Competition Brewing – Part II

by FedoraDave Updated on June 4, 2018

We all make mistakes now and then, and our brewing experiences are no different. Mistakes can range from fermenting too warm to nearly killing yourself. No lie.

Gordon Strong, the president and highest ranking judge in the Beer Judge Certification Program, had this happen. In the introduction to his book Brewing Better Beer, Gordon describes how he and his partner were using a smoldering stick to kill any mold in a bourbon barrel they intended to use for aging a barleywine.

The fumes ignited and the barrel exploded. It took them over eight weeks to recover from their injuries. So keep your mistakes in perspective. If your Irish Red winds up with a slight sulfur odor, it’s a fixable problem. Don’t give up. Oh–don’t blow up, either.

The fact is, the more advanced you get, the more likely you are to push your limits. And the more you push your limits, the more likely you are to encounter a bugaboo.

I’ve noticed that homebrew blogs, including this one, are naturally focussed on our successes. Improve your process! Upgrade your equipment! Choose better ingredients! Make better beer! Onward and upward! Success!

All positives, without a doubt. We don’t like to talk about our failures, and we all want everyone to think we’ve got it going on. But we can learn a lot from the inevitable bumps in the road. So buckle up, Buttercup, because this is going to be a rough ride. Hold my beer and keep reading….

The Cursed California Common

I developed a recipe for a California Common, a delicious hybrid beer using lager yeast fermented at ale temperatures. The iconic example of the Cali Common is Anchor Steam Beer, and the San Francisco area is famous among brewers for being the birthplace of this style.

I was pleased with my final results, and once I felt I’d nailed my recipe, I decided to send it off to a competition. I named it South Ferry Steam Beer, after the ferry we took to our vacation cottage every summer when I was a kid. That made it a somewhat special beer for me, and I was eager to see the competition results.

Yes, Virginia, there is a South Ferry

Unfortunately, the bottle they judged was a gusher. It spewed beer immediately upon opening, which doesn’t create a good first impression. Kind of like running over the flower bed when you go to pick up your date for the first time.

None of the other bottles in that batch had this happen, either. I know, because I drank them. One gusher in the lot, and it had to be the competition entry.

The only way I was going to do well with this beer was if the other entries tasted like a combination of furniture polish and oven cleaner.

The comments

I mentioned in my previous post that the judges want contestants to do well. They want to offer constructive advice to help overcome whatever problems they found with the beer they evaluated. And even with a flawed beer, they want to acknowledge the good points. This competition reflected that. Here are some of the positive comments I received:

  • “Good hop bitterness with minimal hop flavor”
  • “Excellent use of hops”
  • “Spicy woody hop aromas. Balanced well by the malty and caramelly notes”
  • “Smooth mouthfeel”

And perhaps the kindest comment from a beer judge I’ve ever come across: “Unfortunately, the gushing prevented me from being able to judge the beer you wanted me to judge. Despite this, it’s still an enjoyable [beer] that would be even better when you fix the carbonation issues.”

Do you get what he was saying? He was telling me he knows this is better than what he experienced, and this beer has potential. There were good points that shone through despite the obvious failing. So keep up the good work, trace down the problem, and solve it. Okay, so I ran over the flower bed, but her dad still complimented me on my snazzy wheel covers!

Despite the fact that less than half the bottle was available for judging, I had a final score of 33. That ain’t bad even for a non-gusher. Yes, this beer had potential. What would I have scored without the gushing incident?

Well, I wasn’t going to find out until I solved that problem, but the solution was pretty obvious. Like most homebrewers, I reuse my glass bottles. There must have been a slight scratch or a speck of crud from a previous batch that created a nucleation site in that bottle.

More than just clever logo placement!

Nucleation sites are great in a pint glass. Small etchings in the bottom of the glass create spots that assist the separation of gas from liquid. This helps with head formation. And aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel are enhanced by the constant flow of CO2 rising through the beer.

That’s in a pint glass, which is an open-ended environment. In a closed environment that is suddenly opened, such as a competition entry, the separation of gas from liquid is volcanic.

