SOBA National Homebrew Competition 2017 Review

By Greig McGill

Another year of judging a selection of New Zealand homebrewers’ efforts is complete, and it’s a good time to reflect on the competition. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of beers judged every year, but this year was a little different for several reasons.

Before I get into that, I think it is important to recognise what a huge task running this competition is. The organisers did an incredible job, and should be very proud of what they achieved. I am going to be “opening the kimono” here a bit in order to show what it’s like behind the scenes. This is from my very subjective experience, and nothing here is meant in any way as a criticism against those dedicated people.

For the first time in many years, the cost per entry went up, and correspondingly the number of entries went down, though roughly the same number of brewers entered. As the competition has grown over the nine years of its existence, the challenge has always been ensuring that there are a good number of experienced judges in place to give helpful feedback on the beers that are judged. This costs quite a lot, with flights and other travel costs, accommodation, and ensuring the judges feel looked after (read: fed and “watered”). The judges are NOT paid. When we used to run the competition in Hamilton, travel costs were higher. Moving the competition under the watchful eye of the SOBA Auckland team has allowed flight costs to be reduced, but Auckland isn’t exactly known for it’s affordability, and so it still costs a fair bit to put on the event. In order to not run at a loss, the organisers raised the entry price this year. The response from brewers seemed measured and eminently sensible – enter just the beers where feedback is really needed, or where the brewer really thinks they have the best shot at glory.

Practically, this seemed to have resulted in an uptick in the quality of the higher performing beers.  A higher proportion of entries were awarded medals, and more gold medals were given despite fewer entries.

Another change was working with David Moynagh and his team, who have been bringing BJCP training to New Zealand, and encouraging BJCP-style scoring, along with the associated conventions. From my point of view at the judging table, this was a mixed bag. The increased requirement for feedback, and high level of descriptiveness needed on the judging sheets was universally praised by the entrants, and the competition is for them, after all, so it needs to be emphasised that this is a great thing, but it became quite fatiguing. Instead of simply concentrating on where points were lost and improvement was needed, we were required to give a full descriptive workup of the beer in front of us. Again, I will state that this was an excellent result for the entrant, and is not a criticism of BJCP or of the organisers.

Anyone looking at the comparative results between 2017 and 2016 will have also noticed far fewer beers in the 0-13 score range. This is largely due to a particular BJCP-inspired quirk of giving marks no lower than a 13 unless the beer is too contaminated to judge. My view on this is that while the intention is kindness, and that is a sentiment dear to my heart, I think it does a brewer no favours to ever sugar coat anything. I prefer honest (even if brutally so) feedback, and I feel it is a little disrespectful to assume a brewer can’t handle that.

Enough about the mechanical changes, let’s talk about the beer! As always, there were some very interesting beers across our table, including the Champion Beer – a really complex and interesting “Clone Beer” of Panhead’s Black Sabbath by the clearly very talented Steven Bellward. I feel like every year, we judges throw a pretty evil challenge at our friend Steve Plowman and his team at Hallertau who get to attempt to recreate the Champion Beer. This year seems no different! Last year, Tom asked me, with my Brewaucracy hat on, if I’d like to work with the Champion Brewer (2016 winner Jamie McQuillan) as we figured our new brewery would be done by then. Alas, it wasn’t, but I still enjoyed helping Jamie to recreate his “Belle Saison” on the kit at Shunter’s Yard with Peter McKenzie. This year, I am looking forward to working with Champion Brewer Murray McCulloch who, based on the results, seems to have a thing for Belgians. I approve!

The judging at the SOBA NHC often starts off on a bit of a downer. Beers go before the judges one at a time in style groups, going from least palate impact to most. As a result of this, we usually start with very light, delicate beers where faults are quite evident. This year, it was pleasing to see that the common fermentation driven faults of VDK/diacetyl and acetaldehyde were notable in their absence. Instead, a focus on packaging and freshness were to the fore, with tired oxidised beer being the most common issue across our table.

Balance issues were a big problem area. Many beers were loosely within style parameters, but simply lacked the required malt weight to carry their hops. Or conversely, were dominated by heavy, sometimes cloying malt sweetness whilst lacking pleasant malt flavour, and burying hop character where it was required.

Freshness of ingredients contributed heavily to low scoring beers also. Several beers were let down by slightly cheesy hops, or malts that tasted like they might have sat around crushed a little too long. I think many brewers would benefit from investing in a malt mill and a dedicated hop freezer (and perhaps a vacuum sealer) to ensure maximum freshness of ingredients.

The final trend I noticed, and seemed to be common across tables after speaking to some of the other judges, was a lack of good carbonation levels, and very poor head retention. Whilst presentation of the beer at its optimum is a massive challenge during these competitions due to timing, steward workload (and WOW do those stewards work hard), and glassware that is great for aroma/flavour, but not necessarily conducive to good head stability, there was certainly a noticeable decrease in head retention this year. I am not sure what this might be attributable to. Lower protein levels in malts? Brewers playing more with water treatment? The trend away from bittering hops leading to fewer iso-alpha acids in the beer? Higher use of oily grains such as oats? Who knows! I’m genuinely curious though, so if you have any thoughts I’d love to hear them.

One last thing of note for potential entrants in 2018 and beyond; it is still very important to ensure that the beer you are entering matches the style you are entering it as, and that you have met all the requirements for entry of that style. We still had a few entries that were quite good beers but entered as completely the wrong thing. My favourite was a fairly decent, if a little tired ESB that the brewer had entered as a Saison. That’s just leaving a medal on the table! It is also critical to check the style guidelines to see what type of brewer’s notes are needed. Some styles require you to specify which sub style you have brewed, or other factors which the judges need to know in order to judge how well the goal has been met. Several brewers left valuable points on the table by missing these details, requiring the judges to guess at what they might have been.

To summarise, after two days of solid judging I certainly felt like the general homebrewing skill level has increased, as evidenced by fewer “bush league” fermentation faults, and the majority of issues simply being about balance, freshness, and finesse. When it’s just the fine details that need tweaking, it means most brewers out there are at least making something they and their friends can enjoy together. Surely that’s why we all do it, right?

You might also notice that some of your favourite purveyors of homebrewing supplies here at Brewshop managed to walk off with some hardware. Congratulations to Gavon and Peter, who both managed silver medals and best in class!

For anyone interested, I was captaining table number 1, so if your score sheet has that table identified, please don’t send me death threats!