The crucial moment when a hobbyist homebrewer turns into a competitor often looks like this: You’ve been brewing for long enough to upgrade from extract to all-grain. Your friends tell you, “I would pay for this beer.” You believe them, and start to dream of winning your first homebrew competition. Here’s how to take quality homebrew to award-winning recipes in a few not-so-arduous, not-too-expensive steps.
Find the Right Contest
There are multiple homebrew competitions in the U.S. every week. Competitions held by local breweries and homebrew clubs are smaller, and therefore easier to win. There are also national contests like the Samuel Adams Longshot and the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) National Homebrew Competition. If you’re in it for the glory, this is where you’ll gain some beer geek street cred.
Homebrew competitions are less intimidating than they sound. They typically comprise tables in a quiet room, where volunteers pour beers for judges who write feedback on score sheets. Many competitions aren’t public events. Beers are shipped in, and score sheets and ribbons are shipped out. If you want to enter a competition with an awards ceremony and a chance to meet other competitors, you’ll have to make those elements part of your search.
Getting from recipe, to brew day, to competition-ready beer will take about a month. Expect at least a two-week fermentation (more on this later), plus time to carbonate the final product by bottle-conditioning or force-carbonating.
Everyone Wins (But Not Everyone Medals)
Unlike boxcar races or other hobbyist contests, homebrew competitions offer a major benefit for participants who don’t win: standardized feedback from certified judges. Even events that aren’t sanctioned by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), a non-profit organization that develops definitive guidelines for beer styles and methods for evaluating them, use the standard competition score sheet, or something very similar. Homebrewers get both a number score and a professional critique of their brew’s aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression.
This author has entered many competitions not only to compete, but to get unbiased feedback on recipes. If you’re at a point where you have several homebrews on hand, try submitting them to entry-level competitions to see how they’re rated and what flaws may be present. You can find competitions with low entry fees by searching the American Homebrewers Association or BJCP websites.
When you’re ready to go for the gold (or at least a nice blue ribbon), strategy is paramount.
Read the Rules
Assume nothing. Read the rules from top to bottom, left to right, then find the fine print and read that, too. Some contests require brewers to be state residents, or a certain age, or to brew a beer over 10 percent ABV, or one that uses wood. Don’t waste your time on a competition you aren’t qualified to win.
And please, on behalf of competition organizers: Double-check the entry submission and judging deadlines. This isn’t “American Idol” — beers are sent and judged ahead of the event. You cannot enter a beer on the day of the competition. Entries are typically dropped off or shipped one week in advance.
Pick a Style
Almost every homebrew competition is organized around categories or styles. Competitors enter a beer as a specified style, and judges determine how closely that beer matches the style. In other words, judges are not simply picking their favorite brew. Professional competitions like the World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival are structured this way, too.
When selecting a style, it’s important to like it. You’ll make better beer when it’s something you want to drink. Don’t pick a style because it “seems easy to brew.” Pick one you know inside and out. Yes, that beer could vaguely work as an American wheat ale, but have you tried many commercial examples of American wheat ale? Are you sure your wheat beer isn’t a witbier or weissbier? The competition’s style guide will provide parameters, but tasting beers that are brewed “to style” will help you know a winner when you taste one.
Finally, be strategic. Your beer has to win in its category, and sometimes even subcategory, before it has a chance to medal. Are you entering a dark mild to go up against English porter in the brown British beer category? You love your dark mild, but it might not be a standout against all that flavor. Or when it comes to stout, imperial stout is often its own category. Can your creation wow the judges when pitted against more intense beers, or would it fare better in a lighter beer category?
Brew (and Ferment!) It
Once you have a style, refine your recipe. There are many recipes out there, so don’t feel like you need to start from scratch. Borrowing recipes from past medalists is totally fair game, and not considered plagiarizing. Generally, you are judged on your skills as a brewer, not as a recipe developer.
Keep it simple. Recipes don’t need dozens of ingredients to impress a judge. A simple grain bill — 80 percent base malt, specialty malt for color, and a little adjunct for mouthfeel — is a solid (liquid) formula. As long as you follow a recipe, hit your temperatures, and keep everything very sanitary, your wort will be competition-ready. (A note on sanitation: Brewers often say “brewing is 90 percent cleaning.” It’s true. Get some Star San and use it at every step of the brewing process.)
The final step, and probably the key to winning, is a well-executed fermentation. Invest in a temperature-controlled fermentation method. This doesn’t have to be top-of-the-line, professional equipment, like the shiny conical fermenters with glycol jackets you see in breweries. It can be as simple as a converted mini-fridge (I got one for a steep discount in a back-to-school sale) with an external temperature control (a device with a probe that keeps your refrigerator at a set temperature for ideal fermentation). For less than $200, you’ll take your homebrew from mediocre to medalist.
Temperature control is crucial because it keeps fermentation byproducts, like esters and phenols, in check. Often referred to as “off-flavors,” these are immediate red flags to judges. Contenders are often eliminated from judges’ first sniffs.
Submit, Submit, Submit
Get your hard work out there. Each 5-gallon batch of beer is enough to submit to nine or 10 competitions, with a few beers left to spare. Once you have your signature style, start entering it into local competitions, and continue improving it while you wait for feedback.
Homebrewing is a completely learnable skill for passionate beer lovers excited to learn the craft. Remember, winning isn’t about the prize — it’s about the journey to making better beer.