Sunday, 16 March 2014

Entering Beers in Competitions

I’ve been brewing for over two years now, but I’ve never had much interest in competitions.  It was in part because I knew my beer wasn’t all that good, but also because I found the idea of brewing to style slightly bizarre.  It’s not that I don’t brew particular styles of beer; but if I like my bitter more hoppy than the BCJP guidelines say it should be, I’m going to brew the beer I like.

Still, as my beer got better I became curious about what other home brewers would think of it.  Since I don’t know many that live nearby, competitions were the obvious outlet, and I kept my eye out for any that had local drop-off points that I could reach with ease.  When I saw an advert for Square Keg’s Winter Brew, and noticed that one of the drop-offs was a LHBS near the Half Acre taproom, I figured I might as well enter something next time I went up there.

As it turned out, I didn’t have much that was ready by the drop-off date.  I had just bottled a saison brewed with White Labs American Farmhouse blend, and since the judging was a few weeks after the drop-off I decided to take the risk and send an untasted and possibly uncarbonated beer to be judged. 

That first beer did badly.  It scored 22, with most comments suggesting that I’d entered it in the wrong category.  That was pretty frustrating---I wanted feedback on the beer!---but I learnt a valuable lesson about the importance of the category beers are entered in.  I had entered it as a straight-up saison, but the brett character and slight tartness made it more appropriate for Belgian Specialty Ale.

Still, the low score bugged me, so I decided to enter at least one more competition.  The Drunk Monk Challenge was coming up, and again one of the drop-off points was a different LHBS where I occasionally pick up supplies.  Since this was a bigger competition, I decided to enter some of the beers I’ve been saving for summer: a Flanders Red aged on raspberries, and a Berliner Weisse fermented with WLP Brett Trois and lactobacillus.  I also threw in an old Brown Porter that noone had been drinking.

This time the beers did better, in part because I solicited advice from other home brewers about which categories to enter them in.  The Flanders Red scored 40 and advanced to a mini-BOS; the Berliner Weisse scored 38.5; and the Brown Porter scored 28.5.  None of them placed, but I was happy with the scores.

Below I’ve posted pictures and brief descriptions of each beer, along with an amalgamation of the notes from the score sheets.  Its very useful to taste the beers along with these notes: I’m not very good at picking out and describing flavours, so the notes serve as a guide for what to look for in the beer.  It also made me appreciate the judges who took time to give detailed and helpful notes (i.e. the judges from DMC).


Flanders Red aged w/ Raspberries and French Oak

IMG_1698[1]This was one of the first sours I ever brewed.  In fact, it was one of two that I brewed close together, one based on the recipe in Wild Brews, and one based on Jamil Zainisheff’s recipe in Brewing Classic Styles.  I was still getting used to all-grain brewing, and I’m sure I did a terrible job with both beers.  I remember I mis-weighed the grain and significantly over-shot my gravity; then I ended up with less wort than I wanted, so that there was too much head-space in the carboys. The secondary fermentation and conditioning didn’t go much better: I let the air-locks run dry several times, added oak too early without boiling it to soften the flavour, and had to leave the carboys out without temperature control during the hot Chicago summer, etc.  After a year, one tasted muddy and unpleasant, and the other was far too oaky and seemed rather flat besides that.  I decided to throw one out because I needed the carboy (in hindsight this was probably a mistake); I transferred the other off the oak and added some raspberries hoping to brighten the flavours a bit.  At this point, I lost track of which beer was which, so I have no idea what the recipe was for this one!  Somehow, after all of that, I ended up with a good beer.  It’s not bracingly sour, but it has a pleasant oakiness, a low to medium sourness, and a wonderful vinous mouthfeel, almost like a red wine.  J likes it more than I do; I’m just amazed it turned out at all!

Aroma: One judge described a “nice sour fruitiness” with a “little bit of funk in the undertone”, whereas the other thought it had a “really nice nose” with “subtle raspberry and sweet notes”.    The national judge described “a strong mix of sweet fruity/tart aroma”.

Both 10 out of 12; national judge 9/12

Appearance: “Nice reddish amber color with good clarity” and “excellent clarity, gorgeous reddish brown color”.  The national judge’s pour seems to have been cloudy, and he describes the beer as “brown with red hue”.  Two commented on the lack of head and dinged me a point for it.

