What the Judge Sees - Improving your Beers for Competition

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After judging hundreds of homebrews you start to pick up on trends. Judging is a crash course in beer education. Think about it - you taste around a dozen different homebrews in rapid fire succession while thinking critically and writing useful feedback about each one.
You learn a lot - the hop varieties brewers are using, the angles they are taking on classic styles, and yes, even their flaws.
There's a constant debate about whether or not you should enter competitions. Sorry, this article isn't going into that (maybe another time).
This also isn't about "brewing to style", another hotly debated topic.
Instead, I'm just here to offer up some tips based on what I've witnessed in competitions. Chances are, even non-competition goers are affected by similar issues.
Focus on the Basics for the Biggest Wins
Something I teach my students at The Homebrew Academy is setting priorities. You'll get much better results if you focus on the few things that make big differences.
I used to be guilty of this myself.
Hell, it happened to me recently. I obsessed about the exact weight and timing of hop additions for an IPA.
"Should I add these 2 oz. of Cascade at five minutes or three minutes? Hmm...."
Then, like an idiot, I screwed up the setting on my thermostat and the fermentation temperature got too high, resulting in some flavors I didn't want. If I had focused on the far more important factor of fermentation instead of obsessing over the minutiae of hop timings, my beer would have turned out better.
Likewise, these 5 items below aren't about crazy expert techniques. They're more like brewing fundamentals that many people still get wrong. Evaluate your own beer and work to fix these mistakes. If you enter competitions you'll put yourself ahead of at least half the other entrants. If you don't compete, you'll still improve your beer.
Here they are:
  • Under-attenuation
Have you ever made a beer that tasted "worty?" That is, it's sweet and tastes like unfermented wort.
It's likely under attenuated. Make sure you're pitching enough yeast and giving the wort plenty of oxygen before fermentation begins. It's easy to get lazy at the end of the brew day. I'm always exhausted and just want to go eat buffalo wings. But getting fermentation off to a good start is critical. Finish your brew day strong.
  • Too many specialty malts
Specialty malts are tempting. Even their descriptions are starting to look more and more like menu items at a 5-star restaurant. "This premium chocolate malt adds a hint of nuttiness and a smooth, luscious mouthfeel."
Who wouldn't want that in their beer?!?
But I'm shocked by how many beers I taste that are just...muddy. The use of too many specialty grains hides flavors and makes for a messy tasting beer. Don't be afraid to let those base malts shine. Take a minimalist approach to brewing. It's easier to know which grains to add than which ones to remove when you go to re- brew.
  • Stale flavors
I describe these beers as being "washed out." Beer flavor should be bright and fresh. It should leap out of the glass.
Old beer, old ingredients, or a combination of both will give a beer a washed out, stale flavor. Oxidation will do it as well. Take care to use the freshest ingredients, minimize oxidation, and know when your beers are at their peak.
  • Unattractive
First impressions matter. Maybe it's not fair, but that's the way it is. Your German Pilsner can taste unbelievable but if it pours with a cloudy haze, it's "guilty until proven innocent" in the eyes of the consumer. Clarity isn't critical in all styles, Weizen for example, but even in that category I've seen many non-existent heads where there should be a giant billowy one.
Nail your first impression and you'll automatically leave the person drinking your beer with an favorable outlook.
  • Young/Green beer
It's amazing how quickly beer can turn the corner. One day your homebrew makes you curse the hobby and the next time you taste it you're singing its praises to anyone who will listen.
Your beer needs time. It could be that the yeast is still cleaning up some off flavors. Other times, with high gravity beers, the alcohol is too intense and it needs a stint in the cellar to mellow out.
Unfortunately there's no formula for knowing exactly when your beer will be at its best. It takes experience and careful note taking. I recommend using the 5 bottle rule to determine when your recipe is in what I call its "prime drinking period.".
I often say that becoming a BJCP judge was one of the best thing I've done to improve my homebrew. Maybe this article will even inspire you to become one yourself.
Regardless, these tips should help you step up your game. That's whether you're brewing for judges, friends, or just yourself.
Billy Broas heads up The Homebrew Academy, where you can find tips, videos, and online courses for brewing world-class beer at home. He's co-author of the book Craft Beer for the Homebrewer, a certified BJCP beer judge, and his beer philosophy is that "we should all be beer geeks, not beer snobs."

This is a nice article. I would add one tip to it. When you open a bottle to test it, after opening it leave the bottle standing upright for at least a minute before pouring it.
That is what will happen in the competition and if you made a mistake during bottling it will be picked up. It is quite easy not to pick up problems if you pour the beer quickly - which I generally do to keep the beer off the dregs.
I found that attempting to keep them in the bottle can result in oxidation at a quicker rate as opposed to pulling from the keg.
I used the poor mans bottle filler which works well but after experiencing several bottles of different beer showed tons of signs of oxidation I decided to upgrade my bottle filler.
Ill be willing to give the 5 bottle test now to see how the bottles hold up.
@Likefully Along the sames lines I always make sure to come back around and re-test the aroma before I give a final score. Sometimes right after you pour you get some off-aromas that I believe are from the gas build up in the bottle. Wait a minute or two and they often go away.
Thanks Billy! I just got knocked in an IPA competition for the same thing!! I was so worried about the hop schedule that I got acetal flavors... High ferm temps!
These are great tips and I appreciate the thoughtfulness of where they come from. Agreed that some time consuming brews equally get much better with age.