(Almost) All's Fair: Homebrew Competition Ethics

There's no rule that says you need to enter competitions with your beer - but if you're going to, then you're bound to have some questions about what's OK, what's verboten, and the grey areas in between.

Just like lawyers debate legal ethics, brewers will hold differing views on competition ethics.  I'm not here to tell you this is the definitive answer to these questions, but as always I'm more than willing to respond to any challenges to these answers.

Competing is fun, and a great way to get objective feedback.  I've always advocated entering all of your beers multiple times to get a collection of reactions (to account for any outliers, bad bottles, etc.).  The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) exists to help make competitions and judging as objective and valuable as possible, but keep in mind that they don't supervise competitions.  Competitions set their own practices and rules (often with BJCP/AHA guidance).  Not everything is covered there, though - which leads to lots of questions in lots of places on what's "in bounds" when it comes to competitions.  As a veteran judge and entrant and organizer I thought I'd throw out some questions I hear regularly.

Off we go...

This thing is totally NOT what I was trying to brew - do I have to enter it as what it was supposed to be?

Nope.  You're entering what you brewed, not what you were trying to brew.  If your Rauchbier recipe totally whiffed on smoke character (bad batch of smoked malt, bad recipe, yeast scrubbed out the flavor, etc.) then you don't have to enter it as one - go ahead and enter it as an Oktoberfest.  

I'm not sure what this beer is, really - can I enter it in more than one category?

This might vary from competition to competition, but usually the answer is that you can enter it in as many categories as it fits (and doesn't, for that matter - if you want to waste your money...).  While some might say that it's borderline to cross-register the same beer for the purposes of winning medals/earning points in some larger multi-competition contest, I say that if there's an inefficiency/overlap in the guidelines that allows (for example - not that I necessarily did this...) a Black IPA to win a medal as both a Robust Porter and an American Stout, then that's not the fault of the entrant.  

Most entry guidelines in most competitions prohibit you from entering the same sub-category with more than one beer, but that's about it.

My awesome beer won a medal in a competition - can I enter it again?

Sure.  If you've got the flavor stability to win multiple medals with the same beer over time, then that's a sign of your brewing prowess.  Why shouldn't you be rewarded for it?  My first BOS was for a 16-month-old Berliner Weisse that had competed well in several previous competitions.

My even-awesomer beer advanced to the second round of NHC!  Can I re-brew or enter a different version of it?

If you've got the time, I highly recommend it.  Freshness is often a major asset, and you're well within your rights to brew another batch before delivering your entries - after all, it's still your beer, and if you're consistent enough to produce the original award-winning beer again, then good on you.  And what with the timeliness of First Round results these days, most brewers of most beers will have the opportunity to do so, so it doesn't create any kind of unique advantage.

I've heard some say that you should, though, produce an identical version of the recipe.  I don't agree, but I acknowledge it's a grey area. The way I see it, if you're willing to take the risk of tweaking it, then you're also entitled to the potential benefits.

I've opened/work at a professional brewery/meadery/cidery - can I still enter homebrew competitions with you amateurs?

Be very careful with this.  Strictly speaking, yes - so long as you're brewing on homebrew equipment, not professional equipment (which, I would argue, includes your small-scale pilot system).  And most competitions require that you not be using the competition for quality control or market research purposes.  If you've cleared those (and any other competition-specific) hurdles, then fine.  But....

I still wouldn't do it.  There's a whiff of...something.  I wish I could articulate it better, but there's just an element of "not your party anymore" about it.  If I can't enter GABF, then maybe you shouldn't be entering the Dixie Cup.  

The two exceptions I have no problem with would be a) things you brewed, at home, before you began brewing anywhere else (professionally), and b) things that are outside of your "professional" umbrella (so if you're a pro brewer, then by all means keep entering homemade meads).

I put [obscure specialty ingredient] in this - do I have to say so?

