The Anatomy of Homebrew Competition Judging

Entering a Homebrew Competition? Heed This Judge’s Advice

If you’re a homebrewer considering your first competition, you probably have a bunch questions about the the entry and judging processes. What happens once you submit your bottles? How are they handled, and how are they presented to the judges? What scoring criteria do judges follow? If you enter a certain style, what others styles will it be judged against?

For a little insight into the world of competitive homebrewing, we caught up with KegWorks’ in-house IT wizard Alex Placito, who moonlights as judge director for Amber Waves of Grain (AWOG), a large homebrew competition. In his official capacity as AWOG judge director, Alex is responsible for managing the dozens of volunteers who evaluate the 600-700 entries AWOG annually garners.

alex

This is Alex.

Of course, every homebrew competition runs a little differently, but most follow some pretty standard tenets, and knowing how one competition does things will give you a better idea of what to expect from your first competition–wherever it might be. According to Alex, the AWOG general course of events is as follows:

  1. Participating homebrewers register online, at which time they are assigned a number for each of their entries. Participants must print off the labels bearing said number and affix those labels to their bottles (two bottles per beer submitted) before delivering their homebrew to a designated drop-off location. Drop-off deadlines are typically two weeks prior to the competition judging. Many competitions allow submissions to be mailed in, but they need to arrive by deadline like any other, so plan accordingly!

  2. From the drop-off location, competition reps transport the submissions to the registrar. Once in the hands of the registrar, entries are assigned a new number and relabeled to ensure anonymity during judging.

  3. Prior to judging, all of the entries are transported to the site of competition, where they are held in cold storage.  

  4. The morning of the first day of judging, all of the entries are laid out in numeric order by entry ID and then broken down into the sensible judging categories that were predetermined by the judge director and the registrar based on the styles of the submissions received. The bottles are then placed in boxes with their pull sheet, which bears an entry’s ID number, category, subcategory, and, in some cases, notes on special ingredients or other pertinent details. Those that aren’t being judged immediately go back in the cooler.

Assigning Judges

judging

A scene from AWOG judging, courtesy of Jim Gorman.


It’s after step four that Alex is tasked with sorting out judging assignments. For smaller categories, Alex assigns two judges, who, as a pair fill out the scoresheets and choose the first, second, and third place winners in their assigned category. For larger categories, like IPAs, which might receive dozens of entries, two judges are insufficient to handle the load. In these cases, called split-flight categories, Alex breaks the submissions into flights of five to 12 beers each. Each flight is evaluated by a duo of judges, and then the top two beers from each flight faceoff in what Alex calls a “mini best of show.” This gives the head judges from each pair the chance to taste the best beer from each flight before reaching a unanimous decision as to the category winners.

It sounds like a fairly straightforward process, but the task of assigning judges can be complex for a number of reasons. First, a person cannot judge a category he or she is competing in. That seems pretty obvious. But judge directors like Alex also have to keep in mind rank to ensure judging experience is balanced at each table. Alex also notes that certain categories are polarizing, so he tries to avoid assigning judges to categories they “dislike.” And he makes a concerted effort to avoid overwhelming any one judge’s palate.

“You shouldn’t assign a judge to IPAs in the morning and double IPAs in afternoon,” he admits.

Finally, judge directors have to be mindful of ABV. An inebriated judge is not a good thing.

The Scoring Process

homebrew tasting

Once assigned, judges tend to take different approaches and employ different methods during scoring, but some aspects of the process are universal.

“There should be a large amount of objectivity,” Alex reports.

To that end, judges are trained to assess a beer’s characteristics–its aroma, taste, appearance, and mouthfeel–before giving their overall impression of the beer. At AWOG, entries can receive up to 20 points for flavor, 12 for aroma, five for mouthfeel, three for appearance, and ten for overall impression, for a total of 50 possible points.

“All of those things should really have nothing to do with whether or not a judge liked the beer,” Alex insists. “The scores should be a reflection of what you tasted–imprints of what you perceived. That’s what you’re supposed to write.”

Scoresheets, which AWOG borrows from the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) with only slight modifications, include a scoring rubric to help guide the judges’ decisions:

Outstanding (45 – 50) World-class example of style
Excellent (38 – 44) Exemplifies style well, requires minor fine-tuning
Very Good (30 – 37) Generally within style parameters, some minor flaws
Good (21 – 29) Misses the mark on style and/or minor flaws
Fair (14 – 20) Off flavors/aromas or major style deficiencies; unpleasant
Problematic (00 – 13) Major off flavors and aromas dominate; hard to drink

Of course, even with the rubric, it’s impossible to entirely rule out subjectivity; everybody’s palates are different. But a trained judge has developed consistencies in his or her scoring, and hopefully a more refined and sensitive palate. For Alex, that sensitivity also goes the other way.

