A Quick Guide to Running a Homebrew Competition

Link to article
AHA-homebrew-competition-1440

By Jason Wing

So, your homebrew club wants to host a homebrewing competition. Maybe your club is new and your members are just getting into competing, or maybe your club does one every year, but the people who have run it in the past are no longer available. Maybe you are looking for a way to tie your homebrewing skills to a charitable cause.

Whatever the reason, homebrew competitions are great. It’s an awesome opportunity for homebrewers to test their best beers against those of others, receive quality, impartial feedback from knowledgeable judges, and hopefully win medals for beers that place. Homebrew competitions are also great events for clubs to increase visibility in their community, and to support local nonprofit organizations. For example, my club does a competition called Beer for Boobs, in support of a breast cancer research cause started by Lisa White of White Labs Yeast. Homebrew competitions are major events for any homebrew club, and successful ones can become annual events that both club members and participants look forward to each year.

That being said, they can also be a significant amount of work. There are lots of details to keep track of, and the planning needs to start much earlier than you might think (more on that later). The last thing you want to do is mishandle an entry that a homebrewer has entered with great anticipation of feedback and scoring. 

So, what do you need to do to make something like this happen?

*Disclaimer*

This is not intended to be the ‘end all be all’ guide to competitions. Like most things, there are many ways to go about it. The purpose here is to provide a general idea of the key areas that need focus to get you started. You can then make adjustments or customizations that you see fit to make the competition your own.

PEOPLE

First and foremost, you need commitment from people.

Needed positions typically include:

Event Coordinator – Generally the primary contributor and decision-maker for the competition. If a competition responsibility or duty doesn’t fall anywhere else, it falls on the Event Coordinator. It is important for the person claiming this role to stay in close communication with all the other event positions to ensure things are getting done in a thorough, accurate, and timely manner. Primary tasks include registering the event with the BJCP and AHA, getting the competition software online, acquiring and keeping an inventory of all materials, labels, medals, and printing all necessary competition paperwork.

Judge Coordinator – This person must reach out to the judging community to ensure there are enough judges signed up for the competition—a rule of thumb is, no more than 10 entries for a flight with 2 judges. Create the flights, which are the category groupings (IPAs, American Dark Beers, Sours, etc.), and then assign judges to those flights. Be sure to have at least one BJCP-certified judge per judge pair. If judges specify any style preferences, be respectful of their wishes if possible. If there is a morning and afternoon session, try to have the high-ABV flights judged early, and the low-ABV flights judged later, so that judges can drive home safely. Determine who among the judge pool will be BOS (best of show) judges. They should be your highest-rated judges—usually with a rank of National or higher.

Sponsorship Coordinator – The one in this role reaches out to local breweries, homebrew shops, and other businesses for sponsorship opportunities and prize donations. You definitely want a BOS prize, and it is also nice to have something like a gift card for the first-place entry in each category. If your competition includes something like a silent auction or raffle for a charitable cause, this position is usually also responsible for procuring donations.

Data Entry – As judges finish judging entries, the steward will take the scoresheets to the data entry person who will input the info into the system and scan in the scoresheet. They will then attach and label a coversheet on the scoresheets for each entry and group them together by the entrant. Expertise with the competition software is a requirement for this duty.

Cellar – It usually helps to have at least two people in the cellar. They are responsible for organizing entries and retrieving them when requested by the steward. Obviously, organizational skills are helpful for this role.

Head Steward – This person explains to the other competition stewards what’s expected of them, and assigns them to judging tables. Steward experience is a necessity here.

JUDGES AND STEWARDS

Judges – BJCP certification is usually preferred, but not required for all judges. Certified judges actively look to judge competitions to increase their judging points, which helps them increase their ranking. Other judges can be professional brewers, people with formal sensory training, or non-BJCP certified beer judges with competition experience and an excellent understanding of the BJCP categories. Judging happens by analyzing each entry based on five categories: Aroma, Appearance, Flavor, Mouthfeel, and Overall Impression. Judges should be familiar with the BJCP guide to appropriately score and comment on each category for each entry they judge. The judging happens in pairs, with a minimum of two judges per entry. Some flights (10 or less) might have two judges, and others (20 or less) might have four. If there are four judges, they would perform a mini-BOS for their table. Usually, each judge pair would bring two to three of the best entries they judged to the mini-BOS.

Stewards – Stewards are responsible for bringing entries in the flight from the cellar to the table for the judges. The steward is also responsible for filling out the Flight Summary Sheet and delivering it, along with individual entry scoresheets, to the Data Entry person.

