Last week I judged eight flights at the Upper Mississippi Mashout homebrew competition in the Twin Cities of Minnesota (sadly no medals for me this year). In its nine years of existence the Mashout has grown into one of the largest homebrew competitions in the country. This year brought a record 930+ entries from brewers all over the United States. Evaluating all those beers involved the palates of nearly a hundred and fifty judges and stewards, including the largest concentration of BJCP Master and Grand Master judges of any competition with the possible exception of the National Homebrewing Competition. Needless to say, it takes the months-long effort of a hard-working, all-volunteer, organizing committee to pull it off. The committee, comprised of members from the St. Paul Homebrewers Club and the Minnesota Homebrewers Association, deals with everything from securing a space, purchasing supplies, getting prizes, and arranging for food before the event begins to herding beers, judges, and an avalanche of paperwork while it is going on. It is a massive undertaking.
While judging beers and contemplating the organizational intricacies of the event, I thought of the posts I often see on homebrewing forums from people wondering what happens to their contest beers once they are shipped or questioning the judging process at BJCP sanctioned homebrewing competitions. It struck me that it might be interesting and helpful to describe what actually happens during a homebrewing competition.
So what does happen to those beers after they are dropped-off?
After the submission deadline has passed, beers are collected from the various drop-off and shipping locations for sorting and labeling. Judging at BJCP events is blind. Beers are only identified by an entry number and the BJCP style category in which they were entered. Each bottled is labeled with a sticker showing these two numbers and then sorted into boxes by category.
The cellar is one of the busiest places at any competition, a beehive of beer activity. This is where all the beer is kept during the competition. The cellar master is in charge of organizing and prepping the beers for each judging round. Beers are placed in coolers prior to each session to insure that they are at proper serving temperatures. They are arranged by competition style category and entry number as indicated on pull sheets generated for each flight. A pull sheet is simply a list of the beers to be judged in a particular flight. It also lists specific ingredient or process information necessary for the fruit beer, vegetable and spice beer, or specialty beer categories. Once judging begins, stewards get beers from the cellar master and bring them to the judging tables. Beers with a high enough score to advance to the next round are corked and returned to the cellar to stay cool.
Every beer is evaluated by at least two judges. At the Mashout, an effort is made to insure that at least one BJCP Certified or higher ranked judge is assigned to every judging group. As mentioned above, judging is blind. Judges see only entry numbers, style categories, and any necessary ingredient or process information. A typical flight at this competition consisted of five to seven beers. The number of beers to be judged and the limited time in which to judge them constrained consideration of each beer to about ten minutes.
Judges first evaluate a beer independently, giving comments and assigning number scores for aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression using the official BJCP score sheet. Beers are assigned scores on a fifty point scale with different values given to each quality assessed. Once this evaluation is complete, the judges compare scores. At the Mashout scores must fall within a five point spread. If they do there is usually little further discussion of that beer. If the spread is wider the judges debate the merits or demerits until one or both adjust their scores, bringing them in line. The three top scoring beers in each category win medals.
In a large competition like the Mashout, there are often two or more flights or judging groups within a style category. When this is the case, each judging group sends their top scoring two or three beers on to a “mini best of show” (MBOS) round where the head judges from each flight select the top three for the category. At this point final assigned scores may be adjusted to account for differences in judge calibration between the groups. For instance, if one table of judges is consistently scoring lower than another, it is possible that a second place beer will receive a higher score in the first round than the first place beer. In a case like this the MBOS judges may assign a higher final score to better reflect the top beer’s first place position.
Once all the judging is done, the first place beers from each category progress to the Best of Show round where they are evaluated once more. Judges for the Best of Show round at the Mashout are typically BJCP Master or Grand Master judges or guest judges from the beer industry.
Beers at a BJCP sanctioned competition are judged according to the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines. It’s not what beer the judges liked best, but which beer best reflects the characteristics set forth in the guidelines. I have assigned many beers that I loved low scores because they didn’t fit the parameters for the style into which they were entered. In any given competition the organizers have the freedom to group style categories and subcategories together in different ways. For instance, I judged a flight consisting of Imperial IPAs and American Barleywines, BJCP categories 14c and 19c. While there are only twenty-eight style categories for beer, mead, and cider in the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines (not including sub-categories), there were over forty categories for this competition.
With the controversy that sometimes swirls around the BJCP Style Guidelines, it may be useful to say a few words about them here. The style guidelines are nothing more than a set of criteria that one particular organization has agreed will govern their competitions. They are based partly in empirical observation of currently available commercial beers and partly on an interpretation of the historical development of beer styles. They are revised approximately every four years. Other organizations have their own guidelines that reflect their own interpretations of beer style. None of them should be viewed as imposing hard and fast rules about how beers should be made in any other context. They are what they are and nothing more.
A Personal Perspective
I am a National level BJCP judge. I have judged many competitions and entered many beers into competition. I have won my share of medals and received my share of low scores. Homebrewers who enter beers into competition sometimes get frustrated when their beers don’t do as well as expected or when they perceive the judging to be inadequate. I have done it too. But I believe it’s important to keep perspective. Judges, stewards, and competition organizers volunteer a great deal of time and energy to an event. They are hobbyists with a passion for the craft. In my experience, nearly all of them apply their skill and knowledge to the best of their abilities, striving to fairly and accurately judge the entries placed before them. This doesn’t mean they always get it right. But we have to remember that this is a hobby. It’s meant to be fun. I enter competitions because it’s fun. If it ceases to be fun, maybe one shouldn’t enter.
That’s basically how it works. Have you entered or judged a competition? What was your experience?