Last year a brewing chum asked me why I compete in homebrewing. He’s one of the most morose people I’ve ever met, so my first thought was that he was sulking as usual, and found hearing about my competition outreach distasteful. Take out the sulking, though, and you’ve got a great question. Why we homebrew is one thing, but why should we enter competitions with our homebrews?
[Just to be clear, I compete across the U.S., mostly with meads, but also with beer and grape wines. I’m frankly intimidated by the eager hordes of passionate beer brewers. Too, I’ve just plain been making meads longer. Grape wines are new, I’m surprised how well they’re doing…I can make a great cordial but I only compete with them in the SCA/historical context when it’s called for.]
First of all, competing in homebrewing is a lot of work. On top of months or years of careful brewing (I store my meads for 2+ years) and sorting to see which beverages might do well, there are specific rules that can change from competition to competition: how many different beverages you can enter in any one category; whether some categories are excluded (say, beer only or mead only); whether or not you have to belong to a homebrew club (some events are club-only); whether or not there’s a specific theme. For example, I entered the Celtic Brew-off in Texas recently with a mead I don’t expect to enter anywhere else. Most event websites are pretty well organized these days, but they each require a lot of careful
reading and working within their time limits for entry or delivery. What size bottles, what kind of bottles, what kind of cork or cap? Then there’s the packaging – specially printed labels are attached with rubber bands usually, and all bottles are put in a sealed plastic garbage bag inside the packing box, with lots and lots of padding. We ship them ever so carefully and track the packages to make sure they arrive on time. It’s a lot of work just to process my brews for entry. It’s expensive, too. While homebrew competitions work hard to keep their entry fees low – six or seven dollars per entry is pretty standard, though the wine competitions are prohibitively steep – shipping can add up fast. It’s not unusual to spend $15-$20 per box, and I’m only sending one or two entries most of the time. (Kona Homebrewers in Hawaii, I love you, and your competition was wonderful to me last year, but I probably won’t send a box all that way again this year – though I may try Goblets of Gold in Alaska…).
And then there’s the judging. This is the facet for which I go to all this trouble, and the one most people would rather avoid. Most of the time competition organizers mail you the judging forms afterwards (which has got to be a lot of work for the organizers!). Receiving judges’ notes or opinions is something of an art form of its own, I think. They may or may not be right; you may not agree with them. Taste perceptions can differ pretty broadly, as well as ability to taste subtly different features. Most competitions have judges with a common, basic training through the National Beer Judge Certification Program, but that doesn’t mean any group of judges will be exactly the same as any other group of judges. There is a “calibration” exercise they may go through ahead of time, to make sure they understand each other’s tasting ranges. Most judges are very well intentioned and genuinely want to improve the craft of brewing; I’ve gotten some very helpful information about how to improve this or that beverage, or what might’ve caused this or that flaw, from the judges’ sheets. Still, I have to see the scores and deal with the numbers for good or ill, and consider their suggestions quite possibly completely correct. Their notes may show I’m not half as competent as my friends tell me I am. That’s always disheartening, let me tell you. You have to have a certain determination to sort through it all, consider their suggestions, decide what you understand and can work on, and keep going. (I admit that sometimes the comments have been over my head, especially at first – the longer I brew, the more I understand what they’re talking about.)
So is it worth it? All the work, all the mess, all the bother? You see from these pictures what my house has been like this week, as I prepare bottles to ship to Florida, Oregon and Massachusetts for evaluation. I am enough of a hausfrau to prefer some order to my life. Brewing isn’t the only hobby I have, but sometimes it feels like brewing is taking over. On the other hand, I love the clear colors, the fragrance of a well-made brew, the pleasure of sharing (I don’t actually drink all that much, myself). I have heard women who can food talk about how much they love the colors and textures of the jars when they’re done – I get it, I really do. I do well enough at competitions that it’s a boost to my sometimes lonely ego. I am starting to recognize peoples’ names, and form a network of brewers around the country – that’s just barely beginning, but it certainly is a bonus.
Every now and again I win a really groovy prize. My favorite is enough local honey for the next batch of mead or braggot (which takes less honey). I love varietal honeys, their color and aroma, seeing what kinds come from around the country. I’m working with a mead now made from prize honey from the Bluff City Brewers last year, from Deaton’s Farm in Walls, Mississippi. I’d probably never have encountered this honey without them, and it’s brewing up very nicely.
Is it worth it? For me it is. I get individualized feedback. Sometimes I get “presents” (prizes or medals – I love the medals most) in the mail. I get to reach out, get to know people in new places a bit, get some idea what the homebrewing scene is like where they are. I get to practice having thick skin, being brave, looking at my own work critically but fairly, being gracious in loss – never easy but worth being able to do. I get to see improvement in my brewing, and enjoy that bit of success. This is a voluntary activity, so I am in complete control (as I regularly remind myself) of how much I brew, how many competitions I enter, how I balance my time; I manage the expense of time and money.
Is it good for anyone else? I surely cannot say. Is it good for you to compete? Only you can tell. What’s your experience with competing been? Was it worth it? Would you do it again?