Confessions of a home-brew judge

The Society of Beer Advocates has held a national home-brew competition every year since 2007, and I’ve been a judge for the past three years. This year the competition is in Hamilton, the first time it has been held outside Wellington, and a new crew will be judging. It’s time to think about entering.

The SOBA competition uses the rigorous judging criteria developed and honed by the Beer Judging Certification Program. This is a United States-based outfit that standardises the judging technique and publishes the standards for each beer style. Some of the standards are highly specific, while others can be infuriatingly vague, but overall the system gives a proven structure to what is, inevitably, a subjective exercise.

So if you’re entering the SOBA home-brew nationals, how will your proud efforts be treated and judged?

Each beer is judged alone against the BJCP style standard. A group of three or four judges are given the same beer without knowing anything except the style it was entered under. Entrants can give some basic information such as ‘dry hopped’ or ‘serve chilled’, but usually all entries are tasted at room temperature because it brings out the flavours and faults.

First judges look at the beer, inspecting for clarity, colour and any floating bits. They’ll take a sniff and maybe make some notes. I like to take a sniff and think about what I’m noticing, then take another sniff to see if my initial impressions are reinforced or changed. Then I’ll take a sip, swirl it around my mouth and, yes, swallow it. Beer’s too important to spit out. Then it’s another sip to see how initial taste impressions stand up.

For many of the entries, that’s it – done. Judges discuss the beer and may take another sniff or sip to test other judges’ thoughts. Even if they do, they will taste about one tablespoon of your pride and joy. Then the ratings are combined to produce your score.

It will all be over in a couple of minutes then it’s time to move on to the next entry. One year we judged more than 100 beers in a day. Any outstanding beers move on to another round where they are re-evaluated and discussed in depth. The final winner is often the result of a fair bit of debate and a vote.

So how do you make your beer stand out from the crowd? Here’s a few ideas:
• Learn to recognise basic flaws such as diacetyl, sulphur and acetylaldehydes. These are the by-products of bad fermentation that give home-brew its bad rep. Beers are judged for their flaws before they are judged for their merits, so being able to produce a clean beer is more important than being innovative.

• Taste your beer before you enter it. Every year we get beers that are marked down because they’re entered in an inappropriate style. Don’t worry about fashion or the title of the recipe – taste your beer, then pick the style.

• Push the style boundaries. Popular styles will have ten or more entries, all tasted one after the other. If you go for the high end of the alcohol range, or push it on the hopping, your entry will stand out from those that play it by the book.

• Your beer has to stand out at first sip. High-alcohol and high-flavour styles, like Imperial Stouts or Barleywines, dominate the final round.

If you get a chance to be involved in judging, jump right in. The worst home brews do carry notes of nail-polish remover, but the best ones are better than a commercial beer, because they are prepared for flavour regardless of cost.

If you’re interested in pre-judging, get in touch.

Cheers and good luck to all the entrants.
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©Martin Craig. No reproduction without permission.

6 Responses to “Confessions of a home-brew judge”

  1. Our judges this year include two World Beer Cup judges, and the other four are all very professional and well capable of judging a good beer as a good beer, regardless of whether it’s a “wow” beer or not! :) Kieran, as you know, favours nothing if not a well balanced, well brewed English bitter. Enter all good beers. Hell, enter all bad beers, if you want the feedback. Six world class judges will give the best feedback they are capable of. Full details and website up next week.


    • Yes, fair enough, please do enter session beers. But certainly in previous competitions the heavier styles were the ones that were represented at the finish.



  2. I agree Greig. There is no reason why a session beer shouldnt take the comp. Im not sure about pushing hopping and strength either as I think this also often pushes beers out of style.
    In fact rather than pushing hopping, one of the big things to stand out in previous years has been a decent malt character rather than an unusually large hop character. It tends to be the brewers who master thier mash tuns who have found success.


  3. I had heard that the first year there was a mild in the final judge off.


    • Yep, the first year was a judge off between Mild Ale (Barry Hannah), a 9 year old Barleywine (John Golics) and the eventual winner – a traditional bock (Dan Boyce). All three were outstanding… I’m glad I wasn’t a judge as I’d have struggled to pick one as a more exemplary example of style than the others.

      Two more tips:

      Learn the styles! Once you learn the styles you will realise that there is a place for every great beer, even if you do not realise this at first. But to enter a beer in an experimental style, you must first know the styles that are more defined.

      The most important point… just brew beers you love to drink and enter as many as possible. Even if you don’t think they are great, it is worth getting the feedback to ensure that your palate is in shape and that you are assessing your own beer realistcally.


  4. Very good information. Lucky me I ran across your blog by accident (stumbleupon).

    I have book-marked it for later!



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