More & more homebrewers are entering their brews in competitions. Some are even going further and becoming certified as a BJCP judge. Recently our Marketing Assistant, Tyler, and Product Specialist and Consultant, Jonathan sat down to discuss their experiences as a competition brewer and a competition judge.
Tyler, Competition Brewer
What was your first competition brewing experience like? What did you brew and how was it received by the judges?
The first homebrew competition I entered was the Garrison Brew-Off 2018. It took me a few years to have the confidence to enter a brewing competition. But now, I wish I would have been entering from the start.
Garrison Brewing has an annual Brew-Off where brewers have to brew a specific style. In 2018, the style was a Kolsch 5B. I’ve never brewed this style before, or even had a true Kolsch. It was a little daunting. But, I researched for weeks and finally came up with my recipe.
We got an email a few weeks after we submitted the beer, and we made it through the first round of judging. Out of 50 entries we were somewhere within the top 14, and I was happy with that. At the awards and gala, we got our score sheet back, and the scores were really good. Even compared to some of the winners! We also got some good feedback, and I was able to tweak my Kolsch recipe to improve it!
What do you enjoy more - open competitions that allow you to brew any type of beer for judging, or specific competitions (specific styles, specific ingredients, etc.).
I like competitions that have a certain style because it forces me to dive deep into the style and really learn the roots of the beer. I also really like competitions that require a certain ingredient because it’s fun getting creative with beer. Not to mention, you get to see and taste what everyone else did with it. I think I’m a little too indecisive for open style competitions.
What has been your best and worst experiences in competition brewing?
I’ve had a lot of good experiences with competitions, but not really any bad ones.
What advice would you give first time competition brewers?
Just do it! The worst that will happen is you’ll get lots of feedback. Even if you’re trying to dial in a recipe but you can’t seem to get it right, the judges will tell you where you’re going wrong and how to improve it (in a positive way).
What are you brewing for upcoming competitions?
That is highly confidential information. But I am brewing something for Spindrift’s competition with their Mandarina Bavaria hops!
Jonathan, BJCP Certified Beer Judge
How did you get involved in beer judging?
I offered to help out at Garrison Brewing's Annual Brew Off in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The company I worked for at the time was a sponsor so it was an easy in. I really enjoyed the experience as a competition steward* and asked Chris McDonald of AC Beer Blog who organizes most beer competitions in our area how I could stay involved. Eventually after enough experience, and prior to certification, I began to judge as an industry member.
*A competition steward assists judges and make sure they have all judging materials required.
What’s the most interesting beer you’ve judged?
It would be hard to name one but I do recall a stout that had an obvious defect - a smokey phenolic type character. The whole table agreed the beer was delicious and expected it was intentionally made smokey, but had been mis-categorized into the stout category rather than experimental.
We were assured by competition staff there had been no record of smoked malts in the entrant's recipe, and the beer and been categorized appropriately as a stout. The beer did poor in scoring as it did not meet the category requirements, and had an obvious defect. But it was probably the best beer we had all day!
That's the cool thing about competition brewing, the challenge is about how the brewer understands the style and their execution - not necessarily how good the beer tastes.
Have you ever judged any bad beers?
This is something judges get asked often, but the question is too vague. There are bad beers (subjectively) and then there are BAD beers! We often have to try beer we don’t like as a style, or the brewer's interpretation of the style. The task is to understand the the style characteristics, the history, the ingredients and judge on the brewer's ability to achieve a beer within those parameters. Sometimes that means a beer you don’t really care for is the one that wins. A boring beer doesn’t really lose points for being boring if it falls appropriately within the style.
On the other hand, sometimes there are issues or “faults” in a beer. These can be infections or undesirable flavours and aromas produced from any number of technical errors. It can also be poor design and understanding of the beer. These are things that will lose you points.
If a Trappist single is 16 SRM and sweet, then there was a technical flaw in the approach - the beer could be absolutely amazing like no other you’ve had before, but the fact remains it is out of the style guideline and a representation of the brewers merits.
This is why I also like entering competitions. It's so beneficial to receive that type of feedback and be told where to tighten things up and how I can work on my brewing. I should also say, my experience is homebrewing competitions produce much better beer than commercial competitions!
How does someone get certified for beer judging and how long is the process?
It’s completely up to the individual how long it takes. The BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) is the governing body for aspiring judges. They have plenty of information and self-study guides in the exam centre on their website.
Exams are also given often, so you can also check the website to see when it is being offered close to you. There are often study groups that work together and do tastings in preparation for exams. Check your local brew clubs to start.
If you're really serious you can do it in 6 months to a year. People sometimes feel intimidated by that, but being certified doesn't make you a beer master with the weight of the world on your shoulders. It gives you a foundation and the theory and the tools so you know how to use the information. I still use the style guide when judging. I don't have it all memorized. Being certified helps me put the subjectivity aside and use the guide to fairly and accurately score a beer.
What’s your favourite beer competition event to judge?
I like the larger competitions where I get to try many beers from one category. In smaller competitions where there may only be a few entries in each category they tend to get lumped together. I like having 10 brown ales in front of me, all falling within the same parameters but still vastly different based of the brewer's interpretation of the style. That is what I find the most interesting and engaging about judging and brewing itself.