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Beer Competitions 101

Beer Competitions 101

By Greig McGill

As I mentioned in my last article, one of the benefits of starting or joining a brewing club is holding beer competitions. These are about so much more than just winning. They are an excellent opportunity to give and receive feedback, to enhance knowledge, and to train and build the palates of everyone in the club. I’ve been involved in running one of New Zealand’s largest home brewing competitions back in 2010-2014, when SOBA still existed and ran their National Homebrew Competition. As a result of that experience, I thought I’d offer some advice on how you might want to run your own competition.

There’s always more involved than you think. I’ll go over each area that you need to think about. Some may not apply to very small and informal competitions, but you just never know how large you might grow!

Set your goals

What are you wanting to achieve? It helps to write a list and prioritise it. As you get into the meat of running the competition, it is a good idea to keep going back to this list and holding yourself accountable as to whether you’re running an event that meets these criteria. For example, is it more about learning, winning prizes, building your club’s culture, developing judging palates, or a combination of these in various levels of priority?

Picking a date

A simple thing, but it all starts here. This is where the feline herding process begins, as you’ll need to pick a date that works for all the people you ask to judge, the stewards you will need to sort and present the beer, and any/all club members who want to be present if it’s an open competition. Depending on size and sponsorship, you may also need to work with sponsors who may wish to promote things within a schedule. Finally, there’s that ever-present problem of “what else is on?” Oh, it’s Beervana weekend? Forget it! Unless… cross-promotion opportunities anyone?

Managing Entries

It’s a good idea to know in advance how you will handle the physical process of entering a beer. In a small club, this can be as simple as a spreadsheet with Name, Beer Style/Category, Payment Status (if taking entry fees), and Received (Yes or No). In a large competition, this can still be the basis for a system, but you will probably need shared access and more information - you may wish to use it to track the entire lifespan of the beer, from entry, to receipt, to storage, to judging, to award! With a large paid competition, you will need some way to take payment online - even if it’s a simple bank transfer. But remember to check regularly! People are… not always the best at entering helpful information in reference fields!

Publicity and Sponsorship

Small clubs can probably ignore this one. For larger ones, where you will want a lot of entries to generate funds to help cover all the competition expenses, you’re going to need some publicity - get the word out there! You know the drill these days - social media is your best and cheapest option. Start early. Build buzz. Engage with anyone asking questions or commenting.

You’re also probably going to want some sponsorship. This can be as simple as helping out with prizes or as complicated as brewing a winning entry commercially. Sponsors and prizes need not be brewing-aligned, but it helps. Think about how you will provide value to the sponsor, and communicate clearly with them. It’s not just them giving you some money or some free stuff, it’s an exchange of value, so ensure you deliver on any and all promises made to them. Be especially aware of how you represent their brand, and try to avoid anything you can’t imagine the CEO/owner of the company being completely happy with. If in doubt, ask.

Finding a venue

The perfect venue has the following attributes:

  • Large enough to accommodate all who will attend
  • Accessible to all involved
  • Accommodation for onsite chilled storage - ideally accessible some time before the event
  • Comfortably air conditioned
  • Quiet, and able to be split into a “noisy area” for the stewards prepping the entries for judging and a judging space which should be quiet
  • Free of any odours - this impacts sensory analysis

You will almost certainly have to compromise on these, but being aware of them from the start is helpful so at least you know what you need to compromise on, and can prioritise accordingly.

Receipt and storage of entries

This can be challenging. If it’s a local club, it’s very easy as people can simply bring the entries in person and the entrants are completely responsible for the condition in which their beers arrive at the venue. If the club is a little more distributed, or you’re running a merged competition with other clubs, or even a national competition, you will need to consider:

  • How many samples of each beer do you need? (See Judging later on for more)
  • What is the time window in which beers will be received?
  • Who will physically receive them?
  • Where will they be stored prior to the competition?
  • How will they be stored prior to the competition?
  • How will they be transported to the competition venue?
  • How will you ensure they have enough time to chill and settle properly before judging?
  • How will you sort the beers for ease of judging by category?

Hireage of a chilled trailer can be very useful for larger competitions, but likely cost-prohibitive for small ones.