“Me personally, I am probably a lot less sensitive to bitterness or astringency or oxidation event than I used to be. But when I focus, I am better every time at picking it out.”

All that aside, judges aren’t actually trained in a uniform scoring method, which Alex calls an “interesting” quirk of the homebrew competition circuit. For that reason, judges’ methodologies differ. Some judges take a top-down approach. For example, in scoring a porter, a judge might think “In the wide world of porters, is this a 50? A 30? A 45?” Others might take a bottom-up approach. For these judges, every beer starts in the middle and gain or loses points based on certain qualities the judges perceive.

No matter what approach a judge takes, they rarely give out total scores above the low 40s. Anything close to 50 is indicative of perfection, and people don’t often grade that way. So rest assured, homebrewers, if you receive a 40 or above, you should be pretty proud of yourself.

Best in Show

beer flight

At the end of category judging, which AWOG spreads out over five sessions across two days, the official “best in show” beer is selected from among the first-place winners from each category. At this point in the process, the score a beer received during category judging is irrelevant. Five judges, who are usually selected for the honor of choosing best in show based on rank, are presented with the first-place beer from each category, along with an indication of its style and and any special notes.

Without any deliberation, the judges spend about 30 seconds per beer evaluating it for the aforementioned qualities. Then, elimination begins. One by one, the judges elect to remove one beer from the running, which the others can veto if they feel strongly about their colleague’s choice. Within 10 minutes, nearly half are chopped. But as the pool is winnowed, the decision process gets harder, and there are inevitable disagreements between judges. In the end though, they need to come to a unanimous decision as to the top three beers of the competition, and only one can be named best in show.

For this reason, only the best judges are selected to participate in the best in show round. They need to know all of the beer styles intimately enough to make quick, informed decisions.

Homebrew Competition Advice

For the first-time homebrew competition entrant, Alex offers the following sage advice.

Tip 1: Brew early.

It is better to give your beer more time than less time, so make note of the competition submission deadline, and plan your brewing schedule around that. Conditioning time is always helpful to prevent submitting something that is a little too green.

homebrewing


Tip 2: Read the guidelines.

Some people want to enter a beer in the style they intended it to be, but sometimes the end result is way off the mark. That doesn’t make it a bad beer, necessarily. It might even be a great beer. But if you aimed for a double IPA and wound up with something closer to an American barleywine, submit it as the latter if you want to increase your chances of placing.

Tip 3: Enter a beer in the style you intended it to be if you want good feedback.

Despite Alex’s recommendation in tip two, if you want to improve your brewing skills, he admits there is something to be said for entering in your intended style, even if you don’t think you have a winning beer on your hands. The feedback the judges provide in their notes will inevitably be beneficial, and hopefully you’ll crush your next batch.

Tip 4: Be careful of what you write in your submission notes.

Be just specific enough in your submission notes to fulfill the requirements of the competition. For instance, you’ll want to note the base style if you are submitting a fruit beer. But if you describe your beer in too much detail, know that the judges better be able to pull out those qualities, because they will definitely look for them, and they will score accordingly.

Tip 5: Be mindful of freshness and cleanliness.

Alex laments that AWOG gets a lot of hot beers, which indicates there were fermented too warm. And be sure to sterilize everything and avoid oxygen during the bottling process. Oxidation hurts a lot of people.

sterlizing


Tip 6: Don’t piss off the registrar.

Once all of the entries are received, the competition registrar is responsible for logging and labeling each and every bottle. In a competition of more than 600 entries, like AWOG, that means the registrar has to handle more than 1,200 bottles and has to do it expediently! That sort of workload would make anyone little grumpy, so entrants would be wise to not do anything to make the registrar’s job any harder, which could lead to disqualification.

Alex says the most common problems that lead to disqualification at this step in the process are related to improper bottle preparation. Some people try to submit bottles that are too large–especially if they are submitting a mead or cider–under the assumption that the rule on bottle size is arbitrary. Wrong. Others use tape to affix their entry labels, making it hard for the registrar to cleanly remove them when he assigns the new number. Any amount of tape on the bottle results in disqualification, so Alex advises using rubber bands to avoid such sticky issues.

Tip 7: Go to the banquet.

The competition experience is so much more exciting when you are present to receive your medal. And even if you don’t place, you get to meet a lot of like-minded people, and typically, you get to drink some excellent beer. Take the time.

Want to learn more about AWOG and becoming a BJCP judge? Check out Alex’s podcast interview with WNY Brews. If you have any other tips for first-time competitors, drop us a comment below or let us know on Facebook!

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