For homebrewers looking to kick their brewing skills up a notch, entering a homebrew competition is the way to go.
Truth be told, as a competitive person who loves to brew, I find homebrew competitions to be exciting and incredibly useful in growing my skills.
It’s like an athlete prepping for a big game. They practice for hours on end, polishing their skills and improving their performance.
Then, they compete against others who are doing the same.
It’s the only way to see how they stack up against their peers, right?
Here’s the deal: Homebrewing and competitions go hand-in-hand! You brew (practice) and then go toe-to-toe with other brewers (compete).
Not only do you get the opportunity to see where you stand among others, but you also gain valuable feedback on your overall “performance”.
Why Homebrew Competitions Are Worth It
While competing is something I naturally love to do, there are plenty of other fantastic reasons why entering a homebrew competition makes sense:
- It can help you dial in and improve a recipe that you’ve been working on formulating and perfecting.
- You might be able to figure out what could be “off” about your overall process.
- You have the chance to gain valuable feedback and validation, proving the beer you make is of high quality.
- Help gain recognition and make valuable connections that could help sprout a brewing career.
Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?
It’s All About the Details
It might sound all fine and dandy, but competing in a homebrew competition can be overwhelming at first.
Just take a look at the BJCP 2015 Guidelines (the most current style guidelines).
The established BJCP guidelines are used to define beers by style. They are descriptive and as detailed as possible, and for good reason: it gives judges a base to help keep scoring as consistent as possible.
That doesn’t mean your infamous Bread Pudding Quadruple won’t win, but it does mean you need to be very careful about how you enter your beers (if you want to actually win medals, that is).
And that, my friends, is what brings us to the point of why you’re reading this right now.
How to Prep and Increase Your Chances of Winning
Whether you’ve entered a competition before or have yet to embark on the journey, understanding how homebrew competitions work is crucial to your success.
Do everything right and even a mediocre beer can bring home a medal.
Do it wrong and I can guarantee you’ll be kicking yourself for missing something that was purely preventable!
Is your anxiety riding high yet?
Good, because we’re about to turn it down a notch.
Below, you will find a few tips to help you prep for competitions from start to finish. No more wasting time or feeling like a dog left alone in a field.
Is it rocket science? No, but I hope anyone who is new to competing or has tried a few times without any luck will find some of this useful.
As I always say, let’s dive in, shall we?
Comp Tip #1 – Get a feel for the process
Before you enter a homebrew competition, it’s important to understand how one works.
It can seem like a lot of work, but it’s not terrible once you figure out how to work your way through each step.
That said, here is a quick and dirty breakdown of the overall process:
- Registration (usually means creating an account online with all of your basic information)
- Adding entries
- Dropping off or shipping entries
- Judging takes place
- Scoresheets are either mailed or sent electronically, along with any prizes mailed out shortly after (unless you’re in attendance and an award ceremony is planned, which you can take everything home with you).
Most competitions typically operate in the same manner. Once you get one figured out, any that come up after that will be a piece of cake to navigate!
Comp Tip #2 – Plan carefully
If you want things to go as smooth as possible, you need to plan carefully.
What do I mean by that? You will need to:
- Make sure you are fully aware of ALL deadlines. This is even more critical if you bottle-condition your beer, as it will need plenty of time to carbonate.
- Understand ALL of the rules. Some competitions get pickier than others. You don’t want something subjective like the color of a bottle cap to disqualify your entry. Sounds silly, but it can happen.
- Know what styles are allowed. Not every competition is open to all styles. Some might be specific while others are not.
- Ship only using FedEx/UPS or other private carrier. For those in the United States, shipping beer via the USPS is a federal crime. Only ship your beers using a private carrier like FedEx or UPS. International shippers should be aware of any issues that might happen once their beers hit customs. I’ve heard this can be hit or miss.
The last time I failed to plan properly for a competition, I more than likely pissed off a few organizers.
I confused two different competitions that were in close proximity to each other. One of my local homebrew club members was judging in one and was planning to take some entries with him.
Well, the one I signed up for ended up NOT being the one he was judging in.
