Lessons from a BJCP Competition Rookie

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I live in South Africa and started brewing in March 2013. I made the jump to all grain on my second brew and haven't looked back since.
In March this year I entered my first BJCP competition with Lil' Sparky's Nut Brown Ale . The competition was held at the Devils Peak Tap room . I scored, in my eyes, a respectable 35 (the upper end of "very good"). One of the judges commented that I missed getting an "excellent" rating because it needed more hops and/or less of a malt backbone.
With that start I was full of confidence and jumped at the opportunity to enter the next BJCP competition, which was hosted at Triggerfish Brewery. This competition had a slight twist to it. We had to make an English or American Pale Ale but could use only South African ingredients. Pale Malt is easy to get hold of from South African Breweries (SAB) and the quality is good. They produce a brown malt which isn't as readily available, but neither is it suitable for a pale ale. SAB sell a small range of hops. Look at the bottom of this page for the list of hops available. There are some really interesting hops on that list, but they do work a whole lot better when they can be combined imported hops than just on their own. So with the pale malt I made some crystal malt, roasted some biscuit malt and mixed the hops up as much as I thought would work for a good beer. I am not a pale ale enthusiast, but gave it my best shot.
I was not impressed the first time I taste the final product, but after a few weeks it turned into something I have since really enjoyed. I drank it quite often and with each bottle it got better and better. All the beers I tried were clear and packed with flavor. I was impressed I had managed to produce something like that given the constraints. By the time the competition day arrived I was confident this brew was in a similar league to the Nut Brown Ale from the March competition.
hbt-bjcp-1025.jpg
As you can see the beer is clear...
One of the things that struck me from the March competition was how accurate the descriptions of the beer were. I was especially impressed with the view of one judge that I should have rather used American Ale Yeast (I had used S-05). So I was quite shocked when I got the score sheet back at the second competition, which described a beer that gushed, had floaters and was hazy. None of these descriptions fitted my beer. I was stunned. As soon as I got home I opened a beer from the batch. I got my wife to film me cracking it open so I had evidence that it didn't gush (I posted that on instagram. Then I filmed the beer in the glass so I had evidence there were no floaters.
I was convinced that I had been given the wrong score sheet. The next day I wrote a very long email to the judges explaining to them that I was sure there was a mistake and asked them please to taste my beer again (just for my benefit, I didn't want a re-score). As a show of my appreciation for the time the judges had put in to judging and writing comments my e-mail was very long! I have no doubt they thought, or perhaps still think, I am a nutcase.
I follow a fairly standard practice with conditioning my beers. They are 'warm' conditioned (carbonated) for a month then put in the fridge for at least a week before I drink them. That way I know the dregs have hardened by the time I open it. I typically pour the beer within a second or two after opening to make sure I get the beer off the dregs.
hbt-bjcp-2-1026.jpg

Even dregs likes this are usually not a problem for me.
Once I sent the e-mail to the judges I realized the beer may behave in a way I had not yet seen if I were to let it stand in the bottle for a minute. ...I also hoped that doing so would give me more evidence that the gushing was NOT my mistake!
Well... after about 15 seconds the dregs on the bottom started a mini-nuclear reaction and a few seconds later the beer frothed out the neck of the bottle.
hbt-bjcp-3-1027.jpg

Is this the same beer?
This beer had floaters, was hazy and tasted TOTALLY different now. There were esters and solvent like flavours I had not tasted before. Also the beer was way more carbonated than before. By now I was impressed that the judges could actually pick up the things about the beer that they did considering the distracting flavours that came through.
hbt-bjcp-4-1028.jpg

