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Barley's 23rd Annual Homebrew Competition

This was my second year as a competitor in the Barley's Annual Homebrew Competition. Last year I managed to take third place, losing to the very skilled A.J. Zanyk and his very nice Baltic Porter.  It's been on my "bucket list" to see a beer of mine on tap at a brewery or bar, and winning the Barley's competition would make that happen.

I entered the following beers this year, listed below in the order I liked them, from most to least:

To get into the final round of the competition, a beer had to score 40 or better.  My Dark Abbey beer managed that (just barely) and made it into the Final Five.  From there, I'm told that it received the first perfect 50 score any final-round beer has gotten in the history of the event.  As a result of that amazing score, I won the competition this year!  (Link goes to the Akron Beacon Journal)

Holy cow!  I actually did it!

Winning this event means that a year from now I will get to brew Dark Abbey with Barley's brewmaster (and something of a hero of mine) Angelo Signorino, Jr.  A few weeks later when the event kicks off, I'll get to tap the first keg of it at the competition.  My beer will stay on tap there until it sells out.  Bucket list item checked!

I'm still reeling a bit from the win.  However, reading the scores and the judges' comments on my beer has shown me that there is clearly room for improvement.

In late December, I switched from brewing on iMake's The Grainfather RIMS system to brewing with the Picobrew Zymatic.  That change has proven to be a mistake at competition time, not because there is anything wrong with the Zymatic, but because it represented a near-total change in process right before competition.  With The Grainfather, I had been able to create a formula to ensure that I would hit my volume and gravity targets (or at least be very close).  Since switching to the Zymatic, both volume and gravity have been all over the map, but rarely what I expected.

Why does that matter?  Getting your gravity right means that your hops additions will balance nicely with the malt in the beer.  Too much gravity and the beer may become too sweet.  Too little gravity and it will seem too bitter.  Volume has a similar effect.  Too little and the beer can be intensely bitter. Too much and it can be too sweet or at least too thin.  On the list above, Tripel Turbinado and Bluegrass State were two beers where I got very close to my targets.  They're also the two highest-scoring beers made in the device.  The Tropical Stout came out 22 gravity points low, the ESB came in 9 points low and short about a quart in volume, and the Single came out a bit low on volume (and thus more bitter). It's probably not a coincidence that those are lower-scoring beers.

Another comment I've seen in multiple notes on different beers is mention of an "apple" flavor. This could just be a byproduct of the combination of ingredients used, but could also signify a problem.  Yeast health is a likely candidate, since I rarely use starters (though I do often overpitch).  I also don't tend to use temperature control on Belgian style beers, preferring (as many monks do) to let it run its natural course.  Sanitation is another potential cause, but that's something I am very meticulous about. I wash and sanitize each bottle and cap I use. I sanitize my fermenters before use, and clean them well with PBW afterward.  I try to be careful about oxygen getting into the beer, but perhaps I could do better with that also.  Still, I'll revisit my whole cleaning and sanitation effort, as I don't want this off-flavor in future brews.

As always, I'll share more as I learn more.

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