The organizers contacted me looking for my bottles, but the shipment period was over. They had to pull my entry, and I screwed up some of their planning since they were waiting on my entry.
Bad move on my part, but at least I learned my lesson (and apologized for being an idiot).
Since then, I plan well in advance and am more meticulous than ever before. So far, so good!
Comp Tip #3 – Stick to the style guidelines as close as you can
As mentioned above, beers are judged based on style guidelines from the BJCP (here is the link to the guidelines again).
Style guidelines are established to give judges a baseline to judge your beer on. Otherwise, the judging would be purely subjective and vary wildly from comp to comp.
When taking a look at the guidelines, you’ll find they cover the following:
- Style category
- Other notes unique to the style
- Commercial examples of the style
- All necessary numbers (OG/FG/ABV/SRM)
While there are some “catch all” categories out there (for example, 30A: Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer), many styles have specific guidelines.
Adherence to these guidelines are crucial to winning a medal! Your goal is to brew a fantastic beer that falls within all of the guidelines for that particular style.
You can have the best beer in the world, but if you enter it into the wrong style, you’re going to HATE it when that scoresheet comes back.
In the end, if you can brew a decent beer and hit all of the “checkboxes”, you’ll be surprised at how well you will do.
Comp Tip #4 – Try beers within your targeted style
Sometimes, descriptions just aren’t enough.
You can imagine all you want, but nothing will come as close to actually seeing, smelling, and tasting something in order to bring that description to life!
The greatest thing about the style guidelines? Commercial examples are given that represent the style appropriately.
That means you have a tangible way to see, smell, and taste beers in a specific style category.
I highly recommend trying beers in a style that you want to target for the following reasons:
- It makes you aware of a specific style that you have little to no experience with.
- You can often find clone recipes of a specific style, which gives you an idea of what the grain bill will look like.
- You can try other beers that fall into those style buckets that have various numbers within the acceptable range
More recently, I wanted to do a more authentic Belgian Blond. I went out and picked up some Leffe Blond (as it is true to style).
I’ll admit – I wasn’t too familiar with Leffe. Heard of it many times, but never actually tried it before.
Doing this helped me understand what type of appearance, aroma, and flavor I should aim for to create a beer that meets the style guidelines.
Oh, and it was pretty damn tasty too!
Comp Tip #5 – Learn how to think like a judge
Thinking like a judge is a great way to figure out what goes on in a judge’s mind when evaluating beers.
There are plenty of questions, such as:
- Is there a specific way judges pour beer?
- How do they evaluate the appearance, smell, and taste?
- What goes into coming up with a final score?
Most competitions consist of a BJCP Certified judge at each table and a provisional or non-BJCP judge. The two judges award points based on a BJCP Scoresheet. The final score is decided by an average of both judge’s scores.
By understanding what you’re being scored on, you can take off the homebrewer cap and put on your judge’s one instead.
How can you do this? Simple:
- Find some BJCP Certified judges and ask them to walk you through their process.
- Go through the scoresheet and get familiar with what is judged on. Pay attention to any descriptions of off-flavors too (more on that later).
I know this might sound subjective (and it can be), but make your best effort to evaluate your beers like a judge would.
Also, make sure to be honest and objective with yourself! It’s the only way to really dial in how you think a judge will perceive your homebrew.
Comp Tip #6 – Look up winning recipes and try to formulate something similar
When someone wins at something, most people try to figure out how. It’s just human nature.
We want to find out why someone won. What was that “one thing” that made them stick out above the others?
When it comes to beer, there are TONS of winning recipes online from a variety of competitions (most notably from the National Homebrew Competition).
If you want to bring home a medal but don’t know what to brew, thumbing through previous winning recipes is a good start.
You don’t have to brew the same recipe. Instead, use it as a template when you’re formulating your own recipes.
I highly recommend looking for recipes that are simple to emulate. Don’t go for something advanced if you are a beginner.
Note: If you need a resource for building recipes, check out Brewgr. I use it for my recipe calculations/formulations. It’s free and fairly decent, although it doesn’t have the latest BJCP guidelines (still uses 2008 guidelines).