LOCATION

Competitions are often held at a brewery, but they don’t have to be. The main venue criteria include: enough floor space and tables for your judging area; an on-premise cold storage facility for entries, such as a walk-in cooler; and it’s very helpful to have your competition site accept shipped or dropped-off entries and store them until the competition judging. Since breweries usually have all these abilities, they are highly favored as competition sites; plus they often have their own food available for judges and competition staff, as well as great beer for calibration. Also keep in mind that many craft breweries were started by homebrewers who are well aware of the importance of homebrew competitions, and were probably homebrew club members themselves. In return, breweries get guaranteed business from a lot of knowledgeable, like-minded beer enthusiasts. However, receiving packages from competition entrants requires volunteer effort on the part of brewery staff, and cold storage space may be insufficient, so the brewery may be unable to do everything. If so, you may want to specify an additional receiving location such as a homebrew store, or someone’s home.

WEBSITE AND SOFTWARE

You will need a website where people can sign up as an entrant, judge, steward, or staff member. This will also be the main place where people go to get the information they need about the contest. Usually this can be done as a page on an existing club’s website (for example: www.coolhomebrewclub.com/coolcompetition). It is very helpful to recruit the person who administers the website to ensure this is setup and functions correctly.

The brewing software I have seen the most is called Brew Competition Online Entry & Management.

SPONSORS

Sponsors are a great addition to a homebrew competition, as they can provide prizes, gift cards, and donations of brewing materials or equipment. In return, they get some advertising on your competition website. Homebrew stores, breweries, and other local businesses are usually interested and willing to be a sponsor. If a brewery chooses to host your event, that can be the most important form of sponsorship…make sure to show your gratitude and tip their servers well.

quick-guide-to-homebrewing-competitions

TIMELINE

3 – 4 MONTHS BEFORE COMPETITION

  • Determine who will be in each competition role and get their commitment
  • Determine venue and alternate dropoff locations if necessary
  • Determine your competition date (take into consideration any other conflicting competition dates, holidays, etc.)
  • Set Registration, Entry Registration, Entry Drop Off, Entry Shipping, and Judge Registration deadlines
  • Register competition with the BJCP and AHA (these are also great resources for the competition)
  • Set up website and competition software
  • Publicize the event with BJCP judges and other homebrew clubs
  • Connect with potential sponsors for prize donations
  • Connect with local charities, if applicable

1 – 2 MONTHS BEFORE COMPETITION

  • Purchase competition materials, including awards, medals, tasting cups, pencils, dump buckets, a printer/scanner, water bottles, crackers, etc. (not a complete list).
  • Print scoresheets, cover sheets, pull sheets, judge labels, and medal labels

1 WEEK BEFORE COMPETITION

  • Send initial judging assignments email
  • Open and check in the entries you’ve already received (this is usually a 3-4 person job)
  • Order any breakfast, lunch and snack items for judges
  • Send final judging assignments email

DAY OF COMPETITION

  • Arrive at the competition site and set up all equipment (this is better done the day before, if your venue is willing)
  • Arrange your cellar/cold storage area so entries can easily be found; this is usually done by category number
  • Set up judging tables, put out the judge sign-in sheet, printing labels for judges
  • Make any last-minute staffing changes; sometimes judges and stewards cancel
  • Have Head Steward do a brief training session for stewards
  • Judge morning session
  • Break for lunch (if applicable). Scan and enter all entries are into the software
  • Judge afternoon session
  • Judge BOS session
  • Hold awards ceremony announcing BOS, 1st, 2nd, 3rd in each category and any other special awards
  • Pack up, clean up, leave, and enjoy a well-earned homebrew!

1 WEEK AFTER COMPETITION

  • Mail medals
  • Record BJCP points
  • Leave competition website up for at least two months once the competition has completed

HELPFUL TIPS

  • Use BJCP and AHA competition resources linked above
  • Find people who have past experience with competitions and get them to commit to a role, or at least advise you on your competition
  • Meet with your core competition group on a regular basis to ensure the appropriate progress is being made
  • Look at other clubs’ competition websites to see how they approached the details
  • Have fun! It’s a beer competition!

* * *

About the Author

Jason is an avid homebrewer and has been a board member of the Columbus Ohio based homebrew club SODZ for three years, serving as President for two of those years. He is a contributing writer for Zymurgy magazine. Jason also co-founded a craft beer appreciation group Have Another which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.