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Friday, March 18, 2011

Enter not, lest ye be judged

By Chug Dorda

We are now accepting entries in the 8th annual Siciliano's homebrew competition. As such, I thought it would be wise to de-mystify the process for those thinking of entering. First off, our competition is a BJCP sanctioned event. This means that all beers entered must be submitted under a style category meticulously decided upon by the BJCP board. A list of categories with specifications can be found at the official BJCP website (

Secondly, your beer will only be judged against its own category for the first round of tasting. Say, for example, you enter a pale ale. Until "Best in Show" consideration, your entry will only compete against the blanket style definition of "pale ale", not against every other pale ale entered into the competition. This is done to assure an accurate, unbiased evaluation for that beer alone -- not a relative comparison to others in the competition, but an objective comparison to a well-established set of style guidelines.

The reason behind adhering to style categories is simple: it helps remove personal prejudice from the judges and assures an unbiased evaluation of the particular beer in question. When a judge samples a beer, he/she is asked to compare it to approved standards of aroma, taste, and presentation which are considered perfect for the category. (For brewers who intentionally manipulate a beer beyond the accepted parameters of a certain style, there is always category 23, the "specialty" beer category, a catch-all for entries that don't fit into any other category.)

Most important to remember is that the judges are not there to criticize your beer; rather, their mission is to offer an array of notes, constructive criticism, and suggestions on how to tailor a beer more accurately to its intended style. Often times I have recommended that someone enter a beer they are trying to perfect in order to gain perspective on it. I have also suggested that a beer brewed exactly to style be submitted in order to test its mettle, perhaps to go on to "Best in Show" consideration. 

You may enter whatever beer you like of course, but I would offer a simple tip before making the final decision. Set aside six to eight bottles of the beer you intend to enter. On the night before the competition starts, conduct a taste panel with a friend while reading the style guidelines. You may be surprised at what you find. For instance, a beer brewed to robust porter guidelines may turn out to be a brown porter, a presumed IPA could be closer to a pale ale, and so on. This simple step could be the difference between a medal winner and the ultimate prize, the award for best in show.

Beers will most often be judged by a team of two. There will most commonly be a BJCP certified judge (or an otherwise well-qualified palate) teamed with a less experienced, but highly educated “beer geek". The team will compare notes after each judge has completed his/her initial and separate tasting. The dichotomy of information presented is extremely useful more often than it isn't. Judges will decide the beer's final score together, and together they will offer their final impressions of the beer (see score sheet below). I have seen judges write, “If this were in a store, I would buy it tonight!”

If this is your first time entering a competition, and you are unsure of what will happen, I can only guarantee two things. First, you will receive amazing tasting notes that will undoubtedly be useful on your next brew day. Second, it will further fuel a fire of passion within you, one that will not be calmed until you have made the perfect beer. Although it is a “competition”, we at Siciliano's would like people to view it more as a celebration of their achievements in beer making. You already make good beer, the only thing left to do is make it better, and make more of it.

Cheers, The Chug.

Official score sheet - click to enlarge

The Chug
Sicilano's staffer Doug "the Chug" Dorda lives on the west side of Grand Rapids, where he is in the final editing stages of "Category 23", an epic, 12-volume work of beer- and space-related science fiction.

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