Commercial beer scores 11/50 in National Homebrew Comps

How would commercial beer rate against home brew, in a blind, objective competition?

I’ve wondered this for a few years as a home brewer and beer judge. The worst home brews are bad – mine were – and it is easy to see how Uncle Ted’s homemade rotgut earned its notoriety. But the best are better than commercial beer, because they are crafted in detail, customised to the brewer’s personal taste, and can use any ingredients regardless of commercial realities.

I have had another dilemma recently, too. Ranfurly has rebranded with expensive TV ads and new brews and packaging, in a clear bid to get away for the cheapest-piss-in-the-supermarket niche. I wanted to give the new beer a fair testing, untainted by ads, packing, beer snobbery, or Ranfurly’s previous reputation.

Solution? Ranfurly Station Pale Ale was put in front of the tasting panel at this month’s SOBA National Homebrew Competition, judged as a New Zealand Pale Ale. This was a true blind test –judges didn’t know they were tasting a commercial beer, and they certainly didn’t know it was Ranfurly’s new Station Pale Ale. The beer was judged to the Beer Judging Certification Programme standard, used internationally for judging home brew and commercial beer.

Station Pale Ale scored 11/50, broken down as:
AROMA: Diacetyl, DMS, oxidised. Hiding or ruined any hop character. 2/12
APPEARANCE: Great clarity, good foam. 3/3
FLAVOR: Huge diacetyl, no hop character. 3/20
MOUTHFEEL: Thin, sweet diacetyl finish. 1/5
OVERALL IMPRESSION: Diacetyl overpowers anything in the beer. 2/10
STYLISTIC ACCURACY – Not to style (i.e., NZ Pale Ale)
TECHNICAL MERIT – Significant Flaws

To put that in perspective, there were 294 entries in the competition, and 266 scored better than Ranfurly Station Pale Ale.

So, to answer my first question – more than 90 percent of the entries in this year’s SOBA National Homebrew Competition rated better than Ranfurly Station Pale Ale, a commercial beer available at bottle stores and supermarkets around the country, and currently being heavily advertised on TV.

To answer my second question – Station Pale Ale rated very poorly indeed. The BJCP ratings describe any beer that scores 13 or less as being “Problematic – major off flavors and aromas dominate”. This is not my personal assessment. This score was given by a three-person judging panel, which included two commercial brewers, and at least one of these has international brewing experience. I believe the results are a genuinely objective and expert assessment of Station Pale Ale’s comparative quality.

Just for the record – the test sample was supplied, unsolicited, by Ranfurly’s PR firm, so they could be tried out and blogged about. I raised the idea of benchmarking a commercial beer with the competition organiser before it was submitted, although he didn’t know which one it was.

So a hearty congratulations to everyone who scored better than 11/50. You can honestly say your home brew is better than commercial beer, and now you have proof! And if any of those entrants come from Ranfurly, the Jewel of the Maniototo, you might want to make it clear that you beer is better than the ‘real’ thing from Auckland.
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©Martin Craig. Reproduction with permission only.

9 Responses to “Commercial beer scores 11/50 in National Homebrew Comps”

  1. Wow that’s bad!


  2. Before I start, and go into why I find this whole thing a little odd, I’d like to drop in two qualifiers:

    a) I’m not trying to defend the beer, in fact it is so unlikely to ever hit my radar that I will probably never taste it.
    b) I’m guessing, from the notes, that this beer was entered as a New Zealand Pale Ale.

    I’m slightly bothered by this practice and I’m surprised that SOBA was down with this in advance. I don’t think it adds any value to our national homebrew competition or our brand in general. It seems like more of a marketing exercise than an ideal that SOBA should be pursuing in the promotion and celebration of diversity and quality of our home and commercial craft beer industry. Seeing that nobody else seems to have received their feedback, I’m picking that it was a fairly tightly controlled exercise at both ends… I wouldn’t be surprised if there has even been a little glee in the result.

    My main concern is a very big issue in the judging of beer… the only person who should be picking an entry style, for a competition with such specific style guidelines, is the brewer (or a representative of the brewer).

    Faults are faults… and I agree that there are very few (if any) categories that would allow for one of these characteristics, let alone a combination of them, in a beer. BUT (and that is a big BUT, as you can see) it appears from the judging notes that you have entered the beer into a NZ Pale Ale category, which would require significantly hop character and malt character than I imagine this beer would have in its best condition. Not having tasted the beer, but having a guess as to what it may taste like, I would imagine that this would be far more likely to entered in a style vistually unrecognisable from the one it was entered as.

    A nexample: If you entered Tui into an English or American IPA category, I very much doubt that it would score much higher than this. Considering that Tui would be one of New Zealand’s most consistent beers (the champion NZ Draught in BrewNZ 2009 and 2010) I think this clearly demonstrates my point of how important picking a style is. And how that can only be chosen by the brewer (who will know it is not the “East India Pale Ale” that its can/bottle proclaims it to be).

