By Mark Heise
I try to encourage everyone in our club to enter competitions. Yes, beer is a social thing, and our club certainly wants to promote this aspect and have lots of fun, but we ultimately are a Brewing club, not a Party or Drinking club. Feedback is important. I want to be a better brewer, and I want you to be better brewer too. We can do this through informal tastings, but competitions are the closest you can get to unbiased feedback and assessment.
What I want to share is the journey of one beer I brewed last February, and how it fared in competitions. This beer was based on a popular internet recipe for an English IPA called “Sister Star of the Sun,” although I substituted the English hops in that recipe for US grown versions. It also ended up with a higher starting gravity, and I “Burtonized” my water (sulfate levels were just under 500ppm for a crisp hop profile and mineral character). I was somewhat disappointed with this beer; I didn’t get the attenuation I wanted, leaving a fair bit of residual sweetness, but it was also quite heavily hopped, so that helped to balance things out. The hops were interesting though; they certainly didn’t taste like American C-hops, but they didn’t taste like authentic English hops either.
In March, I traded some commercial beers with a person in Ontario and sent along a bottle of my IPA. He shared it with another person I know, and they both raved about it. These guys know their beer (they won Best of Show at our competition), so I appreciated the comments, even though I still didn’t think it was quite up to snuff.
I entered it in our competition in April. It took 3rd place, which was surprising, as didn’t think it was medal worthy. One judge commented that it should be drier… this would end up being the only judge to pick out the same fault that I also felt this beer had. He has judged my beers in the past, and I have come to hold his opinion in high regard. The other judges had very few negative comments, the most common being slight overcarbonation (which it is).
I then sent the beer to competitions in Edmonton and Toronto around late May – early June. It did not place at either. At one comp, I believe all the judges misinterpreted the mineral quality as sulfur. Maybe there was in fact a problem with the bottle I sent, but that is the way it goes sometimes. At the other comp, one judge described it as “oxidized, musty, plastic phenol, muted hops, low bitterness,” while the other judge’s only negative comment was“ harsh bitterness.” The overly negative judge has judged my beers in the past, and is usually spot on. Maybe the beer sampled prior to mine had problems, maybe he is hyper sensitive to certain off flavours, or maybe he was just off that day, but again, that is the way it goes. If you have ever judged, you know that there is a myriad of reasons as to why you may be off, so you certainly can’t hold it against another judge when you get a questionable scoresheet back (in fact, the only thing that upsets me is when certified judges don’t completely fill out the scoresheets… that is just plain laziness). Regardless, this is why it is important to enter the same beer in multiple competitions; you need enough judges under enough circumstances to develop a true evaluation of a beer.
Anyways, around the same time as these competitions, I sent another bottle to a different person in Ontario as part of another trade. He proclaimed it to be better than any commercial IPA available in Ontario, including Dogfish Head 60 min IPA. High praise indeed, but I still took it with a grain of salt.
Because the beer placed 3rd in our competition, it qualified for the NHC competition in Oakland at the end of June. I sent about 7 beers in total, and although they were all decent beers, I didn’t think any were outstanding. Other club members sent some truly great beers that I figured stood a chance of winning, so I was really pulling for them. I was also hoping that someone from Canada would win a medal or two, as it gives our competition more credibility as a qualifying event. For these reasons, I was anxious to hear the results, and tried to listen to the internet broadcast of the awards ceremony on the night of June 20th, but despite me being an “IT guy,” I couldn’t get it to work. I went to bed, but was awoken around 3:00am with a migraine headache. I got up and went through my usual migraine treatment routine, when I figured that since I was up, I might as well check the AHA website to see if the results had been posted. I quickly scanned the results looking for anyone from Canada… nobody. I scanned again, looking for other familiar names… wait a minute, what is my name doing there? My heart started to race, which made my head pound even more. I read it again. Mark Heise – 1st place IPA. How is that even possible? That beer isn’t THAT good. Are my migraine pills causing hallucinations? Nope, I’m pretty sure that’s what it says. I considered waking my wife to have her confirm the results, but I wisely thought it could wait until morning. When I did get up the next morning, my inbox already had a couple of congratulatory emails, but I still had to check with the NHC director to make sure it wasn’t an error, and she passed along her congrats too (she was especially pleased to have a Canadian gold medal winner, I believe the last one was ALES member Greg Burns in 2001).
In total, the beer was entered in 4 competitions and scored by 11 judges; individual scores ranged from a high of 40, to a low of 29. The average score was 34.4, with a standard deviation of +-3. The NHC judges scored it 37, 38 and 40, which were 3 of the 4 highest scores (one judge at our comp also scored it 38).
And so this begs the question: Is it an outstanding beer? Well, on that day in Oakland, the judging panel determined it was. However, I still maintain that it is a good, but not great beer, and the average score supports this opinion. The point is that I didn’t get discouraged by the results of the other competitions. As long as you are brewing clean, relatively to style beers, you stand a decent chance of winning, though you never know what may happen. So enjoy your wins, but also accept your losses. After all, it is just beer.
Because of this approach, I am jumping on a plane tomorrow to attend “Beer Camp” at Sierra Nevada Brewing in Chico, CA as a prize for my NHC medal. More on this next time, but remember, you can’t win if you don’t enter.