My First Homebrew Medals!

Homebrew competitions have had a steep learning curve for me, and the experience has been a mixed bag as a result. I’ve entered two competitions previously, to mostly mediocre scores (28 for a milk stout and 28.6 for a vanilla porter I brewed in 2014, and 25 for an oatmeal stout I entered in 2015, all out of 50). Using the BJCP scoring guide, that puts them range of entries that are “good” but “[miss] the mark on style and/or minor flaws”. This was a bit disappointing at the time, but the feedback was really helpful as a learning experience.

What I Learned From Previous Competitions
Although my scores were not awful, they were instructive on how I could improve my brewing, and even more critically, how I could improve my entries for competition. As I learned from reading many sources, it’s not enough to brew a good beer–you also have to brew a beer that hits the points that judges are looking for within a flight of entries. Time and introspection have shown the following:
  • Category matters (Part 1). It’s easier to place in smaller categories, particularly against the odds in big categories with experienced brewers (and there are lots here in SoCal!). This is the reason I haven’t bothered with an IPA, for instance. I really like some of my IPA’s, but am not convinced they would score well against the really excellent brews my friends and colleagues are brewing.
  • Category matters (Part 2). If you’re going to enter a category, make sure you are brewing your beer within the overall style parameters. An otherwise good beer might get dinged for being outside of style, if it’s not a good match. For instance, I submitted a vanilla porter as a robust porter — and that was a mistake. The judges noted “odd” aromas that were almost certainly in part from the vanilla–in fact, one even stated that “The herbal flavor is vanilla, so this beer should have been entered as a specialty [beer].” This is a bit different from the oft-repeated advice that winning beers often push the bounds of categories; after all, a beer can push bounds while still being within believable reach of the style. Stretch boundaries, but not too much!
  • Fresh, fresh, fresh. I’m really proud of my oatmeal stout, and consider it a good beer. The one time I entered it in competition, though, the bottles had been sitting around for a few months. One judge suggested some oxidized flavors were at play, and another noted that the beer was a tad thin. I suspect both of these were due (in part) to the age of the brew, with maybe a bit of secondary fermentation in the bottle. Surely there were other facets I could improve, but nonetheless resting at room temperature for months didn’t do the beer any favors. Lesson learned.
  • You have to be on top of your brewing game. I have definitely improved over the past few years, as I pay closer attention to fermentation temperature and such. For instance, I have drastically improved my carbonation procedures (either by carbonating with CO2 or more carefully measuring my priming sugar), which avoid hazards of overcarbonation. This can only help in judging!
  • Read the comments. Even if the judges’ assessments of the beer didn’t match my own lofty expectations, I needed to swallow my pride and take their comments seriously. Every entry has two score sheets, and there is naturally a bit of variance. One judge might pick up oxidation, but the other judge might not. Even so, I have seen enough commonalities between scorings that I am willing to listen. If both judges give middling scores, it is probably a middling beer for the purposes of that category.
Although I was disappointed that I didn’t get any medals in my first two competitions, they were a valuable learning experience. Firstly, I gained confidence that my beers weren’t awful. Nothing the judges said indicated that I had tremendous process flaws–it was a matter of relatively minor tweaking to transform decent beer into good beer into great beer. I also gained an understanding of the competition process–brewing for a medal can be (but isn’t necessarily) different from brewing for personal satisfaction. I might have the best vanilla-infused porter on the planet, but it will never do well if the judges are expecting a standard porter.

A celebratory IPA for my first medals

Renewed Efforts
Based on my adequate, but not great, performances, I was a little cynical on competitions. I liked my beer, and many of my friends said they liked my beer, so why bother with the dog-and-pony show of a formal beer competition? I had accepted the lessons mentioned above, but wasn’t confident enough or filled with enough energy to test the waters in another competition.
Thankfully, I have a homebrew club to kick my butt into gear.
At the December meeting of Horse Thief Brewers Association, our president noted the upcoming “Romancing the Beer” competition, sponsored by Thousand Oaked Brewers. He wanted to see a good turnout for “The Thieves,” and even offered to transport the beers personally to the entry center. I came to a final realization–what would it hurt to try again? No entries, no awards.
I decided to enter my 80 shilling ale, imperial stout, Berliner Weisse, and Irish stout. They were pretty fresh, decent brews (in my opinion), and for at least two (the Scottish and the Irish beers) were in categories that don’t always get a lot of entries.
Due to my own incompetence, I only ended up with three entries, because I had attached the wrong labels to one set of bottles. Oops! One of my four initial submission was removed from competition as a result (major kudos to the folks in charge for alerting me to this, and refunding my entry fee). So, three beers went into the fray.
And of those three, it turned out the wrong labels were on one (oops again–the wrong set of beers had been removed of the original four). Totally my fault, but needless to say, a Scottish export doesn’t score well in the imperial stout category (to the tune of 17/50 as a score). Lesson learned, and I’ll definitely double-check the bottle labels next time!
But for my remaining two…what a surprise! I was completely shocked to see that both placed first in category.
My Irish Stout placed first out of the five combined “Scottish and Irish Beer” entries, with a respectable (but not outstanding) score of 36.5 (average of 36 and 37). I suspect it wouldn’t have placed so highly if there were more entries, but I’ll take a win! And, it was nice to see the beer so well received.
The real shocker, though, was for my Berliner Weisse. It placed first out of 12 entries in the “Sour Beers” category, with an average score of 41.5 (39 and 44)! This was a pleasant surprise on several counts. First, sour beers are a bit in vogue at the moment, and there are some great sour brewers in Southern California. There must have been stiff competition! Second, I had never attempted a sour before, and I don’t drink a lot of them, so I really had no idea how my beer really fell on the sour spectrum. Finally, I “cheated” a bit with this brew. It was brew-in-a-bag, and kettle soured. Easy, simple, and apparently successful! That was a nice boost of confidence, to realize that simple techniques could produce something so technically solid in the eyes of a judge.
Final Thoughts
It was a nice boost of confidence to get external validation for some of my brews, particularly after the learning curve of earlier competitions. I don’t know if I’m going to enter every competition that comes my way, but I’ll certainly be trying a few more in the future. The overall process has forced me to consider my technical processes more carefully, and provided some helpful feedback along the way. That has definitely added up to better beer overall. I don’t expect to have such success every time, but I am hopeful for future efforts as a whole, regardless of whether they go to competition.