Judges and Stewards

You’re going to need some people to judge the beer, and a standard to judge them against. Among a small club, peer judging might be fine, with prizes awarded by popular vote, but in general it is more objective to use a baseline set of guidelines and engage people who have plenty of sensory and judging experience. There are plenty of experienced beer judges floating around New Zealand, and many might be happy to help out just for the experience and camaraderie - judging is hard work but can be a lot of fun! Reach out to the team at as they will be able to point you in the right direction to hunt down some judges.

As for a baseline set of guidelines, for better or worse, most beer competitions judge beer to styles. While it’s common for brewers to rail against the constraints of styles, in practice, most beers DO broadley “fit” into a style, and there are always categories for experimental or modified versions of another style. In this way, all beers can be judged against an objective standard, and while judging is subjective, the goal is to keep it as close to objective as possible. Most club competitions use the BJCP style guidelines, but another common set are the American Brewers Association guidelines. These are used to judge World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival, and as such, are more targeted at commercial beer styles and are very regularly updated to include newer commercial styles in the marketplace.

Without going into too much detail here, judging is usually done in groups of at least three, with one acting as “the captain” who is there mostly to facilitate interaction between the judges and help get the best feedback on the entry being judged. They will often have the final call on any disputes, but they aren’t usually seen as “better” than the other judges - they just have the final responsibility for what goes on the judging sheet.

Occasionally when judging, judges may suspect a particular sample of beer may have become contaminated (commonly mis-labelled “infected”). In that case, it is wise to give the benefit of the doubt to the entrant and request a re-pour. For this reason, most competitions require more than one sample of beer per entry. It is also useful to have a second sample in the case that there is a tie for a first prize or best-in-category/show. Unopened beer samples are always welcomed as a well deserved thank you to the stewards.

Speaking of which, here is a typical BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Programme) competition judging sheet. I wrote about how to interpret a judging sheet here, and it’s useful information on how to fill one in too!You will also think about how you’d like to split the entries for judging. Do you want a single style competition, where everyone tries to brew the best example of a particular style? Or do you want broad categories - Pale, Dark, Strong, etc. You will need to give thought to these, as well as how you will decide the winners - highest score takes all, or multiple medals depending on achievement of standards?

Stewards are very important also. They are the ones opening the beers, pouring the samples to be judged, and getting them in front of the judges. This role is a lot more fun than judging, and while hard work, it can be fairly easy to attract stewards on the promise of tasting the beers and taking home unopened beers after the competition! Generally you will need at least one steward per table of judges. At larger competitions, stewards are further split into behind the scenes opening and pouring, and table runners. At the SOBA National Homebrew Competition, we also had what we called a “table steward” who brought the beers to the table, but also joined in on tasting and judging - the idea being to grow the pool of available judges for next time. This worked well, and while not all stewards want to be judging, it can be a great path to sensory training and judging experience for those who are interested.

Oh, and lest I forget to mention it… arrange some backup judges and stewards! Accidents and illnesses happen, lives change, people pull out.

Typical Competition Flow

So, with all of that in mind, here’s what you’d typically do from beginning to end for a decent sized competition.

Start with a date range - you can narrow it down later. Work out roughly how many entries you expect, and set your budget and resources needed accordingly. Eg. if there are 50 entries, and you’re receiving two bottles per entry, you’ll need space to store 100 beers cold, enough judges to get through 50 beers (roughly 5-10 minutes per beer per table), enough stewards to present those beers at the required pace, and enough space to accommodate the judging and stewarding areas.With those parameters in place, you can start to promote the competition by way of coming-soon-style teasers. You can also begin to reach out to sponsors, judges, and stewards. This process will help lock down the date within the range based on availability and preferences. As soon as the date is in place, you can lock down entry and shipping windows. You can also arrange a venue and begin advertising properly, as well as promoting any prizes and meeting any sponsorship obligations.

Once entries start to arrive, you can store and sort them according to style, and arrange a time/method of moving them to the venue for judging day (unless you’re lucky enough to have a venue that has storage you can use already).

Finally… judging day itself! Relax, don’t worry, judge a homebrew!