I fermented in plastic buckets for 13 years before coming to the conclusion that plastic was making my beer worse than it could have been. Sometimes my beer would turn out fantastic, and I’ve got awards to prove it. But, more and more often I was noticing a staleness (oxidation) and a certain plastic/soapy funk that was showing up in every beer, and also, occasionally my batches were going sour even though I always take great care not to scratch them and to sanitize well. So recently I was faced with a decision: 1) either buy all new plastic buckets AGAIN (I’ve done this several times already and it always fixes the problem great, but only TEMPORARILY), or 2) switch over to glass and never look back. After 13 years, I have FINALLY decided on option 2. Been making good beers the last few batches with no fear of contamination or oxidation. No more oxidized character or weird plastic funk. I even split a batch, most in glass and a portion in plastic, and of course the plastic version was crap and I dumped it while the glass version was sublime. So I won’t be looking back to plastic, even if it is a little harder to deal with than plastic buckets. It’s just not worth the risks in beer quality, not to me anyway. Sure, I could have bought all new buckets. But I’ve already got like 15 old buckets laying around in my basement and garage. I don’t need any more stinking buckets!! I’m just tired of the issues I’ve had, and having to replace them.
Water and pH stuff might make a difference, but, if you are already scoring in the 30s on a regular basis, it’s probably not a huge impact. Looks like you’ve got great water. I wouldn’t make a big deal of it. Yeah, add a little salts for the styles that require it, and don’t for the ones that don’t, and you’re good.
When it comes to competitions, we all have a decision to make: 1) Is your goal to win a lot of competitions, for the sake of winning and pride and bragging rights? Or 2) would you rather just brew the beer you really want to drink, and maybe see what the judges think of it, regardless of style, if any. Personally I have chosen option 2. I brew the beer that I want to drink (Graham Sanders comes to mind), styles be damned, and if the beer happens to do well in competition, well isn’t that nice. Might make you feel good, but if it doesn’t fit squarely into any of the style guidelines and doesn’t score well as a result, well don’t feel bad!
If you really want to win in competitions, you kind of need to practice brewing the same style over and over, aiming very strictly for the BJCP style guidelines until you get it just right. There is something to be said for doing that – it can be a good learning experience brewing the same thing many times. However, you are also very restricted in how creative you can be with your recipe. Another thing I have learned through the years is that the beers that are just a little bit too strong to meet the style guidelines have better odds to win. If you have one of those IPAs that just doesn’t quite cut it, enter it as an APA and it might win. If you want to make an award winning bock, don’t just shoot for the middle of the range on gravity and malt flavor. Jack that puppy up with several specialty malts and even go a little bit above the maximum gravity for the style, making it ride the line between bock and doppelbock, and you stand a good chance of winning. Judges like a beer that stands out from the crowd, and many judges are also biased because they think bigger is better. So part of winning in competitions is learning how best to game the system. Of course, you will not be able to fool every judge. You could probably/hopefully not fool me (yes I am a Recognized BJCP judge). I know I might be considered an ass if I were forced to judge the APA style, because if the beer tasted too strong to me, more like an IPA, I’d dock it some points for being too big for style. Other judges won’t do that because they just love hops THAT much. But not everyone is a hophead. I am a malthead. This brings me to another good point about competitions…
If at first you don’t succeed, enter a couple more competitions. Eventually you might just find a competition where the judges are easier going and will score your beer as high as you think it deserves. Some comps judge everything more conservatively than at other comps. They’re all a little different. If you feel your beer is truly worthy of a score of 40, it very likely is true, so of course you’d want to seek out a score to validate that belief. But then if it actually scores a 31 or something like that, don’t just give up. Maybe you just got some bum judges. So enter it again somewhere else. I always enter all my beers into at least 3 if not more competitions to get the fullest range of scores AND FEEDBACK possible. Listen to that feedback. Ignore the dumb judges. (I see dumb people… They walk around like everyone else… They don’t even know that they’re dumb.) But pay very close attention to the other half of the judges who really seem to know what they are talking about – they probably do. Heed their advice, and improve your beer next time around.
Just a few ideas I had.