2 and 3 out of 3; national judge 2/3

Flavour: One described a “slight woody raspberry flavor” whereas the other also picked up on “hints of vanilla from the oak”.  The national judge said that the flavour was dominated by the raspberry fruit character, but that “there is a hint of woody bite”.  One of the judges said that there was only a hint of sourness; the national judge said that the “tartness is medium and lingers into the finish and aftertaste”.  One judge also commented on its “almost wine-like character”.

Both 16 out of 20; national judge 15/20

Mouthfeel: All three commented on the low carbonation and one described a silky character. 

Both 4 out of 5; national judge 4/5

Overall Impression:  I’ll just quote in full here.  First judge: “Overall a nice beer.  Not overly tart/sour.  Good balance.  Nice fruitiness.  Good job.”  Second judge: “Gorgeous color.  Needs better head retention.  Tartness decent.  Consider dextrin to increase head.   No major faults.  Very nice beer, would love the recipe.”  National judge: “A pleasant brew.  Raspberry fits in.  Oak is hard to detect.  I like to drink a couple of these.  Maybe more carbonation.”

7 and 8 out of 10; national judge 9/10

I’m pretty happy with these scores.  The low carbonation was not completely deliberate---I was worried because I was bottling in regular bottles and the gravity was a little high (around 1.004 I think).  But it works well with the beer, adding to its vinous character.  I would like a more pronounced sourness too.


Berliner Weisse fermented w/ Brett Trois

IMG_1697[1]I’ve made a few berliner weisses before, but this was my first time using brett trois as the primary yeast.  My technique is based loosely on Kristen England’s recipe in Brewing with Wheat: a 50/50 split of wheat and pilsner malt, no boil, pitched with yeast and a large quantity of lactobacillus simultaneously.  England suggests at 5:1 ration of lactobacillus to yeast, but since I have no way of measuring this I basically guess: feed my gallon jug of lactobacillus, cold-crash it in the fridge for a few days, the pitch most of the dregs with the yeast.  Its worked well so far, but I’m always a bit worried that it either won’t sour at all or will be impossibly sour.  This batch turned out fine; directly afterwards I made another batch with dried blackcurrants: expect a post about that one soon.

Aroma: One described it as “sour on the nose with a hint of brett aroma” and “some peppery notes as [the] sample warms”.  The other described a “large ‘dank’ ‘brett’ type character up front (musty, cheesy farmhouse aromas)” and a “sharp sour acidic tinge [that] follows the funk” with a slight presence of malt under it all in the form of graininess.  One judge also mentioned an unpleasant sulphur aroma that dissipated quickly.

8 and 9 out of 12

Appearance: Clear straw/light gold color, fluffy head that dissipates quickly.

Both 3 out of 3

Flavour: Both describe a sharp lactic sourness up front (one says it has lemon and grapefruit juice flavors).  One judge detected peppery fruity notes on the mid-palette, whereas the other commented on a grainy and honey-like sweetness.  One felt there was a good balance of malt and sour, but the other also found some astringency lingering in the aftertaste.

14 and 17 out of 20

Mouthfeel: “Light body – high carbonation.  Peppery on tongue.”  “Light crisp body, medium high carbonation.  Sour ‘tart’ finish that balances the body to dry”.

Both 4 out of 5

Overall Impression:  First judge: “A very spicy brew.  Could improve score by decreasing peppery astringent component.  The dry finish is appropriate but it also intensifies harsh aftertaste.  Also work on aroma to improve score.”  Second judge: “Very drinkable, well-balanced between malt & sourness.  The sulphur that came through at first was unpleasant but after a few seconds the ‘brett’ type funk dominated the aroma.  Could use a bit of age to get more from the brett.  Enjoyed, thanks”.

7 and 8 out of 10

It scored 37 and 40 overall.  This is probably the best berliner weisse I’ve made to date, but it does have a slight musty taste that I don’t really like.  Its also fairly young, so it will be interesting to see if the fruitiness increases over time.


Brown Porter

IMG_1701[2]This is based on the recipe in Brewing Classic Styles.  I’ve made it a few times, but never been completely happy with the results.  For some reason, my darker beers often end up fairly sweet: the judges picked up on this here.  I’ve tried to counter that by increasing the bitterness slightly, and it makes this more drinkable than previous versions but it still needs more work.  These bottles were on the older side: I still have a lot of this batch lying around, so I figured I might as well get some feedback on it.

Aroma: One judge describe a “big initial aroma of coffee and roast” with “acrid burnt sugar and low caramel”.  The other described “medium to medium high roast malt with some chocolate and burnt coffee”.  Both picked up on a slight vegetal flavour that has become more pronounced as the beer gets older.

