Homebrew competitions are one way brewers get good feedback on their beer. Generally speaking, the judging is competent and those that judge do the best that they can to give you a fair appraisal of your beer.
Most judges have been brewing for many years and have gone through a rigorous studying and testing procedure to become certified by the BJCP. Part of the requirements for judging is that they try not to be too negative about your beer, but give constructive guidance on how to fix any flaws that may be evident. It's really a win-win situation. You get an idea of how well you brewed your beer to style, and if there are problems, you get information on how to brew it better next time.
Why Many Don't Enter Homebrew Competitions
I don't know the statistics, but I'd be willing to bet the vast majority of homebrewers don't enter competitions for one reason or another. Some of these reasons may include:
Apathy - many homebrewers just want to brew good beer for themselves and their friends and don't care what others think, and there is nothing wrong with this attitude. It is a hobby after all and if you don't think it will be fun to enter competitions, then by all means don't.
Lack of confidence - there are a lot of homebrewers who just don't think their beers are good enough to win in homebrew competitions.
Not competitive - many homebrewers don't have a competitive personality and it just doesn't interest them to enter homebrew competitions.
Bad experiences - here are some of the possible scenarios which may be preventing homebrewers from entering competitions again:
Some homebrewers may have entered a few beers into competitions just to have their beers get slammed by the judges. Some of these beers may have been very good, some even great. It happens to everyone, believe me.
Many homebrewers don't agree with what the judges write on the scoresheets about their beers and thus lose confidence in the judging abilities of all certified judges.
Their beers may have received a wide range of scores in different competitions, again, causing them to question the judging abilities of all judges.
After entering several competitions and getting low scores on beers they know are really well made, some brewers feel the judges are looking for "sensationalized" flavors in beer and won't give a good score to a well balanced, finely crafted brew.
Many times judges don't use enough tact in their criticisms and there are homebrewers who just don't take negative feedback well. These homebewers get disappointed and don't take the feedback in the spirit in which it was written. It can be difficult, but even poorly worded criticism of your beers can be used constructively to brew better beer in the future.
They don't understand all the rules - competitions can sometimes have lots of rules and regulations, with lots of hoops to jump through, and many just don't quite understand what they have to do to enter.
Reasons For Entering Homebrew Competitions
But there are a great many homebrewers who are entering homebrew competitions. Why do these guys and gals enter?
Feedback - maybe you know how to judge or evaluate beer and maybe you don't. For those who do, entering homebrew competitions is a great way to get affirmation or confirmation on what they think. For the vast majority of us that don't have the sophisticated palate of a Grand Master V BJCP certified judge, entering homebrew competitions is a great way of getting feedback on our recipes and brewing efforts. This feedback can take your brewing skills to the next level. Instead of just brewing good beer, you can use the feedback to brew great award winning beer.
They are competitive - many of us, I'm probably included in this group, are very competitive by nature and not only want to make the best beer we can, but we want to prove it to ourselves and everyone else. Even if you are not one to brag, winning a major homebrew competition gives you bragging rights in case it comes up in conversation.
Involvement in the hobby - homebrewing is a wonderful hobby, one that sneaks up on you and before you know it, you are obsessed with making award winning beer. There are brewers who just enjoy being involved. These are the people who work their way up, eventually running some of the larger homebrew competitions themselves. These are the people who think that everyone can make a difference and that if they make small changes locally, then nationally, they will eventually be in a position to affect how all the homebrew competitions are run. It's a lofty ambition to be sure, but an admirable one.
Fun - homebrew competitions can be a lot of fun to enter, especially if you can attend in person. Many competitions have a mini conference with speakers and general brewing discussions about homebrewing that can be invaluable information. Many have a pub crawl which showcases the local beer scene. Who better to show you the best places to find great beer than the locals from the homebrew club.
Networking - winning competitions, providing constructive feedback to competition managers, providing your winning recipes to the competitions, and just exchanging information with other homebrewers is a great way to make some great contacts. Who knows, you might even be able to exchange bottles of beer with Gordon Strong, Jamil Zainasheff, and Mike McDole.
Credibility - for some, winning competitions is a way of gaining credibility for their brewing skills. Maybe you want to open a brew pub or even write a website about homebrewing. Being able to say you are an award winning homebrewer goes a long way in getting you a job in the brewing industry, on loan applications for your new commercial brewing endeavor, or to get other homebrewers to visit your website.
How to Win Homebrew Competitions
If you do decide to enter your beers into homebrew competitions, there are some things you can do to improve your chances of doing well. These include:
Get some local feedback from your homebrew club. You probably have brewers in your local club with many years of experience brewing and drinking or evaluating beer. Have them give you some feedback on your beers. If they identify a glaring fault, they will most likely tell you what you did wrong and how to correct the fault. Brew the beer again applying the suggestions and see how it turns out. If it still has a fault, maybe one of them can come over when you brew and teach you some of their tricks and give constructive feedback on your procedures and/or equipment.
Know the style you are brewing inside and out. Read the BJCP guidelines on the style. Look online for sites specializing on the kind of beer you are brewing for some great historical and style related information. One example is the site called German Beer Institute - The German Beer Portal for North America. If you are wanting to brew a German beer, you might find the information on the style here very helpful in fine tuning your recipe.
Here is a link to the German Beer Institute's home page. I'm sure there are many other great websites specializing in specific styles of beer. Buy one of the books written about the style you are interested in brewing. You'll get a wealth of information you won't find any where else.
