I spent this past weekend judging beers at the Central Oregon Homebrewers‘ annual Spring Fling competition, where we had a record 363 beers entered. Spring Fling is a BJCP-sanctioned homebrew competition, and follows the 2015 style guidelines. Over the weekend I judged the Wood Beer, IPA, and Pale American Ale categories, and tasted a number of others.
Spring Fling requires three 12-ounce bottles submitted per entry, similar to other competitions. One of the things I’ve been learning in these judging sessions is that no matter how good the beer might be, there can be variations from bottle to bottle. So even if a beer advances from one judging table to a “mini-BOS” (mini “Best of Show” to determine the best from multiple tables), that same beer from a different bottle might be different and not as good.
That could be a due to a number of factors, and it’s weird and unfortunate when it happens. So, I thought I’d write up some tips on preparing your beers for competition.
And, some disclosures: I am not a certified BJCP beer judge (I’m “novice” in that regard), and I am the current president of COHO. Also, I have a pretty high tolerance for diacetyl, so I have a very hard time finding that in a beer that others will readily detect. (Though really isn’t a packaging issue.)
Tip #1: Clean and sanitize all the necessary bottles!
This was in fact one of the judges’ observations. A brewer will sanitize two bottles and forget they need a third, or simply forget to sanitize the third. So one bottle may well end up being infected. The fix here is to thoroughly clean and sanitize all of the bottles you need. In fact, clean extras, just in case. And don’t forget to sanitize your bottle caps too.
Tip #2: Avoid oxidation
Several of the American Pale Ales we judged had noticeable oxidation: wet paper or cardboard character. Of course, it’s impossible to say if this was already present, but there is a chance the beer was exposed to oxygen during bottling. Especially if bottles were filled from a keg! If you can, purge the bottles with CO2 before filling them. This works because carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen, and displaces the O2. Here are some ways to do that:
- Use a beer gun like this one from Blichmann. This hooks into your keg and CO2 tank to let you purge the bottle prior to filling with beer. COHO owns a beer gun that is freely available to club members—check with your club to see if you have one, too.
- No beer gun? Clean and charge up an empty keg with some CO2. Then you can run a line off the keg, same as if it were filled, and dispense gas.
- Bottle condition! Of course then you can have a different set of issues…
Tip #3: Fill your bottles appropriately
Under filled bottles drive me nuts. Over filled bottles are irritating, but not as bad. Why? Low fills increase the amount of potential oxygen in the bottle in the extra headspace. (See above.) When a bottle is over filled, I worry if the filler wasn’t paying attention, which could potentially lead to splashing or contamination. Aim for consistency!
Tip #4: Don’t fill the bottles until as close to the competition as possible
This ties in with oxidation and potential infection as well as beer freshness. Essentially, you want the beer as fresh as possible; the longer the time it spends in bottles filled from a keg, the more chances it has of developing flavors of oxidation, developing infection, or simply getting flat and/or stale.
I filled my bottles the night before they were due, and then judging took place a week later. That’s nine days they had a chance to oxidize (or worse). People who ship their beers fill even earlier, which can’t be helped. But try to avoid filling from a keg three months in advance!
I hope these tips help if you’re planning to submit your beers for competition. If you have any other tips to share, feel free to leave them in the comments!