6 and 7 out of 12

Appearance: “Dark bronze and copper color.  Crystal clear!”  Their pours had a small off-white head; some of the ones I’ve opened recently have a larger head (see photo), perhaps early signs of infection in some bottles?

Both 3 out of 3

Flavour: The first judge said that “caramel malts are apparent with medium roast and chocolate malts”.  The other described it as “light malt and watery” with “very little caramel and roast flavours”.  He also described a “low dry finish” that “leaves a dry burnt coffee aftertaste”.

Both 11 out of 20

Mouthfeel: Again, one judge found it “a touch thin and almost watery” with no creaminess or warmth.  The other said that the “sweetness and medium-low carb. lends towards beer being overly sweet” but that “roast malts are in balance with crystal” and that there was a “medium high alcohol warmth”.

2 and 3 out of 5

Overall Impression: One judge said that this “represent a more roasty sweet style of brown porter” but that “more caramel and crystal malt characteristics would help round this out”.  The other thought that the roast a crystal worked well, but said that the style should finish drier.

 5 and 6 out of 10

The beer scored 27 and and 30 out of 50.  I need to work on these dark English beers, although with summer coming up I can’t see myself doing that any time soon.  The main thing is increasing the malt flavour and mouthfeel while also decreasing the sweetness that seems to characterize many of my stouts and porters.  I’m not sure exactly how to do this yet.

Rustic Rye Saison

IMG_1704[1]One of the first saisons I ever made was based on the rye saison recipe that Michael Tonsmeire included in his BYO article on brewing saisons (there’s another version of it here).  That batch, also my first time using 3711, didn’t turn out so well: it had a lot of hot, fusel alcohol flavours, perhaps as a result of under-pitching the yeast, or of starting fermentation too high.  I added some brettanomyces lambicus and kept a few bottles to see if it improved at all.  The most recent one was much nicer: a light, hay-like aroma and far less of the hot alcohol in the taste (though its still there).  But even now I don’t drink it much because its just too strong for me: the 3711 took it right down to 1.000, and I ended up with a 7+% ABV beer.  This was another attempt to brew a similar recipe, but with a lower starting gravity and a different yeast blend: White Labs American Farmhouse Blend.  The comments in this competition were much briefer than the comments from DMC.  Many of them were almost illegible!

Aroma: Spicy aroma, fruit; plastic. (I can’t read the rest.)

Both 5 out of 12

Appearance: “Hazy, pale yellow color.  Good lace.” “Pale yellow in color.  Slightly cloudy.  Good head retention.”

Both 3 out of 3

Flavour: “A little sour, some esters, some malt.” [That’s it!] “Hay-barn taste almost to acidity.  Brett style.  Can pull some pilsner grain.”

7 and 8 out of 20

Mouthfeel:  Well carbonated.  One judge said a bit thin, and the other said it was too sour for the style.

2 and 3 out of 5

Overall Impression: First judge: “Good beer for geuze but not for saison.”  Second judge: “Wrong category?  Is there brettanomyces in here?  Watch sourness of phenolics.”

Both 4 out of 10

It scored 21 and 23 overall.  In part this reflects the importance of entering beers in the right category.  I assumed that because this beer fitted everything I knew about saisons that that would be the category to enter it in, but clearly that was a mistake.  I was a little frustrated by the brevity and illegibility of these comments.  Some of them strike me as bizarre (it is slightly tart, but nothing like a geuze!), and some are just useless (“some malt, some esters”).  A month later, the beer is tasting better than it did when I entered it.  The fruitiness has increased considerably, and there is still a light to medium tartness and the same hay-like aroma.  It’s a beautiful hazy gold, and the rye gives it great head-retention.


  1. Regarding the Flanders Red, I wonder if they would have scored it higher if it had been slightly more lactic? The style guidelines of course are very lenient in this regard, but it is so hard to predict anyone's personal preference on sourness level.

    Your post on Homebrewtalk inspired me to go ahead and enter my lambic/gueuze into a local competition for the first time. As a very experienced sour beer drinker, I know where my beer sits not considering the BJCP guidelines, but I am curious as to how it will do within the BJCP.

    Dantheman13/Dan ABA

  2. Yes, I wonder about that. It really is only midly sour, even I would prefer something more pronounced.

    I'm glad the post inspired you to enter something! I don't have much experience with competitions, but it seems like a lot depends on entering you beer in the right category and also on the judges you end up with. Anyway, good luck---I'll look out for your results on HBT.