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What I learned from my first homebrewing competitions

Although I've been brewing beer for several years now, I never entered any homebrewing competitions. At first, I didn't think my beer was that great. Then when it got better, I felt like I knew enough about what the flaws were that I didn't really need the feedback. This year, I decided to give it a shot.  I entered The Ohio State Fair Homebrewing Competition and Barley's 22nd Annual Homebrewing Competition, both held in May 2017.

Entering the competition at the Ohio State Fair was relatively painless.  You complete an entry form for each beer you intend to submit (up to eight total), pay a $6 entry fee, and then arrange for two bottles of each entry to be delivered to the fairgrounds.  I dropped them off on a vacation day since I live in Columbus not too far from the fairgrounds.

Entering Barley's competition was also relatively easy.  Fill out a BJCP recipe form for each beer and bring three bottles of each entry to their brewpub near the Greater Columbus Convention Center the week before the judging.  Judging takes place at their annual Afternoon with the Brewers event, which was held on Sunday, June 4, this year.

My main motivation for entering was to get objective feedback on what I was doing right and wrong in my brewing.  If I won any competitions, that would be great, but it wasn't so much the goal as to get useful feedback on the recipes and processes.

In the months preceding the competitions, I brewed as often as I could. I wound up making six or seven different beers.  Two weren't ready in time for competition, so they weren't entered. One barely finished in time (and, I think, suffered in the scoring partially because of that).

The results surprise me even now.  Of the five beers I entered in competition, three of them took awards.  Two of my beers received silver medals in their respective style categories, and another (which didn't medal at the fair) took third place overall at Barley's.  That's not bad, I think, for a first-time competitor.  There is still much room for improvement, though.  Even my winning beers didn't score as high as they could have.

Reviewing the feedback for a single beer was interesting. It was clear that the judges don't all view the same beer the same way.  One beer was criticized for having "no hops flavor or aroma" by one judge, while another said it was a little too bitter for the style and recommended reducing the hops additions in a re-brew.  Like the old saying goes, "you can't please everyone".  While the judges differed on what they liked and disliked about the beer, the scores were reasonably close in all cases. I never had (for example) a 23 from one judge and a 40 from another. The scores were generally within 2-4 points of one another.

There were a few recurring themes across all the feedback that I'm taking to heart:
  • Body:  A common complaint on some of my beers was that the body was a bit too thin for the style. My Quadrupel, for example, was described as a medium body. That's a style which shouldn't be thin.  This tells me I need to raise mash temperatures.
  • Dryness or Over-attenuation:  Going kind of hand-in-hand with the comments on body and mouthfeel, the judges often commented that my beer might be over-attenuated for the style. This points to a need to choose different yeast strains and/or increase mash temperatures.
  • Hopping:  Almost every beer I made was criticized by a judge for something related to how it was hopped.  This doesn't surprise me. I am simply not a fan of beers with a strong hop presence in the flavor, and I probably under-hop beers as a result.  My tastebuds' definition of "balanced" seems to correspond with most judges' definition of "balanced too much toward malt".  So be it.  If I'm brewing beer for competition, I start increasing the hops load a bit so it scores better - but when I'm brewing for myself, I won't.
  • Oxidation:  While only the Australian Sparkling Ale got significant negative comments around oxidation, the judges mentioned "slight" or "possible" oxidation in several of the beers' notes. I'm not totally surprised by this, because I tended to transfer the competition beers from primary to secondary (something I don't often do normally) to clear them up, and again from secondary to bottling bucket. I do this through gravity feeds and plastic tubing between the vessels to reduce oxidation, but lately I've noticed that the tubing doesn't fit snugly on the valve coming from the SS Brewing Technologies fermenters, so it's probably letting in oxygen that it shouldn't be.  I've ordered tubing with a smaller inner diameter to enable a tighter fit and less oxygen intake.  I'm also going to think about other ways to reduce oxidation.

    I've actually communicated with one of the judges who described my beer as oxidized and we came to agree that the reason it got that descriptor was most likely that some of my malts are more than six months old. The judge, a professional brewer, said that although maltsters say that malt in an unopened bag is good to store for a year that his experience is that storage for more than six months is probably going to lead to oxidized malt.
On the positive side, I'd already recognized an issue with body and thinness in the last couple of high-gravity Belgian beers I'd made. They seemed a bit dry to me and thin. This tells me that my tastebuds are on the right track.  If I feel like I've fixed those problems in the future, hopefully the judges would agree.

I suspected that a slight off-flavor I've gotten in some of my beers was oxidation, but it never matched (to my tastebuds) the descriptors people have used to describe oxidation.  I've never tasted anything that to me seemed "papery" or "wet cardboard like" or "sherry like" in my beer, but I have noticed a flavor that's stronger in beers that were more churned-up during transfers and bottling. That's most likely what I'm sensing.

I will probably never agree with most judges on the hops issue. To me, many craft beers on the market are off-balance and tend toward hops.  

The judges also provided specific feedback on the beers that I'll take to heart when I re-brew those particular recipes.  On this web site, I've already updated the pages for those beers to include my plans for the next iteration of the recipes based on the feedback I received and my own tastes.


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