I’ve been homebrewing for 2 1/2 years now, and I’m certain that I’ve improved over that time. I usually set out to achieve a particular aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and alcohol level, and I take careful notes about my process, temperatures, and volumes. That way when I make a good beer, I have a good chance of replicating my success; and when I make a not-so-good beer, I can try to figure out where I went wrong. But it’s difficult to get really helpful feedback about homebrew from family and friends for two reasons: 1) Most people don’t know much about beer styles and don’t know how to judge whether a beer adheres to its style. They only know whether they like it or not. 2) Most friends either don’t want to hurt your feelings or don’t want to get cut off from a free source of quaffable brew. So over the past year I’ve entered a few homebrew competitions to get a sense of how good my beers are and how they could be better.
The Indiana State Fair Brewers’ Cup is an annual competition that has divisions for both homebrewers and professionals. This year they had 900 homebrew entries and 400 professional entries in 23 categories. These categories are beer styles as defined by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and most categories also have sub-categories. For example, the first category—Light Lager—includes the sub-categories Lite American Lager, Standard American Lager, Premium American Lager, Munich Helles, and Dortmunder Export. The Porter category includes Brown Porter, Robust Porter, and Baltic Porter. This year I volunteered as a steward at the Brewers’ Cup, and I’ll write more about that in a subsequent post.
I also entered four of my homebrews in the competition. In the Bock category I entered a Maibock; in the Spice/Herb/Vegetable Beer category I entered a Blonde Ale with lemongrass, coconut, and Thai basil (Liz Lemongrass, which you may remember won the Hop Jockeys’ Iron Brewer competition); in the Smoke-Flavored/Wood-Aged Beer category I entered a Märzen for which I smoked some of the malt with apple wood; and in the Specialty Beer category I entered a Brown Porter flavored with dried chipotles. Much to my delight, the Maibock took second place and the Smoked Märzen took third place.
In a competition, each beer is evaluated by two or three judges, who score it for aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression; they also provide comments. I’ve found that their comments can sometimes be difficult to interpret (or in some cases even to read), especially when they provide contradicting notes. Nevertheless, I always type their scores and notes into a spreadsheet I keep, and I also make notes to myself in which I try to distill what I learned from the judges and what I should do differently the next time. Below are the scores and some representative comments from the judges for the Maibock and Smoked Märzen.
|Aroma||12||7||6||8||“Sweet malt, some noble hop aroma. Pleasant.”|
|Appearance||3||2||1||2||“Tan” “Light copper” “golden” “Nice head retention” “Light on retention”|
|Flavor||20||15||15||12||“Hop flavor noticable” “Hop bitter aftertaste” “Expected a little more malt flavor”|
|Mouthfeel||5||3||4||3||“High carbonation” “Dry finish”|
|Overall||10||6||6||7||“A little on the hoppy side” “Appropriate hop flavor, too much hop aroma” “Very drinkable”|
|Total||50||33||32||32||Very good (30-37)|
|Notes: In the final judging, the score was increased to 36.|
|Aroma||12||10||9||“Nice subtle applewood aroma” “Sweet bready malt – biscuity”|
|Appearance||3||2||3||“Bright clarity” “Good head retention”|
|Flavor||20||16||14||“Smoke flavor is somewhat subtle and light” “Malt is a little more Pilsner than Vienna – could use a little more malt character”|
|Mouthfeel||5||4||4||“Medium-light body” “Creamy but not cloying”|
|Overall||10||7||8||“Very nice smoke flavor and balance” “Good clean smoke character” “Would drink a lot of this”|