Before we can talk about competition strategy, we need to work out what your motivation for entering is, as this will have a huge impact on your strategy. Your motivation may change from one competition to the next so each time you enter take a minute to work out what you are hoping to get out of entering. Believe it or not, many competition entrants are not entering with the goal of winning, but to get feedback on their beers from experienced judges,
If you are a new brewer or find a new issue with your beer and you do not know what it is, then getting feedback from more experienced brewers or beer professionals can help you nail down what that issue is, what can be causing it and what to do to prevent it in future. Let’s call this group the Fixers, they are entering with the goal of identifying and fixing a particular issue.
This feedback is also a motivator for a different group of entrants that We’ll call the improvers. It could be that they are generally happy with their beer, or that they are unhappy but don’t know how to improve it. Alternatively, it could just be that they desire some honest feedback, Many of us have experienced the free beer syndrome where your mates all tell you that your beer is great, but it’s not obvious if they are just saying that because it is free beer or if it is good. These brewers are looking to improve their beer or their understanding of it.
Then there is the group that everyone thinks of when they hear competition, these are the winners. They want to win. Many of them will really appreciate the feedback but for them, there is just one goal and that is to walk away with a medal or rosette and the kudos that goes with winning a competition.
For the fixers and the improvers, the strategy is quite simple. Find the category that best describes the beer you were hoping to brew and enter your beer in that category. If it is a category that requires extra information, eg details of the fruit or spice used, be honest so the judges can give you the best feedback to help you make the beer you wanted to.
For the winners, the situation gets much more complex. The obvious starting point is to be able to brew great beer, but after that, there are many things to bear in mind to maximise your winning chances. Start by learning about the competition you are entering. Find out what categories or styles are accepted and, if possible, check out the entries they had for the last competition, and what is currently the in style homebrewers are making. You want to try and aim for a smaller category. To use the 2016 Welsh National as an example, you had to beat far more beers to win a medal for a stout than you did for a lager. If your goal is to win and you can brew several styles well, then aim for a smaller category, but just make sure that it isn’t the new trend on the block. A couple of years ago every other beer seemed to be a black IPA, this year it looks like the New England IPA is the flavour of the month, so expect tougher competition for these in-demand styles.
Make sure you sit down with your beer and a copy of the guidelines. If the style says you should taste something, do you taste it in your beer? If it does not match the style then no amount of strategy is going to make it a winner.
You should enter the beer you have, and not the beer you originally brewed. If you brewed a cucumber and mint saison but cannot taste any cucumber in your beer, then do not mention it when you enter. The judges will knock your score, and therefore your chance of winning down, if they cannot detect your stated ingredients in the beer, so just say it is a mint saison.
When your beer gets in front of the judges, you usually have under 100ml or about 3 fl oz in old money to make an impact. Some judges pour more, some less. Depending on the judges on the day and their experience level, a winning strategy could be to enter a beer that blows the judges away in a small sample even if you couldn’t go on to drink pints of it.
One of the big things to bear in mind is that safe middle of the road beers are rarely ever going to win. Obviously, the scale of the competition is going to have an impact here, but when you have 10 American Ambers to judge and 2 are flawed, 7 are middle of the road and one stands out, it is generally the stand out one that is going to win. Push the boundaries a little, each style has a range of acceptable values for gravity, alcohol, colour, IBUs the type of flavours and aromas expected. Try pushing the boundaries in one or more of these areas so your beer doesn’t just blend into the other entries make sure your entry isn’t forgettable, but rather is one the judges will remember, hopefully for the right reasons.
No matter what your motivation for entering is, make sure you double check your entries before sending them. Most competitions require two or more bottles for each entry and before now, we have had entries where the brewer grabbed two bottles but they were not the same beer, depending which bottle got pulled first it could have been completely the wrong style, or it could do brilliantly in the flights, but when the second bottle gets opened for best of show judging it would immediately get knocked out, possibly costing you an overall medal.
I hope this run down on strategy gives you something to think about, and good luck with any beers you do put into competition. Hearing your name called out as a winner is a great feeling and next time it could be you.