When entering a homebrew competition, the biggest decision you’ll have to make may have nothing to do with brew day. Instead, it will be which beer style category you choose to enter your beer into — a choice that’s surprisingly trickier than it sounds.
Homebrew competition judges don’t know what you were trying to brew. What they do know is what’s in front of them. For each beer category and subcategory, they’ll be looking for specific criteria the beer should display, as well as what it shouldn’t (here’s looking at you, diacetyl). So, what happens when an entry is on the line? Well, something to the effect of this judge’s comment: “Great beer! Doesn’t fit the style.”
Luckily, there’s an easy fix for entering beers that straddle two styles — submitting them to both. No, it’s not “cheating,” or even playing the game. Where the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) has loosely defined categories or major overlaps, such as the American Pale Ale and American IPA categories, it’s essentially saying the same beer can fit in both of these categories. That being said, don’t waste your time or the judges’ submitting to anything with “ale” in the category. Always check the rules for your competition (especially if it’s not BJCP-sanctioned), and enter your beer in categories where you think it fits.
Below are some of the most common style overlaps to consider when entering a homebrew competition.
What’s the difference between a stout and a porter? It’s a common question, and an ongoing debate among beer professionals and homebrewers. (The short answer? It’s complicated.) Some say the difference is that stouts need a touch of slightly acrid or burnt roasted barley flavor, while others say, “nothing.” Indeed, the line between “robust porters” and “American stouts” in the marketplace is so thin, there’s really no way the BJCP or any judging body can take a hard and fast stance.
So, as a general guideline, if your beer leans more chocolatey and low-alcohol, go for the porter category. If there’s more roast flavor and a drying mouthfeel, think stout. If you have the cash to give both a try, let the judges decide — they might pick up on a characteristic you didn’t.
German Pilsner/Munich Helles/Munich Helles Exportbier
The most common story I’ve heard about winning medals for Munich Helles Exportbier (referred to by many, including the Great American Beer Festival, as Dortmunder Export) is that the brewer was originally shooting for either a soft, delicate Munich Helles, or a crisp, hoppy German Pilsner, and ended up somewhere in the middle.
Actually, that’s exactly how the styles are written, with Exportbier striking a balance between German Pils and Munich Helles (although, technically, the Exportbier should be higher ABV). The people of Dortmund may be wondering where their high-mineral-water character is, but homebrew judges probably won’t be.
Pale Ale/Amber Ale/Session IPA/IPA
Almost as popular as the stout and porter debate is the great question, “What even is a pale ale?” The answer as described by the BJCP guidelines is that pale ale is a less bitter IPA, and a more hop-balanced amber ale. It’s unlikely anyone at a homebrew competition will whip out their spectrophotometer (an expensive piece of equipment used to measure International Bitter Units, or IBUs) to see exactly how the samples on the judging table rank in bitterness. So, generally, if you have any caramel malt in your grist, you’re looking at amber ale or pale ale. If there’s a sign of alcohol warming in the flavor or finish, you’re solidly in the IPA category.
Session IPAs are a newer pale ale crossover. BJCP has only defined it by its alcohol strength (3 to 5 percent ABV), and GABF has very loose guidelines that a session IPA should have “assertive hop character.” The secret here is in the balance: Pale ales will have a full mouthfeel, while session IPAs lean toward hop character and are lighter in color. However, as session IPA brewers avoid a beer that feels watery or thin because of the low alcohol content, the two styles edge ever closer together. Try entering in both!
Wood Aged Beer and Its Base Beer
Since many of us don’t have room for a barrel at home, most homebrewers use wood chips, cubes, or spirals for wood-aged beers such as barrel-aged stout. It takes experience to know exactly how much wood you need in the fermenter, and how much contact time is required, so it’s important to be realistic when evaluating your final beer. An attempt at a barrel-aged stout that didn’t pick up any barrel flavor just tastes like an imperial stout. In these cases, the best option would be to enter that stout in both categories and let the judges decide where it fits best.
A beer that’s brewed with wood that doesn’t have barrel characteristics can absolutely be entered in its base beer category. Many wood-aged beers, like barleywines and imperial stouts, are already so complex that wood flavors can become lost. This category is all about showing off toast and vanillin flavors, so if you don’t have those in your final beer, skip the category.
Dark Mild/English Porter
If a brewer is shooting for the lower-alcohol end of an English porter (4 percent ABV) and the beer ends up even slightly under- attenuated (3.8 to 3.9 percent), it is right in that dark mild range. Furthermore, a dark mild should have a full body (about 65 percent apparent attenuation to porters’ 73 percent) and has a similar malt bill. The lack of consistent commercial examples of these two styles makes distinguishing them difficult, but with the right touch, a high-ABV mild may be best entered as an English porter.
New England IPA/IPA
Here’s a style we are watching develop live. Although the BJCP added NEIPA as a provisional style in 2018, the last official guidelines were released in 2015, so even the more recent style writeup admits overlap, saying: “Many modern American IPAs are fruity and somewhat hazy; if they have a dry, crisp finish, at most medium body, and high perceived bitterness, these examples should be entered as American IPAs.” In competitions like GABF, brewers take a cue from the BJCP writeup. However, many commercial examples of NEIPAs, like those of Tired Hands, Trillium, and Other Half, don’t enter into the GABF competition, meaning the medal winners aren’t the examples that define the style.
This is a style that everyone will have their eyes on for the next official BJCP release, but for now, pick the category based on your hop character, not your haze.