Brewing for Competitions
By Samuel Persichilli
I’ve always considered brewing for competitions almost entirely separate from “normal” brewing. I usually have a system for iterating and improving beers that I primarily brew for myself or to share with friends, but this process becomes significantly more involved and structured when specifically focusing on creating liquids intended to win at competitions. Everything needs to be on point to place consistently. Judges do not know (nor do they care) about any of the events preceding the arrival of the entry on their table. Friends are forgiving. I’ve given beer to people plenty of times with caveats: “Oh sorry, just a heads up this is a touch overcarbed” or “I wish I would’ve gotten this to you sooner, it might be a little past its prime”. It takes intention and precision in order for the beer you present to the judges to be able to speak for itself. This article will outline the process I currently use when formulating beers for competitions, informed by both my experiences competing and as a BJCP judge
My usual process is to synthesize what I know about the style I’m brewing, what I learn from pouring over the BJCP guidelines for the style, and the knowledge I gain about recipe design from looking through recipes others have produced. A good starting point is the “Award Winning Recipes” section of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) website. These are all recipes that have won medals at high-level competitions, and there’s a filter that lets you select for ones that have specifically placed at National Homebrew Competition. I also like the recipes from BYO and Craft Beer and Brewing (CB&B). Both of these websites feature recipes directly from professional brewers, just be cognizant that these recipes aren’t always perfect fits for the style guidelines. After consolidating all of the information from these sources, I usually also try to talk to someone who has had success at competitions with beers of the same style. This process lets me familiarize myself with common ingredients and techniques used for the style I want to brew so I can create a beer that is truly my own. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with starting with an established recipe and working from there; just go in with the understanding that you might have to slightly adjust recipes you pull from other sources to fit your brewing system’s specifications.
The two most important things to consider during the initial brewday are 1) practicing technically sound brewing processes and 2) taking notes to facilitate repeatability. These two pillars guarantee you’re making a quality initial product, and ensure that if this first beer has success you’re able to reproduce it in the future. You don’t have to have a “perfect” brewday to make great beer, but taking notes allows you to look back once you have the finished beer and have a basis to understand why the beer tastes the way it does. More data is better. If you have the ability to check pH, do so throughout the process and write it down. Gravities should be checked throughout the process and written down (a refractometer is especially helpful here). Again, this isn’t essential to making great beer, but having these notes about each step of the process makes it much easier to reproduce the beer and also to triage any issues you note about the beer in the future.
The most overlooked aspect of competition brewing. You want to do everything in your power to ensure the beer the judges evaluate matches the beer you drink at home. The two things we worry about on this front are maintaining appropriate carbonation in the bottle and oxidation. Submitting a flat or under-carbonated beer instantly puts you at a disadvantage for your scoresheet, both directly by losing points in the “mouthfeel” category but also indirectly by diminishing aroma and flavor. Oxidation, while primarily off flavor in itself, also REDUCES and overtakes other flavors in your beer. Using a beer gun or counterpressure filler serve as best practices to prevent both of these pitfalls. A secret from Kelsey McNair of North Park Brewing that he used when competing (specifically with IPAs) was to fill bottles to the top to eliminate headspace where oxygen could live. While you’ll receive a comment on your scoresheet denoting a “high fill” this does not affect your scoring.
This is the easy part. Find a competition (or several) on the AHA website, mail your entries or drop them off in person, and then wait for the results.
Judges are human. Unfortunately, there are factors out of your control that can affect your score on any given day: where in the order your beer is evaluated, the experience level of the judges, their familiarity with the style, what point in the day your beer is judged, etc. To control for these extenuating circumstances, I always suggest sending your beer to multiple competitions if you are able. This allows you to have a larger sample size and a wider breadth of opinions to decide what you need to do going forward to improve your beer. In my experience, judges are exceptional at diagnosing problems with your beers but due to the nature of BJCP judging judges aren’t always the best at accurately suggesting how to fix problems in your beer. For example, a few judges noted that my Czech Premium Pale lager lacked a strong enough malt backbone for the style, and suggested I try decoction mashing, which I did do for that beer. I took that as a need to tweak the grist and maybe look into changing the yeast the next time to emphasize the malt character. I always package an extra bottle or two when I enter competitions to evaluate myself alongside the scoresheets. This is both to analyze my packaging quality and to better understand what the judges tasted. I highly recommend you do this if you intend to regularly participate in competitions.
You have a few scoresheets on your beer. You diagnosed the problems (if any) your beer had. Now you integrate the feedback the judges gave you, and your thoughts on the beer relative to the style guidelines, and tweak your recipe and/or process accordingly. The brewday notes previously mentioned play a big role here, as it becomes hard to tweak a beer if you don’t have records of what you initially did. Then you essentially are back to step 2. Rinse and repeat until you run out of space to display your medals.
Again, these aren’t hard and fast rules that you absolutely NEED to follow to have success at competitions. My goal here was to outline a framework for developing and fine-tuning beers in order to improve them for both your own consumption and to give them the best chance to succeed at competitions. By embracing this systematic and iterative approach to competition brewing, you can unlock your full potential as a brewer while turning feedback into opportunities for growth, ultimately leading to a rewarding journey of improvement and success in the world of competitions.
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