This weekend saw the National Homebrew Competition 2015. The build up has been going on for the past few months, with over 180 people registering, volunteering and sending beers in ready for the competition. Some being brewed specially and others that have been ageing for years, just waiting to reach their peak. All those hopes and expectations, hours of effort brewing beers and it all comes down to that 10 – 15 minutes where your beer sits in front of a pair of judges, who study it and weigh up all it’s strengths, or shine a light on it’s flaws.
There is a lot goes into a competition, long before your beer gets in front of a judge, it has been shipped or taken to a drop off location, where all the beers have been stored, in the case of this years competition. nearly 1,000 bottles of beer were collected. Next they all get labelled up, the entry label which is attached to each bottle has an entry number on it, this number is checked against a crib sheet for a flight which has the entry number and a judging number, so the entry number you are given when entering your beer, eg 369 gets turned into a different number based on the category it is entered into e.g. 16011, the first part (16) being the category number and the second part (011) being a randomly ordered number from the entries in that category. This ensures the judges cannot recognise your beer from it’s entry number, so each beer gets judged fairly. The entry label is removed from the bottle and the judging number is stuck to the cap and sides of each bottle that is entered. Certain categories require some extra information, e.g. if it is a clone beer, it needs to state what it is a clone of, or if it is a specialty or experimental beer, it needs to say what is special about it. This information gets stuck to each bottle as well in the appropriate categories. All these beers then go back into boxes based on their category and are more or less lined up in some sort of category order to help find beers when it comes to judging.
This is about time where your lovingly brewed, and prepared beer gets to go before a judge. If someone has volunteered to steward for a flight of beers being judged, it will be their responsibility to find the box for the category being judged, and to carefully hand over each beer in turn. The steward is an amazing help to the judges, they ensure that the judges have everything they need, from score sheets to kitchen roll for the inevitable spills and gushers, glasses, water etc and these guys help the judging go so much quicker and easier by saving the judges from distractions, apart from the occasional full bladder, which is a common experience when sampling and judging so many beers. They also get to sample the beers as they are being judged and make sure that the judges are adding up their scores correctly, which can be a bigger problem than it sounds as the day progresses. All the judges get to see is the category the beer has been entered into, the judging number, and if the category requires it, a little label with any special ingredients or process listed. They don’t know the beer name, the person that submitted it, the recipe or anything else about it. They take each bottle, open the beer and carefully assess it in terms of its appearance, aroma, taste, mouth feel and overall impression, each being compared to the style or category it had been entered into, then assign it scores for each section, noting what good points or flaws they detect in the beer and usually, some notes about how to improve it.
No one was more surprised than me when I took silver in Dark British Beer for my 16A. Sweet Stout called Event Horizon.
Like the MOT is no proof that your car is roadworthy, your scoresheet is just a snapshot of 2 judges opinion, of that one bottle of beer, at that specific time, on that day. Different people, a different bottle or a different day could see different results. A low score doesn’t mean you are a bad brewer any more than a high score means you are always a great brewer. Use any feedback to help you in future and enjoy your beer.
This year was the first year I was judging in the competition, a total of three flights, with some catch up beers from another category, saw me go through nearly 50 beers over the weekend. If you entered a Scottish or Irish beer, a pale English beer, or a dark American beer, you will probably see my name on one of your pair of scoring sheets when the feedback gets returned later this month.
A few things I learnt about judging in a large competition like this.
- Firstly drinking beer is hard. The Friday night session where I was on Table 8: Scottish and Irish Beer (11 entries), went pretty easily, 11 beers at around 100 – 200 ml of each is a fair amount of beer to get through when you are trying to focus on every nuance of the beer and give the last one as much attention as the first one, however it gets tougher, like on the Saturday, I was on the 30th beer of the day and giving it as much care and attention as 3 litres or so of beer earlier. By the end of the afternoon session, the legs were starting to feel a little wobbly and a bit of a headache was developing courtesy of some of the beers with solvent / fusel alcohol flaws.
- After your 8th American Amber in a row, you start to hope for something about the next one which will make it stand out either positively or negatively as the last few have all been good beers but were so similar, your taste buds are begging for a change.
- As with any establishment where drinking takes place, the distance from where the drinking is done, to the toilets can start to become a concern as the day wears on.
Some advice if you are entering competitions.
- The judges are not there to say if you have brewed a good or bad beer in general. In BJCP competitions especially, but realistically in any categorised competition, the judges are specifically judging how good a beer of one specific style you have brewed. I cannot stress this enough. If you are entering a beer into a category, it really needs to be a good example of that specific style of beer. The best beer in the world will still score very badly if put into the wrong category as it gets judged against the definition of that style. We had some lovely beers, that I would have happily paid money for in a bar, which didn’t score very highly simply because they were not a good example of the style they were entered into. Read the style guide for whatever category you are going to enter your beer into, then try your beer. Read the guidelines again and see if it ticks the boxes for that style. Does it taste like the description (20 points)? Does it smell like it should (12) points? How does it feel in the mouth (5 points)? Does it look like it should (3 points)? Then finally what is the overall impression of the beer (10 points)? If it doesn’t taste right, you have lost as many as 20 points out of 50 before you start.
- Same beer, multiple categories. If, after carefully reviewing the categories, you think your beer fits into more than one of them, then don’t be afraid to enter it into each of them. You may score better against the nuances of one category compared to the other, but also you may have less competition in one group than another. This year, flights went from under 10 to over 30 entries in a category, meaning a lot less beers to beat to win a place in some styles. Just check the rules for whatever competition you are entering to ensure you are allowed to enter multiple styles or categories as some competitions put limits on the number of styles or sub styles for each brewer.
- Try a bottle of your beer before entering it. If you are going to go to the trouble and expense of entering a beer into a competition, take the time to try it first. Yesterday we had tales of the time bottle caps ended up embedded in ceilings, a hospitalisation and other horror stories where people had entered beer which had serious problems. If you open up a bottle of your beer and it smells or tastes like something a baby has just vomited up into their dirty nappy, it’s a good sign you probably shouldn’t be entering it into a major competition, except perhaps in the case of beers entered into the “Weird beer or malts kilned over yak dung fires” categories, where it may be a desired characteristic of the profile. PS. Thanks for the category description Nick 😉
- Check you are entering the correct beer. It may seem like a no brainer, but seriously, especially if you are entering multiple beers, make sure you label the bottles correctly. Whilst an extreme example, there have been cases in the past where the two bottles for one entry were obviously completely different beers, one very pale and the other very dark.
When you finally get your scores back and your feedback sheets, just remember the judges are not trying to upset you, but to help you. They cannot see the special processes or ingredients you put into a batch, all they see is the finished beer. Based solely on that and the description of the category you have entered into, they have to try and decide what you have done to the beer. Sometimes you may get suggestions, which don’t seem to make sense to you knowing your beer like you do, e.g. about mashing when it was an extract beer, but the judges don’t know that and are just trying to help you improve your beer to make it a better example of that one specific style.
Thanks to Ali for organising the competition, all the volunteer staff, stewards and judges. Congratulations or commiserations to all entrants. No matter your score, relax, don’t worry and have a home brew.