You like your beer. Your friends like your beer. But, is it really any good . . . and how would you find out if you wanted to? For many beginning to intermediate homebrewers, the path to better homebrew is unclear because they have no way to assess their beer as it is currently brewed. Here is a quick guide to getting that done.
There are lots of places you can get feedback on your homebrew, and they vary greatly in how helpful they are. If you are a brewer who wishes to become serious about his or her craft, being able to judge your beer is an important part of the cycle of improvement. You can’t fix problems you don’t know about.
Friends and Family
Your friends and family like your beer. Of course they do. They know you and you’re supplying them with free beer. On top of that, they may or may not be knowledgable about beer. As such, their critiques — as flattering as they are — probably won’t help you much.
If you’re careful, you can glean some useful information from the non-brewers you know. For example, let’s say you bring some of your beer to a party, but plenty of commercial beer is also present. After you get the party goers to sample your beer, do they go back and get more of it? Or do they refill with something else? This is an interesting test, but really doesn’t help you brew better beer.
Online brewing forums are easy to find and discussions go on pretty much around the clock. You can always get a quick answer from an online forum, but how valuable is it? When asking a question about your homebrew online, you can only describe your beer (or post the recipe) and get feedback. The people responding can’t taste your beer, and — unless you’ve read the forum for awhile — you don’t know the “credentials” of who is replying. Online forums are great for some things. Evaluating finished beer is not one of them.
For homebrewers without access to a local brewery or homebrew club, sending their beer to a homebrew contest might seem like a good idea. Although you can benefit from entering homebrew contests, the results will likely not be as helpful as you’d like.
First off, most homebrew contests in the US are BJCP sanctioned and the beer is not judged on quality, but adherence to style. (Obviously, quality is a component any classic beer style, but wonderful beers can get clobbered at BJCP contests and mediocre beers can score remarkably high.) There are checkboxes at the bottom of the sheet where the judge is supposed to rank stylistic accuracy, technical merit, and intangibles, and a this can be of some help in detangling why your beer scored as it did.
If the beer you brew isn’t intended to be any particular style, just something you like, entering a BJCP contest will likely give you no useful information. The judges will simply write, “Not to style,” on your scoresheet and give you a score based on that. (If your beer has noticeable faults, these may be pointed out.)
If you have brewed your beers intending them to be representatives of classic styles, you’re in a little more luck. Your scores should give you some idea of how your beers stack up in the homebrewing world. But, you need to be careful.
Homebrew contest are judged by humans, not robots, and there is plenty of variability in the process. If you are using contests to assess your beer, be sure you’re brewing styles you understand and are familiar with. Submit your entries to at least two different contests. Submit the same beers in the same categories for each. (For example, brew a pale ale and an IPA, and submit them to their appropriate categories in at least two contests. More is definitely better.) When you get the scores, throw out the highest and the lowest for each beer and accept that the average of the middle scores is likely a reasonable indicator of how the beer ranks. It’s human nature to assume that the highest score is “right,” and the other judges made a mistake. If you want to become a better brewer, don’t fall for that form of self-flattery. Judges give unreasonably high scores as often as they do unreasonably low scores.
So, if you brew “to style,” contests can give a general idea of how your beers stack up. But, contests aren’t meant to be clinics that help you improve your beer. If they were, you would have to supply your recipe and procedures. Contests are just contests. For those with a competitive streak, they can be lots of fun, but they are of limited (although not zero) use when assessing your beer. Although your score will give you some idea of how your beers rank compared to other homebrewers, you will get little to no feedback on how to improve the beers. This is especially true if your beer is mediocre or better.
In the next installment of the article, I’ll give you the best places to get a thorough critique of your homebrew.