Contest Karate (IV)

This is part four in this series — part one, part two, and part three can be found by following the appropriate links. in it, I examine ways to increase your chances of winning medals at homebrew contests. It all starts with brewing good beer, but for the brewer who really wants to make a splash in his local homebrew circuit, there’s more to it than that. 

There are different levels of contest competitors. Some brewers simply want to brew a few beers and win some hardware at their local competition — and maybe send a beer or two to the National Homebrew Competition (NHC). Other brewers may wish to enter several competitions or compete in a “circuit” of homebrew competitions. In a circuit, brewers score points for every beer that medals at each circuit competition. At the end of competition season, there are awards for the brewers who scored the most cumulative points. No matter how competitive you wish to be, a little planning can go a long way.

If your main concern is your local homebrew contest, you will know (at least roughly) when it is held each year. If you have your sights set on more than one contest, you should likewise determine when they are held. Most contests are held in the spring while the fewest are held in summer. Thus, many of the contests you wish to enter may be relatively close together. How does knowing this help you? It gives you time to plan your brewing.

Contest Brewing Plan

When planning your brewing, there are four main variables to think about. How many contests are you going to enter? How closely spaced are they? How long do you estimate your homebrew will remain in peak condition? And finally, how many brewing days you I schedule and what order should you brew the beers in?

If you are only planning to brew for a couple contests, keep in mind you do not need to brew a full 5.0-gallon (19-L) batch of beer for each entry. If you can scale your process down and still brew the same quality beer, doing so can save you money and your house won’t fill with bottles or mostly full kegs. Hidden benefits to brewing smaller volumes are that heating and cooling go faster (assuming you use your regular burner and wort chillers). In addition, you may not need to make a yeast starter to raise an adequately-sized pitch.

The amount of time homebrew remains at the peak of freshness varies. If you pay close attention to cleaning and sanitation, and average-strength beer should remain in good condition for 6, or maybe as long as 8, months if it is stored cold. Beers with lots of hop aroma can start losing their fresh appeal much more quickly. Conversely, big beers and sour beers may improve with extended aging. When you’re planning your contest brews, think about how long a beer will remain fresh. Hopefully, a single batch will last throughout a contest season. Estimate how long it takes to ferment and condition each beer so it will be ready in time for the contest. Lagers and strong ales will take awhile. Sour beers longer still. In contrast, session ales may be ready in a couple weeks (or even less). As such, brew the beers that will take longer to ferment and condition first and the more quickly developing beers closer to the contest entry date. If you plan correctly, all the beers will be conditioned and ready for the first contest — and hopefully able to age gracefully enough to remain contenders throughout the contest season. Note that, if you follow this plan, you will have a lot of beer to package in the weeks leading up to the first contest’s entry deadline.

Making a plan allows you to see just how much brewing you would need to do, and when you would need to start, for varying numbers of entries. You may alter, or even abandon, your plan later. However, coming up with a plan will give you an idea of the amount of time and effort it will take to accomplish what you want. This is far preferable to suddenly realizing the entry date is a few weeks away, and scrambling to crank out a bunch of brews in a short amount of time.

Contest Portfolio

If you get heavily into contests for several years, you will probably develop a “contest portfolio” — a number of beers that you brew each year for the contests you enter. If you enter multiple contests every year, you will notice that some beers will do well and others don’t. This can be due to the beer being judged differently, the level of competition at a given contest, or changes in the beer’s quality. If one of your beers medals at more than one contest and scores well even at contests in which it doesn’t place (perhaps with an exception somewhere), that is a beer you should brew again next year. Obviously, if it won before, it has a better shot at winning again than a “shot in the dark” entry. Brewing the same beer several years in a row also gives you the opportunity to tweak it to better match what the judges are looking for.

The Combo

Combining these two ideas gives you a plan each year when contest time rolls around. For at least a couple of your entries, you will know how you brewed them last time, how long they took to reach maturity, how long they stayed in good shape, and what the judge’s comments were. You will have a better idea about the lead time you need and amount of work required. Knowing these things increases the odds that you can place one or more beers in front of the right judge at the right time — and hopefully be rewarded for your preparations.

There will still be a lot of variability in how your beers score and where they place. You may win a blue ribbon with a beer in one competition and it may not even place in the next. Those are the breaks — and notice that the explanation may be that the judges screwed up by not rewarding your beer in the second contest. However, it is also possible that they screwed up by rewarding you so richly in the first. It happens. When deciding which beers to brew for a set of contests, I’d prefer a beer that won three 3rd place ribbons in three contests to a beer that won 1st at a single competition but scored poorly and was awarded nothing at the others.

A good, workable plan is as valuable as good execution of your beers — especially if you want to be among the victors in a circuit. As Sun Tzu said, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”


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  1. good advice for those looking for a straightforward way to get a leg up on the competition


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