Last month on a whim, I entered my Red Ale into a the Snowdown Home Brewing Competition. Yesterday I got my feedback. It was judged by two of the professional brewers (and owners, I think) at SKA Brewing in Durango, CO.
In a positive spin, we were awarded Third Place in the American Ale category. This should be good news, but the rules, facts, scoring, and judges comments ferret out the beer as average at best. Their were 6 entries in the category and we tied for third with a score of 26 out of 50. We weren't listed as the official winner as our score was rounded up (we had 51 divided by 2) while the other had 52 divided by two. Our beer had the unfortunate circumstance of being tasted immediately after the eventual winner of the category (with a score of 36). That will rip a few points away right there, but our score of 26 was probably right on. My ultimate goal is to brew beers consistently in the 30's or get low marks only for being out of style.
I never felt that our Red Ale itself was a good example of an American Amber Ale (think Fat Tire or Avalanche), it was supposed to be a red ale (more like an Irish Red with more hops and less body), and I had thoughts of entering it as an Irish, but the comments that came back would have been the same (as judged against that category).
Some interesting comments were: "Aesthetically great but not much flavor" and "very clear, good head, but it went away quickly, perfect amber color". I agree, this beer looked fantastic, all bright red and clear with a semi-good head. "Very thin and watery, astringent". I agree again, this beer lost its fresh hopiness very quickly, and since we brewed it in the cold, we had a hard time getting and keeping the mash temp up where I wanted it. We mashed at 151 and lower and I would have opted for 155-158 and lower. "Needs more hops and a more interesting yeast strain" and "This beer would benefit from an amplification of all flavors". I think the yeast strain comment nailed it. I have been using the American II yeast for these last few beers, which is neutral and had decided from our last 5 beers that it was too clean and attenuated (fermented out sugars) too completely to be my favorite yeast. I think it worked well with the dry hopped APA and it didn't hurt the more robust porter and holiday beers but didn't leave enough in the glass for the Red.
All in all, I feel that the feedback matched my gut feelings about the beer. I have a hard time tasting specifics in beer, and rarely get good feedback from my casual drinking friends and relatives. Their palate's are not even as good as mine. I always have reservations about entering beer in competitions, as I brew beers for my tastes and the tastes of my friends. I rarely seek to hit a specific style as defined by the AHA, but rather what I think a style should taste like. I am not brewing (nor will I ever) to win anything. Competitions have become such a, well, competition, and I am not really into competitions. The stakes are higher than ever for both pro and amateur brewers. This particular competition was a pro/am competition where the overall Best in Show will be brewed by Ska Brewing for the Great American Beer Festival's Pro/Am competition. This sure would be a dream for me, but makes it too high stakes. And many competitions are heading away from the "friendly" events I think they should be.
Winners of the national AHA competition last year got a "Golden Ticket" from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company to attend an intense "Beer Camp". That is an experience that is unavailable at any price for the casual home brewer even though I would benefit even more than the guys that won (and again, another item that qualifies for the brewing bucket list). There are specific articles circulating about how to brew to win competitions where suggestions include blending of beers, correcting flaws post brewing, entering out of category (using a lager yeast for an ale category), or timing beers for the competition. I don't suggest that this is cheating, may the best beer win, after all. And winning has its benefits. However, I brew for myself, and winning would be nice, but I don't see myself doing anything but taking a beer out of my cellar and entering it in a competition. I would never brew specifically for competition, or trying to do anything I wouldn't normally do to brew good beer. For me, if I got our beer entered and judged when it was freshest and best, I might have gotten a few more points. I probably wouldn't have won my category, it wasn't even close.
In the end, I think the feedback makes me a better brewer, and that is how I personally win. In the meantime, I have entered some other beers in another local competition, and while I hope to do well, I more hope to see good feedback on all of them, and hope that what I am tasting is what the judges taste too.
I will let you know the results when I get them back.