In it to win it? Why A.E. isn’t a fan of homebrew competitions.

Put your money where your mouth is. Play to win. Fight for the right to party. Our culture is a very competitive one, is it not? Many brewers have made the switch from homebrewing to pro brewing to avoid the rat race. Fighting their way to the top of the corporate ladder wasn’t cutting it for our professional zymurgist friends, so they decided to get off at the next stop and start doing what they loved in order to live. And yet homebrew competitions are more popular than ever, with brewers submitting their concoctions in any number of style categories all to win money, prizes, and bragging rights among their fellow amateur competitors. But is it worth it? Ultimately, the answer is that it depends on what you are “in it” for. For me, the answer is a resounding “NO!” But allow me to explain.

For me, the purpose of brewing is not to please the palates of beer judges. I have some friends who are accomplished BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) judges, so I’m not knocking them. They’re doing what they love, and kudos to them for that. Not going to knock someone for doing something that gives them such great pleasure. It just isn’t my thing for a couple different reasons.

First, I brew in order to create beer I love to drink. I’ll admit, it seems like a selfish reason to brew. Shouldn’t I brew in order to create beers others like to drink? Isn’t that the whole point of ale evangelism? In a moment of objectivist, Randian philosophy, I would like to briefly explain that if I create beer to my exacting standards, to please a palate which has sampled so many fine ales from many countries, I will create beer that others will like. This is not to say that I will always brew perfectly true to a style. However, I have found that if I use my knowledge to craft beer which is pleasing to me, it will be pleasing to many others, as well. THIS is ale evangelism at its core. I won’t always please all palates, but I recognize that my beer cannot be all things to all people. Given that goal, competition seems sort of antithetical.

Some people like competing to get feedback. If I am having a problem with a consistent off-flavor, I can enlist the help of brewer friends who are far more experienced than I. If my brewer friends have not encountered my particular issue, there is always the Internet. A great resource to homebrewers is HomeBrewTalk.com. I have gotten a tremendous amount of help from the members there in the past. If you’re encountering a problem, the knowledgeable folks there can likely help you figure out what is going on. If it’s feedback I want, there are people near me who can provide the kind of feedback that would be most helpful.

And while I say if an activity gives you joy and harms no one else, “do it”, a couple of bad experiences make me wonder why in the world people bother to submit to competitions at all.*  The first experience was a competition where I won second place with my Crazy Hamish Scotch Ale. Crazy Hamish was a beer that I brewed upon my return from a 3 week trip to Scotland. While it has been debunked that Scottish brewers used peat fires to dry their malt, while I was there, the aroma from peat smoke fires really grew on me. To this day, peat smoke will call to my mind the desolate and rugged beauty of the Isle of Skye, the lush paradise that was Loch Lomond and the surrounding areas, and the ancient wynds off the Royal Mile of Edinburgh. When I brewed a scotch ale, I wanted it infused with the same smoky richness I experienced travelling the land of my ancestors. I wanted some peat smoke evident both in the nose and throughout the flavor. I succeeded in my goal, but comments from some of the judges were very similar to the following: “You know, peated malt and smoky flavors aren’t really true to style.” “A scotch ale should have very little smoke, if at all.” Etc. Listen, others who voted for my beer thought it was fantastic. I thought it was fantastic. I was not competing against other scotch ales, as it was an open competition. If the style guidelines (which I believe can be helpful when designing beers) are getting in the way of you enjoying a beer to the fullest, then cast them from you! I was perfectly happy with how well my beer did, and the overall experience was a lot of fun (as entry into the competition gained me free entrance into the beer and sausage event, which was VERY tasty), but comments like that make me wonder if competition is a hindrance to enjoyment, and is instead a chance for people to be hypercritical rather than a way to bring people together to enjoy one of God’s greatest gifts to His creation.

The other experience was when a friend submitted a stout to a competition. He enlisted the help of his friends, and we all told him it was quite the tasty brew. (I, for my part, meant it. It was one of the tastier homebrewed stouts I’ve had and told him so.) The results, and I don’t remember the numerical score, were disappointing to say the least. The judges complained about a variety of things, most of which I wonder if they just pulled out of thin air.  I also wonder if they had an indexed list of bad comments, and they simply rolled dice to pick which ones they would attach to my friend’s beer. In short, I feel the judges were wrong. My friend insists that he learned something from the experience, but the judges comments actually angered me. They made me feel as though the judges didn’t know what they were talking about, the bottles weren’t handled well during or after shipping, and ultimately, that competition is pretty worthless. If my friend brewed nothing but this stout from here until he stopped brewing, I would be happy to drink it. The judges’ comments were discouraging, and I could see how someone could take these comments and decide that if this is what the craft beer community is like, it’s not worth being a part of.

But you see, I don’t feel that the craft beer community is like that, or ought to be, anyway. To me if you can brew something you enjoy drinking, then brew it! If you can brew something you and your friends enjoy drinking, then brew LOTS of it! Have a brew day where you invite your friends over. They don’t necessarily need to help, but let brewing bring you together as a community. Bring interesting foods to brew day. Have a BBQ available for people to grill up some tasty treats. Let your brew days become experiences! My goal, personally, is to never purchase “basic” beer. I want the bulk of what I drink to be beer I have brewed, and I have accomplished that goal. I will continue to buy commercial beers on a special basis. Recently I purchased Elysian Brewing Co’s Night Owl Pumpkin Ale and Southern Tier’s Pumking. I am hoping to brew my own version of the Pumking soon, but trying these beers actually just drives me to brew more.

In short, brew what you love to drink. Challenge yourself in what you brew, and brew styles that you’ve never brewed before. If competition is your thing, then go for it, but don’t be discouraged when judges taste something in your beer that you don’t think is there. It’s bound to happen. Tastes differ, and some people may be much more sensitive to off flavors than others. Just as you like beers others don’t, others may not find your beer as palatable as you do. A good rule of thumb, in my opinion, is to brew what you like, and don’t rely on the opinions of others to tell you how well you are doing as a brewer. Above all, share your beer liberally. The opinions of your friends and loved ones are what ought to matter to you.

* The sole exception to my bafflement at those who submit to homebrew competitions is in the competitions where significantly more than fame is at stake. Samuel Adams’ Longshot Competition is one that comes to mind. Someone from a nearby town entered that when it kicked off again in 2006 and won it. Since that day, he has actually opened up a local brewery which has been doing quite well. The competition was instrumental in his business partner approaching him with the idea to start a brewery in a small town in California.

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