    A note on all this…. Consumer Magazine manage to get around this entry issue, resonably well, by having much broader ‘subjective’ beer styles for their “off the shelf” taste tests (e.g. pale lager, pilsner, wheat beer, pale ale). By the looks of things, this beer would not score well there either… but I’m not defending the beer so that is not the point of my response.


  3. A little off-topic, but picking up Stu’s point, wouldn’t it be great if beers in competition were disqualified, or at least docket points, if the style named on the bottle was incompatible with the style it was entered as? So much of this year’s BrewNZ angst could have been avoided…


  4. I dont think SOBA was necessarily down with it, I doubt the commitee were informed (although dont know that they werent).


  5. Hi all,

    I am a little under the weather so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will address a couple of things.

    1. As competition organiser, Martin had emailed me with the suggestion quite some time ago. I’ve been unable to find the original email, but it was a none-too-serious exchange along the lines of something Martin might do for interest’s sake, at which point I suggested he tell me nothing further, since I was to be judging also. That’s the entire extent of any collaboration or collusion. I had, in fact, forgotten completely about the conversation until…

    2. Martin emailed me on Thursday to confess his sins. I said that I had no problem releasing the scoresheet in question early under the condition that it was considered embargoed until the official release time of 5pm on Saturday, along with all the other results. A request Martin complied with fully.

    3. I confess, there is some glee involved. For several reasons. Firstly, I loathe bad beer. I loathe it especially when it’s marketed as good beer. It’s nice to see such a beer get a spanking in a completely objective competition with no pre-conceptions at all, and by judges with excellent palates and reputations. Secondly, this particular beer has just been rebranded, but as so often seems the case, someone forgot about actually making a quality beer to go with the shiny new packaging. The poor quality of the product inside the packaging stands revealed now. I think that’s a good thing for consumers.

    4. I do agree with Stu’s point that it’s a little unethical to enter another brewer’s beer in a competition. I didn’t really think much about this when Martin mentioned it, as I have to admit I was very busy, and also quite tickled by the idea! It broke several rules of the competition in that it was commercial, and that it wasn’t entered by the person or group who brewed it. I’d like to officially discourage this from happening again.

    5. As competition organiser, I represented SOBA in this, so SOBA are “responsible” I guess. I can state though that, as I said, I had completely forgotten it was even a possibility and certainly hadn’t mentioned it to the committee. Let any blame for not picking up on it fall squarely on my head.


    Greig McGill
    Organiser, SOBA NHC 2010


    • Don’t worry… we still love you. And Martin.

      @ Phil and Dominic – there is a part of me that agrees with your sentiment but it really is too hard to enforce. The beer is called “pale ale” but there is no style … pale ale could refer to an English, Belgian, American, New Zealand or Austrlian pale ale – all of which are completely different – or any other pale ale from around the world.

      Many beers, including a bunch great English cask ales, change their name over time to suit fashion and public opinion. A bunch of great mild ales changed their name to bitter during the latter part of the past century to keep their appeal with the public… A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, wouldn’t it? Where does the line between bitter and mild fall? And what about the line between stout and porter? Just look through the text around PKB and PKB Remix on ratebeer to see how this sort of thing troubles people.

      You could possibly call NZ Draught an historical form of (insipid) “pale ale”. It does, afterall, have many similar characteristics to an English pale ale (and these can be just as insipid!). I see Geoff Griggs reports a contrary opinion to the judges findings, though is no more enamoured by the beer, in saying that the Ranfurly pale ale and lager are “well brewed and fault free, but unfortunately they smell and taste exactly as you might expect of Kiwi beers from a generation ago” ( Perhaps it was a bad bottle or two… do we know where or how it was stored? How old it was and what the best before date was? Do we know if it was spiked (I’m sure it wasn’t, as I trust Martin completely, but this is the kind of thing we have to be aware of when people enter beers that are not theirs)?

      More importantly, who is going to get “Ranfurly” as their anti-spam word? I’m in the right island, with Twizel, but it’s still a fairly long drive away at 247km.


  6. I’m with Dom that there should be some gatekeeping of entries done so that breweries aren’t able to ‘game’ the awards in opposition to their own marketing. I sympathise with Stu’s point that brewers should be able to chose against what style guideline their beers are judged, but I don’t think they should be free to be complete hypocrites for the sake of better chances at the awards dinner.

    Tui’s a pretty classic example, being the definitive and rightly award-winning example of the New Zealand Draught style that it is, but all the while presented to the public as something altogether different. (I think that’s the sole example of DB ‘gaming’ the recent awards, though, so I’m not sure how much of the angst would have been avoided — or how much of that angst should’ve just calmed itself down or redirected itself in the first place…)


  7. (I should add that I mean Tui was the sole example of DB *succeeding-at* ‘gaming’ the awards. I was kinda running on the assumption that the ‘angst’ mentioned was DB taking out the Champion title, and that that was just a totalling-up of Trophy wins. I can’t remember off the top of my head how they entered beers like Celtic, whether to-style or to-marketing.)


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