly before the deadline of June 17.  Here is what I did for packaging.

First make sure to print out your bottle labels (my printer crapped out and I had to do some fancy footwork to get them printed that day.)  Most competitions will have an entry sheet to send along, but this was the second round and that was not needed.  For second round they also require a full recipe since the winners get published in the following issue of Zymurgy.  They also want a picture of you sent via e-mail for the magazine.   Attach the printed labels to the body of the bottle with a sturdy rubber band.  I keep a hoard of them around and well hidden from my OCD cat, Willow, who will find them and eat them no matter where they might be...

Next up wrap each bottle in bubble wrap.  I use scotch tape to seal the middle and ends and prevent the beer from sliding out.  This is probably the most important step.

Get out your box and throw some crumpled paper in the bottom.  Next put a garbage bag in the box and put in your bubble-wrap attired bottles.  The idea behind the bag is to minimize leakage if one bottle did leak or break during transit.  If the postal service you use finds a package leaking suspicious fluid they will trash it and you have lost all of your entries!  I have yet to have a broken bottle with this method, but anything is possible.  I have seen entries come in for contests I'm helping with that have not been packed well and had leakage issues.

Throw some more crumpled paper in there, so the bottles are not in direct contact with each other if possible.  This helps to prevent the domino effect with broken bottles.  Seal up the bag and press out the extra air.  Add more paper to the top/sides so everything is tight.  Tape up your box very well.  If you are very cautious you may want to print some "This Side Up" and "Fragile" markings on the box, but I'm not convinced this really does any good.   When you are done, you should not be able to feel/hear the bottles moving around when shaking the box.  If you do, then open it up and add more paper! 

Then the shipping.  Do not send via US Postal Service as this is illegal and can get you in trouble!  Most other companies like UPS and FedEx frown on it, but have more of a don't-ask-don't tell policy.  I always worry about sending them to homebrew shops, since you will get suspicious questions from the person mailing the item.  Many employees from shipping company/post-it places think it is illegal to ship through any companies and may give you grief.  You can call it glassware or yeast samples if needed, but I try not to say anything if possible.  Shipping ain't cheap.  Sending 3 my three beers so it would get there Friday (3-4 days) was $27.  I almost feel sorry for Tim having to send his 15 bottles to second round!  Ideally you should send them next day or 2 day to ensure that they don't sit in a hot truck or warehouse too long, but I couldn't justify that this time.  To last year's NHC I sent two beers that way and it cost me more than I care to put in print. 

Now its all in the hands of the parcel company to deliver my beery treasure safely and then for the BJCP judges to love it enough to give it a medal.  The numbers are daunting:  my one beer managed to make it through the enormous first round of nearly 8000 beers.   But having made it past the first round, I have around a 1 in 11 chance within my category total for a first through third place.  Of course remembering that my beer was at the bottom the ranking in first round, that number may be more of a long shot than sheer statistics can account for.  Then again, regional differences may help me out and everyone could love it!  Who knows, but if you don't play you don't win! 

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