Brewing Beer for Competition

By Greig McGill

If you’re reading this, you may already know what a great and rewarding hobby home brewing is. There’s always more to learn, to try, to think about, and to debate over several glasses of your latest creation. You never reach the end; the path of the home brewer is inherently asymptotic.

There are certainly mile markers along the infinite path to brewing perfection though, and for many brewers, these are defined by entering brewing competitions. Brewers do so with different goals. The majority enter to get genuine and frank feedback about the quality of their brews from judges who don’t know them and don’t feel obliged to say nice things because the beer is free! More advanced brewers usually know when they’ve made a pretty good beer, and are interested in competing against others to prove their mettle, to claim prizes, and (often more importantly) bragging rights. This article is largely aimed at the second group, as it deals with how to brew a beer that has the best chance at scoring well in a competition, though it should help the novice brewer by explaining how beer judging works.

First, let’s demystify beer judging a little. It’s not magic. There’s no point where Ninkasi appears before a prostrate would-be judge, and anoints them as her holy representative on Earth. Beer judging is simply learning to listen to your senses and communicate what they tell you in a clear manner. Judges look, sniff, taste, swallow, and then write. They then do that many more times over the course of a session. You will see why this matters later. Having judged at World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival, I’ve judged with some of the most awesome beer judges on the planet. They are all, to a person, humble, funny, and terrifyingly competent. They are often also completely untrained. Courses like BJCP are extremely useful as a fast track to judging, but nothing beats tasting and talking about everything with groups of similarly minded people, honing your palate and ability to communicate what you perceive. So, don’t be in awe of the judges. Just be respectful, since they usually do what they do for no more than a desire to help out. Wading through thirty or forty samples of often fairly poor beer is not a fun thing to do!

Brewing Beer for CompetitionNow you know why judges always look depressed, we can move on to how you can best impress them! The first thing to do is learn about beer faults; how the various off-flavours are created, how to eliminate them, and most importantly, what they taste like. With this ability to self-diagnose your beer, in terms of fault analysis, you may have saved yourself the need to enter a faulty beer just to be told what the fault is. And you’ve saved a poor judge from having to taste her tenth oxidised beer of the day! Your best friend Google has a truckload of data on off-flavours. Start reading, and start tasting with that critical palate you’re already developing.

Once you have a technically clean beer, the next problem is which style to enter it as in the competition. Styles are annoying, constrictive, and nobody likes them. However, they are the only method we judges really have for objectively comparing different beers. Without styles, all beer competitions would simply come down to a popularity contest, with judges arguing over their subjective favourites, and nobody being much the wiser as to who the best brewers were at the finish. So yes, styles are a necessary evil.

Deciding which style your beer fits has very little to do with how you as a brewer chose a recipe that said it was an IPA. It has everything to do with what the finished beer actually tastes like. A good way to select the correct style is to taste the beer first, and write down a list of the attributes of the beer as you actually perceive them; NOT as you wish they were, or as the recipe said they should be. It doesn’t matter if you used a ton of hops that advertised “bright citrus characters”. What if you also used a lot of caramel malts or strongly flavoured adjuncts that completely subsumed or altered the nature of those hops? The judges have no idea what you brewed. Only what style you claim is in their glasses. And they will score the beer accordingly. Once you have your list of attributes, go through the styles that possess those attributes and make a list. For example, if your beer is pale and hoppy, list all the various pale ale and IPA styles.  Now taste your beer against each one, reading carefully and being brutally honest with yourself. Does it fit?

Now the tricky part which separates the gold meal winners from the pack. Learn what to ignore! For example, your beer most closely fits an American IPA style in terms of the flavour and aroma profile, but you know it’s only 5% abv. Unless it seems noticeably light on alcohol, most judges will never know that. They might question it, perhaps note it on the sheet even and cost you a few points, but a minor discrepancy like that is far better than having it thrown out as a Pale Ale because it’s too hoppy for style. Likewise, if the appearance description says the beer should be brilliantly clear, with a big head, and it’s actually lightly hazy with a head which doesn’t amount to much, well… so what? If the beer is in line in every other way (although see the tips at the end for why this does still matter) then just enter it. Appearance won’t cost you many points if the beer is otherwise excellent. Be aware though that in extreme cases (“why is this Irish Dry Stout orange?”) that it will cost you points for your overall score, and probably remove any chance of a medal by being out of style.

And then we get to the subtleties of gamesmanship. Remember what I wrote earlier about the judges slogging through a heap of beers? We are not superhuman. Despite constant applications of dry crackers and water, our palates still get wrecked. There’s a reason there’s always a huge run on G&Ts at the post-competition judge event! You’d like to think that the gold medals would be taken by the best examples of the style on the day. That is seldom true. While a perfect example of a style should always do well, the really high scoring beers are often the ones that go above and beyond, shocking the judges out of their palate fatigue. That IPA we talked about? What if it was actually just into imperial IPA territory, but you entered it as an IPA? So long as it isn’t particularly egregious (“What the… this Belgian Pale Ale is at least 10%!”) not only will you likely get away with it, you may well do better than if it was entered into the more technically correct category. Obviously some styles lend themselves better to this than others. Be smart. Ask yourself “if somebody gave me this and told me it was an example of style X, would I believe them without question?”

Finally, here are some simple ways to gain an edge in competition:

  1. Brew clear beer. Most styles call for clarity of appearance. This means being able to read through it. I don’t care what you’ve been reading about “east coast IPAs being cool”, we judges are so uncool you could fry eggs on us. Don’t try to be cool, try to make great beer. Haze traps polyphenol compounds that any decent judge will smell and taste a mile off. If you can see it, you can usually taste it.
  2. Package carefully. Ensure your bottles are neither over nor under carbonated. Lifeless or too-fizzy-to-taste beers lose a lot of points.
  3. Don’t forget the malt. Yes, we all love hops. The best hoppy beers need a firm malt base on which to shine. That’s not to say they need to be sweet or cloying, or be clashing with caramel malts, but they need enough body and residual sweetness to balance the hop level. Many brewers lose lots of points for this because they can’t get past how great the beer smells.
  4. Think about the hops. Don’t just chuck in any old hops in any old combinations. The best beers are harmonious. The brewer has thought about every aspect of flavour and aroma, and selected ingredients to bring about that vision. Smell and taste everything until you have mastered this art. Muddled, confused, and over-hopped beers are far too common.
  5. Watch your adjuncts. A great beer is just that, a great beer. If there’s no inherent “beerness” about your entry due to adjuncts totally dominating it, or the crazy bacterial culture you’ve used having eaten away every last scrap of malt character, then it simply won’t do well. Judges are always concerned with balance and drinkability first and foremost.

I hope those tips help you all in your quest to wow those judges and pile up more gold than King Midas!

Happy brewing!