Back to the Drawing Board: Brewing for Competition

Sun, Jul 28, 2013
I'm a certified BJCP beer judge.  Yesterday I moseyed up to Jacksonville to help judge CASK's First Coast Cup homebrew competition.  As with all competitions there were good beers, bad beers, and everything in between.  One of the characteristics of many in-between beers is that they just don't fit category.  If you have a great beer but it's not in the proper category it's not going to win.  Period.  I suspect a lot of brewers, especially new ones, aren't familiar with how competitions judging works and assume that a good beer will shine as long as they're in the vicinity of the correct category.  That's a bad assumption.

Anyway, I wrote about this topic several years ago coming from the perspective of an entrant in a homebrew competition, and since I'm in the process of porting old posts, well, here it is.

(Originally posted elsewhere on May 17, 2009) 

The biggest thing I learned as a brewer from participating in this weekend's Hogtown Brew-off is that brewing for competition is a specific exercise that differs from how I've been brewing thus far. Competition judging is really all about how a beer fits within a category. Even for relatively open categories like "Specialty beers" it's important for the brewer to have a clear idea of what he's trying to accomplish and to communicate this to the judge via beer name and description. Without clarity of intent it's difficult to convince a judge that your brew is worthy of winning.

This weekend I had seven entries in a field of 293. Two of these beers had already garnered awards (albeit third place) in a smaller competition a few weeks back, and I thought my newer beers were interesting interpretations of their respective styles. Not so fast my friends! I was shut out completely- none of my beers even placed. At first I was really disappointed but the more I thought about my experience as a steward and judge the more it became clear to me that my problem isn't really one of execution- it's one of clarity of intent. Most of my beers are loose interpretations of their styles. While they may be tasty and enjoyable they aren't great examples of their styles, and that's what beer competition is all about. Now I don't think it's necessary to brew beers that merely exemplify their respective styles, but I do think any modification or enhancements to the basic style must be done only once the base beer is nearly perfect.

So all of this makes me believe I need to go back to the drawing board with my approach to brewing. Now that I've been brewing for a little while and I'm confident in my brewing ability I think I need to focus more on accomplishing something specific with each brew. If I want to brew a great style beer then I should shoot for that and assert as much control over the inputs and process as is in my power to assure a great style beer. If, however, I want to experiment with a brew to test ingredient and process modifications then I shouldn't consider that a competition beer. That doesn't mean that it can't be a good beer. Hell, that doesn't even mean that it won't win awards at a competition. It just means that experimental beer should be considered as such and my expectations for competition results should be in line with that fact.

In my day job I often have to communicate with people who aren't exactly sure what they need from me. This is difficult at best, but usually when a person can effectively communicate their intentions as far as they understand them it allows me to apply my expertise to make sure I can provide for that person's needs. I look at this as two things- clarity of intent and precision in language. Show brewing is a nice analog to this. If a brewer can demonstrate mastery of execution and clarity of intent this will show at the judging table. Any deviations from the expected characteristics of a style should be clearly specified to the judges- this will help them determine how well the deviation was executed and how well it fits with the base style guidelines. Otherwise these deviations will likely be interpreted as poor execution or muddled intent.

Here's to beers yet to be brewed!