There comes a time when every homebrewer hits a ceiling. Maybe the first beer you ever brewed was great because it was your first and the Beer Gods were with you, but then you had a dud or two. One might have been contaminated. Maybe another was too thin. A third may have had unidentifiable floaties. Then, for some mysterious reason, your beers got a little better —a little cleaner flavor, a little maltier malt, a little fuller body, a little kickier hops. And then? The ceiling. Beer after beer, high hopes on brew day fell flat when the finished beer tasted good, but not great, and you didn't know how to improve.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a number of ways to get better at brewing beer. One great way to get better—and to feed your inner competitive beast—is to brew for competition. Here are a few tips to help you along your way.
Brewing for competition carries three major benefits that will improve your brewing. First, if you are planning to enter your beer in a competition, and you have the slightest competitive impulse, you will up your game and put more effort into sanitation and other techniques. Second, because you need to fit your beer into a style guideline, you will put more thought and energy into recipe planning. Finally, the feedback you get from competition judges will give you the guidance you need to break through the ceiling and brew better beer.
Dip a Toe in the Water
Brewing for competition can be intimidating. One great way to break through your fear is to volunteer at a local competition without entering a beer for judgment. Start out as a steward, if you can. Competition stewards deliver beer entries from cold storage to the judges' tables, collect completed judging forms, and generally help out. It is an easy job to get to know the workings of a competition without the pressure of judging. Often, judges will offer you tastes of competition beers that either fit a style well or have an easily-identified off flavor, so this is also a good way to hone your sense of taste.
After a time or two as a steward, if you still don't feel up to entering the competition, you can volunteer as a judge. You will be paired with one or two officially certified beer judges who can help to guide you through tasting a beer and providing feedback to the brewer. I believe judging beer is one of the best ways to learn because you will taste a number of beers within the same style, but each will have a slightly different interpretation or flaw. You will taste everything from deeply flawed to mediocre to exemplary, all while becoming very familiar with one style. Judging is also a great way to prepare for entering competitions, because you will learn what the judges are looking for.
Keep in mind the volunteering with a competition is not a prerequisite to entering. It's merely helpful. If you want to compete (or just get unbiased feedback), even if it's your first beer, by all means—enter!
Taking the Plunge
When you are ready to brew for competition, there just a few important steps to follow.
1. Choose a style. Homebrew competitions divided beers into discrete styles and judge like against like. Pale ales only compete against pale ales, not porters or lagers. Choose a style you like to drink, then move on to Step 2.
2. Read the style guidelines for your chosen style. The style guideline is your brewing bible when you are brewing for competition. It is the rubric against which your beer will be judged. Read it, know it, love it, breathe it.
3. Expand your knowledge. The style guideline tells you what a beer should taste like and some of the important metrics like alcohol levels, but it doesn't tell you how to get your beer there. For insight into how to make your beer, look for some supplemental sources, like Brewing Classic Styles by Jamil Zainasheff and John Palmer.
4. Plan your recipe. Using the style guideline and additional information, design a recipe for your beer. Pay close attention to the target original gravity (O.G.) and final gravity (F.G.), as well as key flavors that should be prominent in your beer.
5. Brew, ferment, bottle, and age your beer. Take good notes on everything you do. Be sure to use a few bottles that are unmarked, unembossed, standard-shaped (not squat like Sierra Nevada bottles, or extra long-necked), brown, 12-ounce bottles and cap them with silver, black or gold caps (see step 6 below). If you have a particular competition in mind, be sure to time your brewing so that your beer's flavor will peak at competition time. The most common error in competition brews, next to poor sanitation, is entering beer that is too young. Plan ahead.
6. Read and reread the competition rules. The last thing you want is to prepare a beer for competition and have it be disqualified because you didn't follow every last rule. Register for the competition, if necessary. Submit the right amount of money in proper form (check or cash). Fill out the entry form completely, including special ingredients for particular styles (refer to competition rules). And, most importantly, package your beer properly. You should get entry labels to place on your bottles. Fill out one label for each unmarked, unembossed, standard-shaped, brown, 12-ounce bottle and attach it with a rubber band, so that it can be removed and filed by the competition organizers and stewards, who will replace it with an anonymous label for the judges. Be sure there are no markings on the bottle cap. When your beers are properly labeled, deliver them to the competition drop site with the entry form and money, or ship them to the competition. If you plan to ship your beers, consult the "How to Pack Your Beer" article on this site. Good luck!
7. Read your feedback—it's the best-informed, least biased feedback you will get on your homebrew. Look back on your recipe and notes and see if you can find areas for improvement, either in ingredients or processes. This is how you break through that ceiling. And one of these days, you might just win something.
Have you entered homebrewing competitions? Got any tips for beginners?