Comp Tip #7 – Start small and then expand
When you’re first starting to dip your toes into competing, you want to start small.
You can easily find a small homebrew competition to enter nearly every month of the year.
And when I say small, I usually mean under 150 entries. At this level, flight sizes are usually pretty tiny (think 10 or less entries per category).
Entering your first handful of competitions on the smaller scale is good for many reasons:
- You will become accustomed to the process.
- It gives you a chance to actually win something, thus boosting your confidence.
- You will still get valuable feedback from a BJCP Certified judge.
Once you get more comfortable (and better at brewing, of course), you can start to branch out into the larger competitions.
It’s all about gaining feedback and improving your skills. Don’t try to hit a home run when you haven’t even swung a bat yet!
Comp Tip #8 – Read up on common off-flavors
Nothing is more disappointing than patiently waiting 4 to 6 weeks after brewing a batch, only to find out that something isn’t quite right.
It’s something all homebrewers want to avoid on all counts, yet something we’ve all experienced at one point in time.
Unfortunately, off-flavors DO happen, and there are many of them to boot.
Knowing what each off-flavor tastes like, how to detect it, and how to avoid it are the keys to making better beer.
You can find all of the most common off-flavors in this list. It also includes a description of the off-flavor, along with possible solutions to avoid the problem in the future.
Certified judges have to know off-flavors VERY well. It’s part of how they become certified to begin with.
You don’t need their level of expertise, but knowing and understanding the various off-flavors that can occur will only strengthen your skills.
From there, it’s all about making corrections and slowly tweaking one variable at a time until your recipe is perfected.
Comp Tip #9 – Consider the judge’s notes after you receive them
Remember when I talked about feedback and how valuable it can be?
This is where that all comes into play now.
If you’ve entered competitions before, you’re probably familiar with the judge’s notes and evaluation.
They follow a specific formula based on the official BJCP Scoresheet.
Here is an example of a scoresheet from beer I recently entered into a competition that scored 38/50 (my Peanut Butter Porter recipe).
Every competition that is BJCP sanctioned uses the same sheet, so you’ll get familiar with it VERY quick.
All that said, when trying to improve a beer recipe, it is important to take this feedback into consideration.
I will agree that it can be subjective at times, but try to pull something away from it. There could be one thing you’re not doing that could be the difference between a gold medal and an honorable mention.
Comp Tip #10 – Join a homebrew club
Believe it or not, there are a lot of homebrewers who don’t belong to a homebrew club.
For some folks that live in less populous areas, it’s completely understandable. The closest homebrew club could be miles and miles away.
But for those who do live in an area where a local club is around, you should be a part of it!
Seriously – it’s one of the smartest moves you can make.
Think about it for a second…
Not only will you have plenty of experienced people willing to evaluate your beer, you might be surprised how many BJCP judges are members too!
I know in my local club, there are at least a few guys who are BCJP Certified. I can go to them and get competition-level feedback right on the spot.
They can also offer critical advice, such as what category or style I should place a beer in that might be on the fence.
That kind of access is invaluable. And besides that, you’ll make some pretty kick-ass friends too!
One thing to note: If you don’t have a club in your area but know of other homebrewers around town, start one up!
You can keep it as formal or informal as you want. The value you will gain from it will be worth the effort involved – trust me!
Now You’re Ready to Compete
Like I said before, a homebrew competition is a great way to step up your brewing and compare yourself to others.
It can also be a fantastic way to gain validation and confidence. The key is to never to give up.
Don’t let one bad score keep you out of the game. You might just be closer to winning your first medal than you think!
Note: If you want to see a schedule of BJCP sanctioned competitions from all over the globe, head on over to the American Homebrewers Association website.
I use the same calendar to plan out my competing schedule. It’s the easiest way to find competitions quickly and effortlessly, hands down!
I also recommend joining the American Homebrewers Association. Not only do you get access to awesome benefits, but you also get the opportunity to enter the granddaddy of them all – the National Homebrew Competition!