Lessons Learned in Organising a Homebrew Competition

I recently had the opportunity to help organize the annual home-brew competition held by the Hong Kong Homebrewers' Association (HKHA) at the beginning of June.  It wasn't really my intention to fill that role, as I'd much rather just brew and enter beers, but sometimes things just turn out that way.  On the bright side, there's always something to be learned from a new challenge so in this post I'd like to point out a few things that I have gleaned from this experience.  To give some context for our competition, it was the 6th year that it was held, but the first under new leadership.  We had a total of 84 entries across eight different categories from three different countries.

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But First.......a Word on Brewing Competitions

For some, brewing is a profession.  For others, brewing is a hobby.  For others still, brewing is a cheap way to supply yourself with alcohol during college years.  So what is a brewing competition then?  Is it just about who can make the best beer?  Well yes.......sort of.

Brewing competitions can be broken down into two main categories:  Professional and Amateur.  Annual and Bi-Annual competitions such as the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and the World Beer Cup, professional brewers from commercial breweries submit their beers in order to earn medals and notoriety to boost the marketing efforts for their employer.  Medals are given in different style categories and the judging is based on how well a beer fits into agreed-upon characteristics for a given beer style, as well as the lack of flaws (i.e. off flavours/aromas, carbonation, appearance etc).

For Amateur competitions, there are hundreds of local brewing competitions held all over the world, mainly for home-brewed beer.  Similar to professional competitions, the beers are entered into categories based on style and the beers are judged by the same criteria.  The main difference is that for hobbyist brewers, some are looking for the accolades and some are hoping to gain useful feedback from experienced judges as to how to improve their beer.  There are more than one set of style guidelines that may be used in competition and for most home-brew competitions, like the one that I organised, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines are used to score the beers.

Now, on with my take-a-ways from this year's competition...

5 Takeaways From Organising a Homebrew Competition

1.  Start Early

We announced our "save the date" about six months out (and we still pushed the competition date back a few more weeks).  This seemed to work out ok, but it definitely creeps up on you faster than you think.  If you want to maximise the participation from local brewers then you should start 8-12 months out with a date and start to ramp up the marketing of the event 3-4 months out.  Confirm a venue as soon as they will allow, post an event page on Facebook, and register the competition with the BJCP upfront so that they can publish it in their monthly journal.

2.  Don't Go It Alone

The "team" approach is highly recommended in organising a competition of any size.  Everyone is volunteering their time, so nobody has enough time to do it by themselves.  In our case we had four organisers and one local BJCP organiser who registered our competition, printed out the relevant documents, and filed the organiser report to the BJCP after the event so that everyone received experience points.  If you have a graphic artist then get them going on developing a logo for a poster and social media posts from the start.  Monthly or bi-monthly meetings would be helpful to stay on track to meet all of your deadlines.

3.  Be Resourceful

When it came to securing sponsorships for prizes, I was surprised at how easy it was to get support from local breweries.  We had eight categories eligible for prizes and it was no problem securing cases of beer, swag, and brewery tours/tastings.  I also found that White Labs was eager to support us with variety packs of yeast that were specific to the prize category.  Besides prize sponsorship, reach out to local tap rooms and breweries to find sufficient space for the judging and for any prize presentations that you may have.  A local taproom (The Ale Project - Mong Kok) was happy to host our awards ceremony on a Sunday afternoon when it otherwise may have been slower than usual - support local!  It's also helpful to look within your own organisation to see what talents/resources you can tap into - graphic artists, marketers, craftsmen, journalists, small business owners.

4.  Give Yourself Time to Organize for Judging

Our entries were looking pretty sad at around one-week out from the judging, with only around 20 beers.  The trouble is that most home brewers want to wait until the absolute last-minute in order to be sure about which beers they want to enter and under which style if it doesn't turn out as expected.  Foolishly, we allowed brewers to enter up until two days before the judging, so we really weren't sure how many judges we needed per category, if we had enough entries to warrant a prize for that category, or if we should even bother with an award ceremony.  Next time I'd set the entry deadline at least one-week out and then have beers actually submitted to where they will be judged around 3-4 days out.  It was definitely helpful to receive entries in the same place as the judging so that they could immediately be arranged according to category.  You need another day to arrange flight sheets for the judges and to make sure that you have all of the forms and paperwork necessary for the judging day.  This time I ended up spending several hours the night before trying to get prepared to host, and still scrambling the morning-of.

5.  No Time for Double-Duty.  Get Some Stewards!

Organisationally, it is helpful to have an overall organiser, judges, and stewards.  I tried (temporarily) to do all three roles and it was a terrible idea.  Everyone needs to be focused on their tasks and judges don't have time to be pouring their own beers.  It's never a bad thing to have more people than you think the you need - you'll be able to find something for them to do.

Home-brew competitions can be a lot of fun or a lot of stress, but usually something in-between.  With a comfortable timeline, a committed team, and some thought to logistics your next home-brew competition will be a hit!  Having one under my belt I'm already looking forward to next year.

-- Mr. Jackson