Comps and beer quality - breaking out of the 29-33 range

Just wondering if any experienced comp brewers have any advice here.

I have been entering comps pretty regularly, have placed a few beers in flights, but am typically getting beers scored in the high 20’s to low 30’s. Actually took 3rd in flight for my oxidized then camdenized 80/- detailed here:


(the camden tabs added a weird vinous character that may have improved stability, but made the beer a bit worse than it was originally).


There hasn’t been a real consistent theme from judges on why my beers aren’t great. The inconsistency could be due to the oxidation I was getting before with not purging kegs every time. I’ve gotten everything from (“needs more hop character” to “needs more malt character” to "get rid of the ‘minerally’ character/‘sulfur’ character/too sweet)…frankly, a lot of stuff from lower-level judges who I’m not sure are entirely aware of what they are perceiving.

I’m looking to take my beer to the next level. I do 5 gallon BIAB batches, single infusion mashes, sometimes with a decoction to mash out. Have pretty precise cold-side control (fridge and Johnson controller), and ferment in ale pails. My city has pretty good water (I think, see below) for most styles, so I typically don’t mess with it, maybe a tsp of gypsum in hoppier styles. Also, don’t check mash pH since I stopped using the stabilizer and pH strips never work.

-start fermenting in glass
-water treatment
-monitor mash pH more closely/at all

Just trying to get a sense from those who have been brewing awhile as to what took their beers to the next level after they made the jump from ‘homebrew’ to ‘beer’!

Thanks in advance!

Water profile:
pH 7.6
Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) Est 203
Electrical Conductivity, mmho/cm 0.34
Cations / Anions, me/L 3.0 / 2.8
Sodium, Na 21
Potassium, K 2
Calcium, Ca 28
Magnesium, Mg 8
Total Hardness, CaCO3 103
Nitrate, NO3-N 2.3 (SAFE)
Sulfate, SO4 12
Chloride, Cl 48
Carbonate, CO3 < 1
Bicarbonate, HCO3 59
Total Alkalinity, CaCO3 49

Here are some things that help me win medals.

Get a pH meter and adjust mash and post-boil pH at a minimum.
Use bru’nwater to calculate salt/acid additions for pH control and for proper ion concentrations for the style.
Focus on BU:GU and BU:FG ratios.
Simplify your grain bills.
For hop-forward beers, dry-hop and keg-hop.

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. :slight_smile:

If you want to do well in comps. the #1 thing I think you have to do is make sure you are brewing to style. Brewing Classic Styles is a great book if you don’t have it. Gives you a brief writeup and recipe for every single beer style. The recipes will get you right in the ballpark of what you need to do in each style - brew “as is” and then tweak them a little at a time as you get feedback.

Concentrating on a couple styles at a time and fine tuning them is important. Pick a couple of your favorite/best styles and start there. As you master one, add a new one.

Water treatment and pH are very important in making excellent beers. Although, your water looks ok in general - nothing seemed terrible about it. Should be something you can work with. Bru’n Water is a must (in my opinion).

Temperature control, yeast starters are an absolute must if you are going to brew consistently good beer. If you are not doing that, that is an important step.

Sanitation is obviously critical. PBW/Oxyclean for cleaning. Star San for sanitation.

Patience in fermentation - don’t get in a hurry to transfer or bottle/keg beer. Personally, I like a 3 week primary fermentation.

Plastic…??? Gotta say, I love using buckets. I actually use bottling buckets for fermentation to avoid the need for siphoning. I would say that I have had consistent success in competitions and have never had any “plastic” tastes from buckets. I do give them a good PBW soak from time to time and am meticulous in cleaning/sanitizing them. I will by a couple new buckets and retire a couple old buckets from time to time… but, I have 8 buckets in my fermentor rotation and have no problems with them.

wow great tips, thanks all.

@ hawk I have been wanting another piece of gear. Looks like a pH meter could be it. I have looked at bru’n water, but am a little confused on the water adjustment tab. Is all you do just mess with the RO dilution? I suppose I just need to force myself to mess with it and pay attention. Also, I have discovered in the last few years, the sheer BEAUTY of simple recipes brewed well (or, at least better.

@dave, a couple of things:

-I think I am going to do a few batches in glass and see the difference. I know I was oxidizing some beers by mistake, but I noticed some weirdness even before I started kegging. Could be the plastic I suppose.
-I want to brew the best beer possible. Winning comps is ancillary/secondary, but its a goal of mine. While I appreciate weird, creative beer, I love the BJCP styles, and want to be able to brew them at will. And well. I want to be able to brew a killer helles before I mess with a schwarzhelles, mugwort helles, or rauch helles.
-If I’m judging a comp, I will DEFINITELY ding an APA for being too much of an IPA

@ brau, I do own BCS, and it looks like its been through a mortar attack. Love it, and love the recipes in it. Also, have temp control and am an aspiring yeast whisperer (I always use yeastcalc).

Also, I could be rushing the beers. I keep a tight collar on fermentation for the first 3-5 days, then bring it to room temperature (usually 68 or so) and let it finish up. Usually, I find my beers are ‘done’ in my mind (and my hydrometers mind) well-within 14 days, usually more like 10.

I also need to develop the patience to brew and rebrew something (other than an IPA!).