No - remember, you're entering the beer you've got, not the one you were trying to get.  If you made a mango-cherry IPA but there's not even the faintest whiff of mango, then just call it a cherry IPA.  This, by the by, is also just good description strategy: in Specialty category descriptions, don't list things unless they're obvious.  If you list strawberry and there's barely any there, I may end up docking you for it; if you don't list it and I pick it up (and it's appropriate), then it's just adding complexity.  

Can I enter my own homebrew club's competition?  I know a lot of the judges, and they've had my beer...

Absolutely.  But avoid talking to club members who are judges (or any judges) about what you've entered.  We want to preserve their objectivity as much as possible.  This is especially true in specialty categories where you might have the only Mint Saison on the table (or in particularly rare "straight" sub-categories, like Southern English Brown or Eisbock, when it might be the only one in competition).  

But the idea they they're so dialed-in that they can pull your Saison out of the pack?  Probably not.  Most judges would be very hard pressed to do so even if they knew your beer was in there, and in this case they shouldn't even have that much to go on.  Enter away!

I made two English IPAs/Fruit Beers/Meads, but the competition says I can only enter one beer per sub-category.  Can I enter it under my friend's/spouse's/dog's name instead?

No.  Misrepresenting who actually made your entries undermines the integrity of the competition - the only exception I can think of would be if you contacted the organizer and let them know what you were doing (just to get around the competition software's blocks on multiple sub-category entries, for example) and that you want them to make it ineligible to win its table.  

You can also ask for an exception, but unless it's a blanket change to the rules, I don't like that - it's rewarding you for asking for special treatment.  Petition for a rule change next time, and just pick one (either the best, or the one you want feedback on) to enter this time.  

I made this beer from a kit or someone else's recipe - I'm a fraud.  Can I still enter it like I'm one of you "make your own recipe" brewers?

Sure - and I'm surprised how often I hear this.  Two things.  One, if only "original recipes" were allowed, then there'd be very, very few entrants.  Most brewers use others' recipes from time to time, especially first attempts at a beer (or a clone) before they start dialing it in for their system or tastes, so you're not alone.  And two, every recipe comes out differently on every system, and for that matter (subtly) on every brew day even on the same system.  

It's your beer.  You made it.  You can enter it!

"People who blend beers are cheating."

Says who?  Breweries - home and professional - have blended beers to adjust flavors, add complexity, and cover faults for centuries.  If you're blending nothing but beers you've made (no popping the cork on that Rodenbach), then you're fine.  

"People who enter lots of beers are cheating."

Says who?  Let's say someone enters 12 beers (a nice even case, at two bottles per entry!).  Each one of those beers, in most cases, will be judged in a separate flight, which means each is competing independently.  And even if you get a little overlap because they're in the same category, or if categories get condensed to form a reasonably-sized flight, they're now competing for fewer available ribbons.  

Ultimately, a mediocre brewer who enters a bunch of beer isn't much more likely to win a medal with 12 beers than they were with two.  But hey, they might get lucky.

Can I just peel a label off of a commercial beer and enter it?

No, that'd be wrong.  It also wouldn't likely do you much good.  Go ahead if you really want to, but if you think that's the path to being showered in blue ribbons and Best of Show, you're wrong!  While the worst homebrew on the table would (hopefully) shut down a pro brewery, the best of it usually blows away most commercial beers (even good, successful ones).  

Is there anything that's definitely, absolutely wrong that will get me a Pete Rose-style lifetime ban?

The one definite no-no (aside from actually using commercial or someone else's beer) would be attempting to collude with judges to win.  Unusual cap colors.  Using unique words in descriptions.  Entering a particular (rare) style so they'll know it's yours.  That kind of stuff is totally off-limits.  

First, it's wrong.

Second, people pay (and, effectively, earn, via prizes) money in these competitions.  Once money gets involved, things should get a bit more serious.  

Third, you're undermining the reputation of the organizing club, its members, and our hobby.

Fourth, you're being an unconscionable, needy, untrustworthy, pathetic, scurrilous alehole by doing it, and when you're found out I hope that you're forced to drink nothing but low-carb macro beer for the rest of your life.

Questions, anyone?

If anyone has any others, post them below or at our Facebook page and we can talk!

Keep it simple.


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