It took me more than 3 years before I started entering my beers into home-brew competitions. I’d always been worried about all the things I could be bad at. Even worse, I’d be worried that I’d find out the beer I’ve been making is terrible. After a bit of a brewing hiatus I decided that I’d need to get my beer out to as many places as possible.
Getting out to club meet ups is a great start, but it’s hard to keep track of all the feedback you’ll collect along the way. They are great for talking more about the process, but sometimes you’ll only get feedback like “wow this is really good”. Knowing you’ve made great beer is awesome, but maybe you’re looking to dig more into the flaws of your beers. This is where competitions come in and are a great venue to figure out what aspects of your beer aren’t quite right.
Competitions are overseen by judges who are typically BJCP Certified and have done a lot of work to train their palate. You’ll get a bunch of feedback on what is great about your beers, as well as some spots where your beer could use improvement. Winning is nice, but it doesn’t need to be the goal Look at these as an inexpensive way to get qualitative feedback into what might be holding your beers back from being great. After the competition has ended you’ll get your judging forms with your score as well as written feedback on what aspects of the beer could be improved. Typically the feedback comes in the form of off flavours or descriptions about what is off style for your entry.
Something that came up early when I started brewing was how to keep on top of the upcoming competitions, and preparing for them. An easy way to find out is to scope out your local brew club and join the group (mailing list, Facebook group, web forum) and keep an eye on the subjects that are of interest to you. There’ll be a keener on the group who will post about upcoming competitions, and linking off to get more details.
Once you’ve figured out what competitions you want to enter, you need to figure out your competition pipeline. For myself this means we simply keep beers aside for entering some upcoming competitions. Beer is a product that is sensitive to time, so you’ll want to be sure that what you are shipping out stands out, so you don’t want something like a wet hopped IPA sitting around while waiting for a competition to roll around. For our process we have “competition empties” to fill up and set aside during bottling day. A bottle that we’ve found to work really well are those that Sierra Nevada packages their beers into. The bottles are the minimum size required for an entry, come in 6 packs and have labels which are extremely easy to clean off. After they are packaged we put some “Competition Beers – Beer Name” on them so we don’t accidentally drink them. It’s always far too easy to rip through a batch of really good beer and forget to leave some around for actually entering.
When setting aside your bottles, you’ll want to attach your notes with a paper tied on with a rubber band or piece of tape. Entries need to be clean — free of any distinguishing marks aside from what the organizers may specify. More on this later.
The rest of entering is mostly just reading instructions and filling out forms; two things that I have a difficult time with due to a combination of laziness and confusion. Most competitions are run through an open source tool called Brewery Competition Online Entry & Management (BCOEM) which can be a bit tricky to use. The best advice is to go through each section and read over everything. Most competitions all follow similar guidelines which are the following:
- Category Limits (i.e. 1 beer per category)
- Category Restrictions (i.e. some categories aren’t being judged)
- Entry Deadline & Submission Locations
- Entry Requirements
- Bottle Labelling and Identification
- Bottle Sizes & Styles
- Bottle Count per submission
- Warning about USPS / Canada Post shipping
Most of the above is pretty basic, though the parts that can be easy to goof up are the entry requirements. First, the people organizing the event don’t want it to be easy for judges to identify who the brewer of a beer is. Your bottles need to be nondescript: no labels, blank caps (or blacked out with a sharpie), submission details attached to bottle via rubber band. You’ll also need to ensure that you enter two bottles, for the different aspects of the judging. That is, your beer will be judged against it’s category and also entered in the Best of Show. You’ll want to aim to keep your bottles as small as possible since larger bottles mean more swirling around which can result in your beer performing badly, as well as reducing how much beer you’ll have to drink for yourself. Also depending on the size, your entries can also run the risk of being disqualified.
When submitting an entry, keep extras aside in case your package gets lost of destroyed during shipping. Also, shipping is a bit sketchy and you can be refused service if your postal carrier finds out that you are shipping beer. Typically you won’t be asked, but sometimes if the shipping address includes a brewery name, they’ll become suspicious. Play your best poker face and say it’s something else, or tell them that it’s live yeast samples. Also be sure to add tracking to your package to give yourself peace of mind knowing that your package arrived at it’s destination.