Thanks again

I would also second what was mentioned earlier… brew toward the high end of the style range. Not way out of the range, but at the top. Pretty sure close to 100% of the beers I have been most successful with were at the higher end vs. the lower end of gravity, IBU’s, etc.

Bru’n water - water adjustment tab lets you do 4 things basically-
1.) select desired water profile ( i stick with “yellow malty” or “amber bitter” type profiles usually).
2.) Move RO dilution rate up and down
3.) Add additions (CaCl2, CaSO4, epsom salt, etc.) Those are the only ones I use.
4.) Acid additions to mash water (lactic, phosphoric, etc.) I have not done this.

Another thing that can come in handy, especially lighter beers, for pH adjustments in mash is acidulated malt that you can add and record in the mash acidification tab.

Bru’n water takes a little time, but worth it. If you just take a day or two and dedicate yourself to getting it set up, entering your water numbers, playing around with it, it really is a great tool.

Interesting. Ive never heard that before. I switched from glass to mostly buckets just because it was cheaper to get multiple fermenters going and havent noticed any difference.

I highly recommend all of the suggestions made by Shadetree. Not over thinking your grain bill and nailing down your water will go a long way. Also, IME not very many judges like the style guidelines pushed. The exception being hoppy styles.

What they said.

Try spring water or RO water with a few little mineral adjustments and see if you can notice a difference down the road. I don’t think plastic or glass makes a difference, unless your plastic has picked up something funky that you’re not noticing. I’ve only ever fermented in buckets and better bottles without issue.

As for competition brewing, stick with simple recipes that are developed for nailing the style. Northern Brewer’s recipes are pretty solid and a good starting point when familiarizing yourself with a new style. I’ve scored very well with their czech pils and belgian strong golden recipes and their imperial stout won’t stop winning ribbons (despite the fact that it tried to kill me).

Also, how is your attenuation? Are your beers fermenting out where you want them? It sounds like you might be hurrying them a bit. Try giving it a few weeks before you start messing with it :slight_smile: It’s tough to do but it really will help the beer mature on it’s own schedule.

I’ll second some of the other comments- especially using Brewing Classic Styles recipes and paying close attention to pitching a nice large volume of yeast and fermenting at the appropriate temperature. For me, improvements happened when I did three things: switched to Star-San for sanitation, fermented exclusively in glass, and switched from fly-sparging to batch sparging. The last thing really helped me nail my target OGs for every brew and reduce comments about astringency from over-sparging.

There are good chances that some of the judges aren’t giving you the feedback you need to really identify key problems. I would enter the same beer in several competitions to try and get the comments to tell you what you need to know. If you are in a brew club, hit up some members that you respect to carefully judge your beer and offer feedback.

Don’t forget to have fun and brew what you enjoy too.

You can try Kai’s new calculator: ... alculator/

I think it’s less intimidating to “dive into” compared with Martin’s spreadsheet. You will not get the same pH values with these tools; I’ve had both be right, too, which is really confusing/frustrating. Reportedly, Kai’s does a better job for some water/grist combinations, especially the extremes (see … mment-1286 ).

What about recipes? Are you brewing the same beer over and over and trying to dial it in exactly? Or brewing a different beer every time. If you are hitting 29-33 the first time you brew a new recipe, you’re doing great. I have brewed my IPA recipe at least 20 times and I am still tweaking it to improve.

Right, typically it is a new recipe (or one I haven’t brewed from Brewing Classic Styles or another tried-and-true recipe). The only real exception is my IPA/Rye IPA, which I have brewed and rebrewed a few times, tweaking the grist/BU:GU/hop schedule to get the character I want.

You raise a great point though, even if one of Jamil’s/Tasty’s/NHC-winning brewer’s recipe is awesome, it was designed on another system. Having the discipline to brew and rebrew based on results and tasting notes is something I am still learning :slight_smile:

I think that’s your answer.

The other thing that I think separates a 35 point beer from a 40point beer often happens during packaging. Clarity, head retention, appropriate carbonation all matter in not just appearance scores but also in the perception of body and aroma.

plastic has nothing to do with it. You don’t need to switch to glass

We need more specific info to. Recipe, process, etc…

Are you getting good quality judges? Have you been to competitions before and see how they work and scoring goes?

Water will have a big roll.
Good strong healthy Fermentation is always key

Does anyone think the popularity of BCS make it such that a recipe that is different from the one in the book might help your beer stand out? A lot of brewers use that book and treat it as the “style guide”

I don’t totally disagree with that… However, I think BCS is the place to start if you are brewing a style you don’t have experience (or success) in. Brew the recipe as it is and get feedback on it. From there, I think those recipes can be tweaked to take it in a direction that you want. . . . within reason.

But, I would say that 9 times out of 10 it is the process that will make your beer stand out - not your ingredients. Changing your ingredients in any significant way is probably more likely to make your beer worse, than better. Also, each of the recipes pretty much hits the style… So, if you are changing it, it is more than likely that you are moving away from the style which is not necessarily a good thing.

you will still have very different beers from brewer to brewer

I can’t remember who said it or what book, class or whatever but its true…want to be a good brewer and narrow down your process and craft.
Here is…
9lbs of 2row
1 hop
1 yeast
keep brewing and brewing until it tastes exaclty the same every time all the time

Stop by my house sometime. I’ve got at least a dozen free buckets you can have. :wink: