My name is Jamie, and I recently took on the Competitions Director role for True Grist. I am a BJCP certified judge and competitive homebrewer who has had some success, and I spend a lot of time around homebrewers who often ask for advice on getting started in competitions. I thought I would start by expanding on an answer I gave on a recent forum post, so some of this may sound familiar. The following is a general outline of how I approach homebrew competitions, as well as a few insights I have gained through my experience in judging competitions. Much of it can also be filed under “how to make better beer” in general, so hopefully it will be useful to all homebrewers, not just those who are interested in entering competitions.
Future posts will deal with more specific issues; questions and suggestions for topics are always welcome.
Note: The advice below assumes, for the most part, that your goal is to do as well as possible in a competition. There are other great reasons for entering competitions, such as getting help diagnosing an issue in a beer that you know to be problematic. Depending on your goals some of the advice below may not necessarily apply.
BJCP judges strive to be impartial and will give you their honest opinion of your beer. By going through the certification process, they have proven themselves to have at least a good working knowledge of beer styles, brewing processes, and brewing science, so they can often give you specific recommendations on what to do differently. They also have the benefit of comparing it to several other examples at the same time, which tends to make both good and bad aspects more obvious. If you haven’t had time to prepare a beer specifically for a given competition, enter whatever you have so you can get feedback and make that beer your starting point for the next competition. Read the judges notes, don’t take it personally, take the advice they give you, and brew it again.
I know. It’s fun to make new styles of beer and see how they turn out, and you should always be looking for new beers to add to your repertoire. The problem with this approach is that you rarely get it exactly right on the first try, and if you always move on to something else you never end up with that perfect beer you are looking for. Choose a few styles you like drinking and focus on them. Find a recipe or two, brew them, and see how they turn out. If you see a competition they fit into, enter them (see Enter Competitions above) so you can find out what other people think.
Practice practice practice.
Once you have brewed several beers and chosen the styles on which you want to improve, pick a beer and make it again so you can fine tune it; small flaws that don’t stop you from drinking a whole batch at home still stand out to judges. Think about a previous batch you thought was pretty good; what did you like about it? What didn’t you like about it? What did other people tell you? Choose one or two things to change, alter the recipe and/or process, and brew it again. Make incremental changes, so that you know which change in recipe or process resulted in an improvement or not.
Even beer styles that are meant to be consumed fresh benefit from some conditioning time to smooth out the rough edges. In my judging experience, it is common to find beers with off flavours that could have been avoided if the beer were given enough time in the fermenter or conditioning time – acetaldehyde, diacetyl, sulphur, and many others can be cleaned up by yeast or dissipate into the air over time.
Use the guidelines and choose your category wisely.
Beers are judged based on how well they fit the profile given in the BJCP guidelines as well as on the quality of the beer (absence of off flavours etc). Calling your Blonde Ale an IPA doesn’t make it so. Read the BJCP style guidelines while planning your brew, and again as you taste the finished beer; does it match the description? Is there another, similar category that it would fit in to more accurately? If possible, compare it with well known examples of the styles in question to get a ballpark idea of where your beer fits in.
Homebrew competitions are a lot of work, and competition organizers depend on volunteers to make them happen. Helping out as a steward, judge, or other staff position makes competitions better and more fun, and helps ensure that the organizers will continue to plan further competitions. Volunteering in any of these positions is a great way to familiarize yourself with the way competitions run, and points earned for judging and non-judging roles can be retroactively applied towards becoming BJCP certified. It is also a good way to meet new friends and make connections in the home-brewing and craft beer community.
This is supposed to be fun. If you find the competition process stressful, or just aren’t having fun, don’t do it. If you like your Stout, IPA, or Lager just the way it is but the judges pick it apart, leave it the way it is. It’s your beer. If you love making and drinking a beer that doesn’t fit a category, don’t change it just to satisfy anyone’s guidelines; lots of great and famous beers don’t fit into categories either.
Thanks for reading, let me know what you think!