This is exactly the same beer as above, but left in the bottle after it was opened for a bit longer.
So the eating of the humble pie started as well as the groveling to the judges. One of whom is author of this article on the down side of bottle conditioning and I suspect I am the twitter pal she refers to!
So what I have learnt so far from my two competitions:
  • The judges give up their time to judge the beers. So far, the judges have made a good effort to write constructive comments about the beer. I am grateful for their time.
  • A beer that wins a BJCP competition matches the style and then has something special on top of that but it must be within the parameters of the style. Bill Broas wrote about this here and if you follow the link to the Nut Brown Ale recipe posted above you will find a conversation about this topic there as well. That awesome beer you have may be truly awesome, but the judges score it on how well it matches the style. I recently made a beer that I rate as on my best ever, but it doesn't fit into a style so won't enter it in a BJCP competition.
  • Wait 48 hours after a competition to make any comments ...don't rush in! The first sheet I read said the beer gushed, the second sheet said it frothed and the third said it foamed. But when I saw "gushed" I got so worked up that when I read the other sheets I just thought they said it gushed too. If I had paid more attention to the fact the 2/3 of the judges didn't say it gushed I may have saved myself a lot of time...but then I would not have learnt as much.
  • When you test the beer before you enter it: open it and put on the table upright and leave it for a minute or more before drinking. On the day of the competition the beer will remain in the bottle for some time after it is opened as the judges taste the beer a few times. Unfortunately your beers have to be unlabeled so you can't give directions on how to pour the beer!
  • You learn more from entering a bad beer than a good beer. This should also be read as: it's not too early in your brewing career to enter a BJCP competition, as long as your ego can handle a truthful and detailed description of your beer. With the Nut Brown Ale, which was good, I learnt that my entry needed some minor tweaks to fully meet the specifications of an 11C. With this second competition I learnt about a range of things that I hadn't ever heard of before; leakage from PVC pipes cause a solvent like flavor being the most valuable.
And before signing off two home brewing friends have tried the beer after it has been poured the way I pour it and both of them said the beer was totally fine (not award winning, but fine). As I cannot control how the beers are poured at competitions this experience was a wakeup call to take extra precautions when bottling, which can only be beneficial.
hbt-bjcp-4-1028.jpg
 

Kit_B

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I'd like to see a comment from Gordon Strong, on this one.
When they are disturbing sediment by pouring from a bottle multiple times, I believe they have compromised the quality of their sample.
For example...
If I pour an unfiltered beer from a bottle in my kitchen, I pour the entire beer into a glass & I'm careful not to disturb the sediment. That sediment then gets dumped down my drain, because I know it contains flavor & aroma compounds that I don't want in my glass.
This is a basic practice that I've been following, for decades.
Why would BJCP judges & contest officials not be following such a simple beer-drinking instruction?
While I conpletely understand that gushers/infections are a totally different animal...
In my opinion, a contest is not just a casual beer-tasting. This should be a fairly scientific sensory evaluation of a sample.
I would think a judge (or group) would want to move an entire beer from the bottle to a glass, evaluate its visual & aromatic characteristics, then move the beer to individual smaller glasses for taste sampling.
But, I'm not a judge, so I know nothing about the practices.
I'm very curious to see comments from Gordon, or other judges.
It's a very interesting topic.
 

jekeane

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Good Article. I can't stress enough to people when talking about BJCP. It is about brewing a great beer in style guidelines not just brewing a great beer.
A beer is poured by a steward in a competition. Often the same beer is poured for a panel of one to three judges. A steward does their best to pour the three cups in a row to a specific volume without rocking the bottle in between pours and stirring up sediment. An initial pour of a beer releases CO2 if you used the pour the bottle then pour that 3 more times you would be changing the Carbonation, temperature, etc... of the beer a good bit between the bottle and the glass.
 

biereblanche

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Kit_B, volunteer to steward a local competition and you'll gain a lot of insight.
Pouring the entire beer from the bottle then pouring again into judge glasses means carbonation loss and, well, it would be silly having multiple judges evaluate smell from the same glass. Samples are usually ~2 oz/ judge, and with many competitions using one bottle for first round judging and reconciliation or "mini-Best Of Show" at the end of a flight (possibly an hour or more after cracking the seal), saving a second bottle for possible BOS, it would be bad policy to pour it all.
Judges open the bottle, quickly pour samples (hopefully without tilting or rousing sediment), and re-cap or seal the rest to preserve CO2 and such for later re-tasting.
I rarely see "casual beer-tasting" attitudes from judges and volunteering at your next convenience will demonstrate the same for you.
To the OP: FYI, in most all cases beers are judged one at a time; multiple samples at once is rare and I tend only to see it in commercial competitions (where scores and rankings are more important than feedback). Also, judges open and pour as often as stewards, it's personal preferences I suppose.
PS - it could be the picture or lighting, but the top beer looks "see through hazy" to me, not "clear" and certainly not bright.
 