Okay, problem solved. I just have to make sure I use really clean bottles for my competition entries. That was easy!

Same recipe; different mistake!

So I decided to enter this recipe again. I actually bought a case of 12-ounce longneck bottles at my LHBS, so I could be assured the bottles were as pristine as they could be.

I found two competitions in the autumn of 2017 and entered the South Ferry in both. I had very high hopes for this beer.

Well, not only did I drive over the flower bed again, but I knocked over the garbage cans and traumatized the family dog. These beers were tainted by another beer I’d experimented with earlier that spring.

My Berglinzer Weisse is a very nice sour beer that I intend to keep in the rotation. The use of acidulated malt as the souring agent, instead of lactobacillus or brettanomyces, means that PET carboys aren’t permanently affected.

Except, in my case, it was.

This wasn’t the fault of poor advice, though. My carboys were old, and I had been in the habit of cleaning them with a nylon brush after each use. This was a terrible mistake, creating scratches that harbored the acid in the malt, tainting future beers with the sour-apple tang that made the Weisse so appealing.

This is why we can’t have nice things
Much better

Even though I could see the enormous potholes in the road ahead, I had already registered and paid my fees for these competitions, so I just plowed on. I figured any comments I got might be helpful to some degree.

My overall scores were lower than the previous competition; low 20s as opposed to low 30s, but the numbers for four categories were nearly identical across the board. The flavor scores, which count for 20 out of the 50 total points, were understandably skewed.

As expected, the comments were mostly concerned with the very perceptible “infection,” which was souring the beer and was not appropriate to the style. Even so, they were encouraging. Granted, if you read with a cynical eye, comments like “CO2 works well for the style” and “Excellent head retention!!” could be seen as striving for something – anything – nice to say.

But the judges don’t have to say these things, so it’s a little different from telling your date, “You don’t sweat much for a fat girl.”

And they were able to see through the flaws to the “beer I wanted them to judge.” I was told “The base ingredients are well-chosen and well-balanced,” and even “Brew again, please.” The flaws were in my process/equipment, not my recipe. That continued to give me hope.

May competition

With the new year came new equipment. In January, I replaced my old carboys with brand-new ones, courtesy of a Christmas gift card to an online brewing supplier. (Thanks, Mom!)

And then there’s a new procedure. On the advice of Joe at my LHBS (https://ckhomebrew.com), I’m cleaning these new carboys by soaking them overnight in a solution of PBW. (Thanks, Joe!) No nylon brushes, ever! (Thanks, Joan Crawford!)

And I decided to keep one of the old ones as a dedicated “sour carboy.” Might as well try to make lemonade out of lemons, right?

And there are always more competitions. I found one nearby being held on May 19, which gave me just enough time to brew another batch of South Ferry Steam Beer with the new equipment.

Competition results

I have to admit I was a little disappointed in my final score. The beer was not tainted in any way, so the judges finally got the real deal this time. And my scores were still lower than expected–my final score was 25. That said, the comments were revealing.

Both judges called it a pleasant, drinkable beer, but they also noted it was too dark for the style and didn’t have enough hops for a Cali Common. My choice of malts gave both the aroma and the flavor too much fruitiness. They said my beer resembled a porter more than a California Common.

The bottom line: My recipe wasn’t to style. And no matter how good your beer is, if you enter it in an inappropriate style category, it won’t do well. So after renting a tux, buying a nice corsage, and making sure I didn’t ruin the flower bed, I wound up going to the wrong house. But I still got complimented on my wheel covers.

Now it’s up to me to fix the issues, tinker with the malt and hops bills, and resubmit. My scoresheets were disappointing, but not discouraging. I can live with having my mistake be called “pleasant” and “drinkable.” The South Ferry Saga isn’t over yet.

Dave Walter (aka FedoraDave) has been a home brewer for over 4 thousand dollars. He lives in suburban New York. In addition to brewing, he's a baseball and cinema fan. Since retiring from the pest control industry, he's been looking for other things to kill. He's always glad to share his beer recipes, but refuses to divulge his recipe for barbecue sauce