As the organiser for this year’s SOBA National Homebrewing Competition, I’ve now seen every aspect of NZ’s premier homebrewing competition from the other side. I have to say, I have a newfound respect for all the previous years judges, stewards, and organisers. Something that’s always intrigued me, as an entrant, is exactly what goes on from when you submit your beers, through to them being judged and presented. I thought I’d write a bit of a novel to let you know what we do, how and why we do it, and what I think we can do better next year. I’m not going to pull any punches on this, in the interests of full and open discourse, and it’s going to be a LONG post…
First, some background. I took up the challenge of running this year’s NHC because the previous organisers felt they’d come to the limits of the time they could donate. I understand why. This is NOT an easy job! I didn’t want to see the competition fall on the floor, and no other offers to organise it were forthcoming, so I thought “how hard can it be?” and took up the challenge. Well… it was a lot harder than I thought.
First, we needed a good website to act as the focal point for rules, style guidelines, answering questions, and taking entries and payments. Brendon MacKenzie made this side of it a dream by modifying last year’s website to do the job. Something I learned though is that people do not read. Something can be specifically stated on the website, and still entrants will ignore it. The prime example of this was brewers notes. The FAQ says when and why to enter a note, and advises that in most cases the brewer shouldn’t need to. Despite this, far too many entrants put things we simply didn’t need to know in the notes area – such as “all grain”, “5.2 abv”, “34 IBU”, “finest quality malt”, etc. Notes are for advising the judges of the brewer’s intent IF the beer deviates from style, or if it is in a specialty or “open” style. In this case, notes are an absolute MUST, and too many entrants didn’t provide any. I hadn’t realised how frustrating this could be until I took my turn at the judging table, but more on that later. Suffice it to say that several beers missed out on better scores, and even medals, due to lack of correct notes.
Something I didn’t take into account is just how much room nearly 600 beers can take up. I had planned to store the entries in a portable chilling trailer, but this fell through, so I prevailed on a friend (and fellow trainee judge, Phil Murray) to lend me a cool interior room at his workplace to store all the beers. Because it was a workplace, we only had access during working hours, and because I was judging this year, I couldn’t see the entries. Thanks to my wife Alexandra, and Phil’s fiancée Beth, for all the work they did in cataloguing and sorting/boxing up the entries. This job took two people the best part of 30 hours between them over two weeks. Entrants next year, please remember that checking every individual entry and letting you know if it has arrived is a little frustrating. Just trust us that we will let you know if it doesn’t show up, or if it was damaged. Thankfully this year, there were very few casualties of the postal system. Commiserations to those two brewers who did have problems.
In terms of a venue to hold the event, we couldn’t have been luckier. John Edmonds, club manager for the Ruakura Campus Club, offered us the RCC at just the cost to pay the cleaner. This gave us an excellent venue with a kitchen, chiller, and glasswasher (absolutely essential) allowing the judges to focus on judging and the stewards on getting the beers in front of the judges in excellent condition.
Sponsors have been great to us this year, with Farra Engineering offering a 30L stainless fermenter to the champion brewer, Hallertau offering to brew the “best in show” beer (and Steve’s going to have fun with this one), and Liberty Brewing offering “win your beer back” kits for the best ale and best lager.
Happily, the judging weekend itself went extremely smoothly, though we had one judge pull out a few days beforehand. Luckily for us, we roped in ex-winemaker, sometime brewer, and all-round great guy Simon Henderson to fill the gap. He did an admirable job at short notice, and really helped us out.
As for the judging itself, this is an area I have a lot to comment on. My goal, communicated to the judges right from day one, was to provide the best quality feedback ever from a NHC. To this end, we recruited some of the best judges in NZ. Our panel consisted of two World Beer Cup judges (Graeme Mahy and Geoff Griggs), backed up by a solid team of very experienced judges, and three “trainees”, Allan Hawkes, Phil Murray, and myself. In order to deal with the 294 entries, we ran three tables, each with two experienced judges and a trainee. After much deliberation, I made the call as organiser that only one scoresheet per beer would be completed. This forced the judges to collaborate, and discuss their impressions at length for each beer, before those thoughts were transcribed to the scoresheet by the table scribe (being the trainee judges – I apologise for the spidery scrawl from table 3, that was me). I believe this achieved the goal well, though there were still issues…
The main problem was the scoring itself. One of our judges was quite vocal in his opposition to the BJCP scoring system, and half way through the first day, I was fully in agreement with him. We thought that it meant the judges spent far too long thinking about the numbers, and not enough time analysing the qualities of the beer in front of them. The three different tables tackled “the numbers” in different ways. For example, table three (myself, Kieran Haslett-Moore, and Geoff Griggs) decided on medal worthiness first, then worked out what the scores should be to achieve that result, while remaining within the realms of reality. Table two (Graeme Mahy, Albrecht van Wallmoden, and Phil Murray) worked through the individual scores for each area, then adjusted up or down to fit their idea of medal-worthiness, and table one (Ben Middlemiss, Simon Henderson, and Allan Hawkes) just seemed to give a lot of zeroes! OK, seriously, they were harsh, but they were fair. They discussed the beer in depth, then discussed the scores. This led to a very well thought out score, though I often wondered if it caused them to over think it and talk the beer down to a lower score. For interest’s sake, at the end of day one, table three had the highest average score, and table one the lowest, though there was no more than a point in it, so judging methods resulted in similar scores. For improvement, I’d spend some time next year ensuring all judges agreed on the same method of evaluation and scoring, and perhaps institute cross table sampling to ensure calibration is maintained. I’ll come back to the scores later…
Timing was difficult. Some beers required a lot of discussion. Some were horribly infected and really couldn’t be judged beyond “infected, fix your sanitation”. For the record, table three scored these beers “12” and gave few comments. The other tables gave zeros. What can I say, we’re nicer. Anyway, because some beers took a long time, and some were quick. This made planning flights and breaks tricky, and there was a fair bit of stress involved knowing we had to get through nearly 100 beers per table over one and a half days. We did manage it though! Ten minutes per beer seemed like a fair average, allowing for much discussion and good feedback to be given. I apologise to any entrant who feels they didn’t get detailed feedback. We really did do our best, but I’m sure a few slipped through with a little less detail than we could have given. Some beers (usually the very good, and the very bad) were hard to comment in detail beyond “well done”, or “you really need to fix your sanitation/fermentation/yeast health etc”.
Kieran, who judged at last year’s competition, confirmed my suspicion that this year’s standard was a lot lower than previous years. There were far too many badly infected beers, and so many so far out of style that the judges were just left scratching their heads and wondering “what the hell was the brewer thinking with this”? Brewers, be very careful when you enter your beers. Choose the style well, and always taste it with the style description in front of you, and a brutally honest friend or enemy to confirm or challenge your selection.
Finally, a note for entrants on bottle variation. While we were cleaning up, the stewards, Phil, and myself decided to play “beer roulette” with the remaining entries. We’d pick a bottle at random, find the judging sheet, and see how it compared with the judging sheet. Most of the time, it was spot on, fully justifying the judges opinion. Other times it was MILES out. As in, there would be no off flavours mentioned on the sheet, but the beer in the glass was a train wreck of diacetyl or other faults. Or vice versa. The only explanation for this, given how accurate the judging seemed to have been, was variation between entered bottles. Having experienced this with my own brews, I’d suggest several brewers cost themselves medals by having a good bottle and a bad bottle, and the judges got the bad ‘un. Also, if you know your bottle foams, PLEASE advise this. Many stewards got slightly damp, and many beers presented poorly due to the foaming stirring up the yeast.
I hope nobody was offended by anything in this post. The goal is so you can all see “under the kimono” of the NHC, and help make following years better for entrants, judges, stewards, and organisers. I hope it was interesting.
A reminder that results will be posted out by the 13th of November, and there is a presentation ceremony on the 13th at Hallertau Brewbar. This event is limited in seats, so please advise firstname.lastname@example.org to book a seat.