"OK" Wins in Homebrew Competitions

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If you're a homebrewer, you don't have to compete.  I think you should, but you certainly don't need to.  The other day, though, someone gave me what is probably the worst reason not to:

"My beer just isn't good enough for competition."

You know what?  It probably is.

Competition Quality

I don't know what you're picturing when you think of a homebrew competition, but it's hardly a nonstop run of incredible beer, even under the best of circumstances.  Even in the final round of the National Homebrew Competition you get some real dogs, and at your average competition, here's how the entries usually break down in a typical 10-beer flight:

  • 2 uniquely bad beers that make you question whether you'll ever get the taste of Sharpie and goat ass out of your mouth
  • 3-4 beers that don't have a dominant fault but die from "a thousand cuts" - a little oxidation, a little astringency, some diacetyl, a bit of odd phenol...
  • 3 beers that are OK, but nothing to write home about - adequate, no apparent faults, the kind of thing you'd get if you picked randomly off of the tap list at TGI Fridays.
  • 1-2 beers that are genuinely good and make you want to find the brewer and thank them for entering.

If you're making generally "clean" beer and following a reasonably competent recipe (either yours or someone else's), you have a decent chance of earning yourself a ribbon.

Consensus Winners

Then there's the ways in which judges sometimes find themselves picking the "winner" in a flight.  There's a reasonably strong negative-control tendency at the judging table.  What I mean by that is that while we sometimes pick a winner by acclaim, we just as often end up picking one because it hasn't bothered anyone that much.

Let's look at a sample case.  We're judging Rauchbier (I love Ruachbier).  We have three examples before us.  One is a great Marzen that's remarkably delicate in its smoke character.  One is well-made and adventurous and used some hickory-smoked malt.  One is just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill rauch.  Who wins?  

Well, the hickory-smoked beer, while envelope-pushing, is too avant-garde for one of the judges, who ardently says s/he can't support it to win.  The other says that the delicately-smoked version is "too weak in its smoke character" (even though the guidelines acknowledge that the style doesn't need to be intensely smoked).  Each stakes out a position on the other's preferred beer...and as a result the generic Rauchbier takes the gold.

Often, winning in competition isn't about being the best.  It's about not being objectionable.  So that "tastes fine" English Mild you made?  It's in with a chance.

Get Them On the Table

If you're making beer that at least semi-objective friends with some degree of palate training are saying that they like, then you're probably making beer that's more than capable of winning in competition.

Broadly speaking, if you're entering consistently great beer, you can expect a yield of about 50% from your entries (some will store poorly, or fall victim to bad judging, or just run into a buzz-saw of a table with a lot of great entries).  But if you're making consistently "OK" beer, then you can still expect that about three in ten will come home with some hardware.  Why?  Because your beer isn't going to beat itself.

Every beer that wins a medal has to get to the point where it's mini-Best-of-Show time in the flight.  We narrow it down to the potential winners, sometimes using score as a guide.  But once they're lined up in a little row of five or six cups, scoring tends to become secondary.  And if you're routinely putting 30-point beers into competition, lots of those are going to end up "on the table" at that point, and some number of them are going to win.

If it's OK, go ahead and enter it.  I mean, hell, I say enter them all, but at least don't let "just OK" prevent you from entering a competition.  Get them on the table.  You might be surprised what you get.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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