Kit_B

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@biereblanche
Thanks!
I hadn't actually considered the "reconciliation" or "mini-Best Of Show" aspects.
Out of curiosity...
Have you ever found a beer to exhibit vastly different qualities at the end of the flight, than they showed earlier
(other than oxidation, light reaction, or anything else that is newly introduced)?
 

MrVix

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I recently entered 2 of my beers into Competition. I had concerns because the beers were mailed to the Contest. Both beers were bottle conditioned and I worried that during transportation the beers would be tossed and shaken, arriving in a different state than I had sampled. The first beer is my favorite beer which I believe is the best beer that I have ever consumed. The second was a Pale Ale, a nice beer but nothing special. I was so surprised when I recieved the judges scores! My favorite beer scored poorly, I was dismayed. However the second entry my Pale Ale scored 39 points! The judges comments on both beers were spot-on. The Pale Ale was brewed perfectly to the style. The comments on my favorite beer were dismal. I learned quickly that liking a beer and enjoying its flavors have little to do with being brewed to a specific category or style. I agree that the judges offer constructive criticism, check your ego at the door.
 

biereblanche

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It's *very* common at mini- or BOS discussions to hear "I judged that earlier and it seemed better" or "...didn't notice that before."
I've actually had two bottles of the same entry that weren't even a similar color.
Carbonation, sediment, and temperature all change depending on handling, but most every judge and competition does their best to even the field.
 

Peruvian802

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I have had a very similar situation with some stove top pasteurized bottles of cider. After drinking the first bottled that were great, those that had been sitting on a counter were gushers due to warming slightly.
As for BJCP guidelines, policy, procedure, etc. I would think there should be two branches for each category: bottle conditioned and force carbed.
 

d2xx

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I just recently stewarded for a BJCP competition and it was definitely a great learning experience. I recall the judges saying a beer was great but it was entered into the wrong category(didn't fit the style guidelines for the category)so it didn't do well. The judges did put those comments in the overall comments so the person would understand why.
 

psymonkey

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@biereblanche "PS - it could be the picture or lighting, but the top beer looks "see through hazy" to me, not "clear" and certainly not bright." I thought the same thing. The tall, skinny glassware always helps give the impression of clarity, but when you've brewed a beer that is clear and bright - you'll know it. My first crazy-clear beer had me so excited that I was walking around the house looking at things through the beer - the TV, seeing if I could read through it, etc ;)
 

Likefully

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hmmm, Psymonkey and Biereblanche take a close look at the top beer, you can see it refracts the photos on the wall behind it;)
Refraction - i know that word because I use a refractrometer!
 

zefbrew

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Nice to see a SA local write a nice front page article. Good tips for when I'm finally ready to try a competition here in SA!
 

BigPicture

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So what were your tweaks to Lil' Sparky's Nut Brown? It's nice to see your ideas are Right On! Even half a world away.
 

Likefully

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@BigPicture I haven't tweaked it and that's why it doesn't fit 11C 100% - if you want to tweak it to meet the 11C specs add more aroma hops, but as discussed on the thread for the recipe we don't think doing so will produce a better beer.
 

frettfreak

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Great article! Am thinking about entering a couple of my beers in some competitions! really appreciate the insight.
I would have to agree that the beer in the first pic is hazy for sure. Just because you can see through it doesnt make it clear. Not trying to be critical though! I have only made a few REALLY clears beers myself and not sure why them over others! lol
 

Likefully

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@frettfreak - not being defensive (or taking offense) about the comments re clarity
but
see here http://instagram.com/p/sfSb8DJ6dF/?modal=true
same beer
If that isn't a clear beer then I don't know what a clear beer is...nor do i think i will ever produce a clear beer!
 
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