As we begin a new year of the competition circuit, I would like to take some time to talk about competitions including how to enter, bottle, and ship entries along with a few considerations for before entering a competition.
Let me start with a comment that I hear far too many brewers make… “I am entering to get feedback”. Please never enter just to get feedback, enter to win with your best beers. In a previous post, I talked about the many factors that go into winning a medal. So you know that being 100% sure about your chances is impossible, but you can improve your changes if you take the necessary steps to enter only your best beers.
Competition is tough at any event so avoid entering a beer that you think may be flaw or if you have doubts. Instead, take the time to reach out to a well known judge in your area, the BJCP has a listing of National and Master ranked judges who can help and/or suggest other well qualified judges to sample your beer and provide honest feedback. Better yet, most clubs have internal competitions where you can get additional feedback without entry fees. Make sure to ask if the beer has a chance to make the second round, then when you get the yes answer you hoped for, enter the beer.
With that said, now we have to step back especially for bottle conditioned beers because we all know once bottled then you are done. Those swing-top bottles are cool and save on caps, but they are not allowed in nearly any competition. The best practice is to bottle competition beers in plain brown bottles that are free of raised lettering and labels with a plain silver or gold cap. My suggestion is to purchase a case or two of new bottles and a package of plain sliver or gold caps to have always on-hand. For 100% of your batches, ensure that you bottle 6-12 from this stock for competition purposes then bottle the remainder with your re-used bottles and any caps. You never know which batch may be an award winning beer at the time of bottling. Remember, you can always drink these last if you choose not to enter. Why? Because using brand new bottles helps to minimize variables and the risk of a bad bottle.
When you have a beer that you feel is ready to win a medal, then its time to enter and often ship your beer. Here are the rules I follow:
Rule Number 1 – Read the BJCP guidelines for entering the style; many styles have very specific requirements for entering. If you enter in to Spice, Herb, Vegetable and simply declare Pumpkin Ale then you cannot win due to the language used in the description. While professional brewers can sell us product labeled as such all the time, it is not enough information for a homebrew competition. Ensure that you do not hurt yourself by declaring the incorrect style. Specialty IPA has been a favorite lately and requires Strength along with any special ingredients; listing just the specialty ingredients and forgetting strength will hurt your chances.
Rule Number 2 – Read the competition rules. Most follow the BJCP standards but do not take the chance by assuming that there are not minor changes or additions.
Finally, let me talk about shipping or dropping off the beer. If you are personally dropping off your entry at the drop location, then a rubber band and six-pack carrier are all you need. The competition administration needs many six-pack carriers to hold all the beers so do them a favor. If you are shipping, remember the number one cause of breakage is impact. If you pack your beers tight and have cushion then there is very little risk of breakage. Start with a rubber band to attach your label then wrap bubble wrap around each bottle. There is no need for baggies and tape; all these do is create more work for the person who has to unwrap. Ideally your box will have enough room to pad the sides with bubble wrap and then fill in the space with newspaper, bubble wrap or even large packing peanuts. Avoid the little pea-size filler. Make 100% sure there is no room for anything to move around; if the contents cannot move, or take a direct blow and bottles cannot hit each other then the odds are that they will not break. Make sure that you do nothing that makes your bottle stand out. For example, do not keep old commercial labels on the bottle, markings on the caps or bottle, etc. Many choose to use a marker on the cap to list the style number before final submission, this is great but make sure to use a little rubbing alcohol to remove the marks before shipping/drop off. Finally, there's the most important rule of shipping submissions:
Shipping Rule Number 1 – Never ship beer through the United States Postal Service; use UPS, FedEx, etc.
Confidence and validation paired with proper entry and packaging are the keys to success. And never forget, it’s a competition so always enter to win. Good Luck!