Know all the rules and regulations. Most homebrew competitions are sanctioned by the AHA and go by the same set of rules and regulations. Read these and understand them.
Be sure you enter your beer in the category in which it has the best chance of winning. Sometimes a beer's style may fall in the gray areas between two styles. If you really understand the styles this may be enough to decide which category to enter your beer in. Some homebrew competitions give winning recipes of past winners. Take a look at some of those and compare their recipes to yours. This may help decide where your beer fits within the two styles. If all else fails, enter your beer in both categories and see what happens. You may be surprised.
One thing few homebrewers do is to bottle one extra bottle of each entry and taste the beer on the day of the competition. You have to remember, your beers have been in and out of hot warehouses and jostled around in the back of hot trucks for up to a week just getting to the hombrew competition. Hopefully once they arrive to the contest they are promptly stored in a cooler, but there are no guarantees. Keeping a beer at room temperature until the day of a contest and then tasting it and making some notes may help you understand some of the feedback you get from the judges. It may also help you fine tune your timing as to when you brew a beer and ship it for major competitions such as the NHC.
Take a good look at the bottles before sending them in to homebrew competitions. Make sure the outside is clean and all label and glue is removed. Judges are people after all, and if they see the steward pouring a beer from a funky bottle, they will just naturally think the beer coming out of that bottle may be funky too.
Time your brewing to coincide with the homebrew competitions you want to enter. Many beers require long lagering and/or conditioning periods before they hit their prime. And the opposite is also true of some styles. Many IPAs need to be judged when they are fresh so the hops shine through and before they begin to fade. If you think one or more of your favorite beers may be past its prime or not yet to it's prime, either brew another batch or wait until it reaches its prime before you enter it.
Pack your beers well and don't ship through the post office. After affixing the label on the beer with a rubber band, and making sure any writing on the cap is blacked out with a marker, and that the bottle is clean and presentable.
I wrap the beer in about 18-24" of bubble wrap. Tape the bubble wrap with a quality wrapping tape, then fold over the excess wrap and tape the top and bottom.
After all the beers are wrapped in bubble wrap, I then place them in a trash bag and squeeze all the air out. Tie the bag or tape it shut. This keeps the beer isolated in case one of the beers happens to break or leak while in transit.
Pack more bubble wrap on all sides of the bag of beer. You can add wadded newspaper or whatever you want to keep the beers from moving around inside the box. You know whoever ships the box isn't going to give it any special attention just because it says "FRAGILE - GLASS" or "THIS SIDE UP". It's your job to pack it well.
Make sure you've included your check for the fees and a registration form if one is required before you seal the box. Take it to one of the shippers such as FedEx, UPS, or DHL. I'm not saying you have to lie to them about the contents, but I wouldn't be forthcoming about the alcohol in the box. I'm not sure about the regulations but I just don't take any chances.
I have told the shippers various things about the contents such as gifts, yeast samples, brewing supplies, etc. If they ask if it is breakable, I usually tell them yes, but it is well packed.
Make sure you get a tracking number and ask when the beer will arrive before you leave. It won't do you any good to ship by ground service if the box containing your beers won't get there until after the entry deadline. You may have to ship 2nd day or even next day if you have waited till the last minute.
Start by entering competitions in your area. When you win locally, start entering regional competitions. If you are having good experiences there, the next logical step would be to try to enter the big boys, such as the NHC or MCAB. Entering and winning these two "National Competitions" is a fine goal which will motivate you to learn how to brew the best beer you possibly can. I highly recommend entering the qualifying events for the MCAB.
Here is an article about this exciting competition written by the former director, John Peed.
Sometimes there is a regional bias on the part of the judges. For example, all the judges living in the Midwest may like their pale ales perfectly balanced, and you know judges from the west coast like their pale ales hoppy and bitter.
If one of the qualifying events for the MCAB is held in the Midwest, and you are brewing a west coast pale ale, it is possible you may not score as well as you think you should. For these big homebrew competitions, you may want to make slight changes in your recipes to accommodate the judge.s regionally biased palates.
Of course if you like west coast pale ales, and will be drinking the rest of the keg yourself, by all means brew it how you like it, just don't be disappointed if your scoresheet reflects the fact that your beer is a bit too hoppy.
This may not help you win competitions, but it is a good piece of advise: Don't be discouraged if your beer doesn't do well in a competition. Understand that everyone is different and likes different things.
Some judges are better than others and some may not even be able to taste the complex flavors you brewed into your beer. Enter your beer into a few competitions and get a general consensus. Average your scores and discard the low and high (I know it's hard to discard a 47 point score). The average will be a good indication of the quality of your beer or at least how well it fits into a particular style guideline.
Also understand that this is all the judges are doing. They are judging you on how well your beer fits into a pre-described set of style guidelines and it may not reflect on the inherent quality of your beer. There are many great beers which fit in the gray areas of the guidelines and could be entered into one of several categories. Sometimes it may be a good idea to enter a beer in more than one category.
You will probably get different judges who can offer a new perspective on your beer, and it may be that the beer fits the alternate category better any way. Regardless of how these beers do in competition, you will get great feedback on your recipe and brewing processes from the judges. If you can take criticism in the spirit it was given, it will help you brew that beer better in the future, and will help you brew better beer overall.
Thanks to John Peed, award winning homebrewer and director of the Masters Championship of Amateur Brewing (at the time of this writing), for some of his insights on competitions.