Behind the Scenes, BrewUnited Challenge 2015: Balanced Division


I have completed the BrewUnited Challenge 2015, Balanced Division activities. It occurs to me there are some lessons to be learned from peeking behind the scenes and getting a sense of what really goes into such a thing. So here is a quick summary, with a few comments that should help you do better in competition. No scores discussed – that will be announced this week on the site.

The small committee approach to creating the BrewUnited Challenge competition really worked well. While we caught a LOT of flack for the (abomination) ingredients lists, rules and proportions, the team worked very well together. This was a “get it done” team, and getting the documentation, website, registration, database, rules, etc. together went smoothly. The couple of months down time (at least for us in the divisions) was a nice respite, while Olan kept adding new sponsorships and swelling the incredible prize packages. The rest of us just needed to nail down a shipping and judging location. The bulk of the responsibility was on Olan’s back and he knocked it out of the park.

SoCo Homebrew Exterior

I also need to make a big shout out to my friends at SoCo Homebrew. Chris, Joseph, and Mike were incredibly generous in receiving the shipments and giving up about 1/4 of their warehouse space to allow me to sort. They adsorbed a lot of trash and recyclables as I opened about 70 boxes of beer. We invaded their space for two weeks, AND took over their coolers for a week. I should also add, for judging, they opened early. We had free run of the shop, and hopefully provided some entertainment without being too much of a distraction.

Finding judges, getting their commitments, and actually having them show up was a challenge. In Austin, most of the active judges live way north and central, and SoCo Homebrew is south. I managed to get about 12 folks to commit, with the help of Neil Spake, who hosted our last BJCP Tasting Exam and classes. So I was feeling pretty good about everything.

Receiving and Sorting.
I must say folks get very creative with shipping, and there were surprisingly few broken bottles. The bigger issue was folks not reading the instructions. We asked for three bottles and received a lot of 1 or 2 bottle entries. In one case, UPS apparently repacked and shipped along an entry, throwing away two leaking bottles. The entrant was able to ship two new bottles in time, but the mystery was not solved until he got a note from the shipper. It took me about 14 hours of careful unpacking, to fully sorted and checked in.


Some comments:

  • Please ship to arrive by the cut off date. We were very generous in letting additional entries arrive after the cut-off that should have been disqualified.
  • Please pack carefully – but save the creativity. Duct tape and packing peanuts (especially the starch ones) should not be used. Make an attempt to prevent movement of the bottles, and put everything in a bag to contain a leak or broken bottle.
  • Small boxes didn’t fare as well as larger boxes.
  • Some shipments arrived via USPS. Shame on you law breakers! You know who you are!


It became clear that we were about 25% light on entries after sorting and ended up with 73 total entries out of the 100 cap. While we had a few communications about not being able to brew or beers that sucked too bad to ship, those didn’t cover the remaining 20 or so. Emails were sent out to folks that either did not ship, had too few bottles, or had a broken bottle. The following week was a lot of follow up, explanation and patience.

The weekend before the judging date, I checked in the final entry and resorted the beers into flights. These all went into boxes and into the fridge to cool and condition, displacing lunch, storage, and fermentation space for the poor guys at SoCo. Excitement was building, but then the realization that we were up against Austin Beer Week, and several local brewery parties, as well as the Austin Fermentation Festival. Ugh. But off to Staples to print out the judging sheets, judge disclaimers, flight sheets and other detritus. Homebrewdad (Olan) shipped some swag (bottle openers and hops) for the judges. I grabbed some crackers, bread and water at the grocery.

Finally, Friday evening was a dark and stormy night. Seriously. Hurricane Patricia had broken up over the mountains of Mexico and the remains were being funneled right up into Texas. A massive storm, with predictions of 8-12 inches of rain over two days, was rolling over Austin in waves. I didn’t sleep much, and my email was lighting up with cancelations. So with only a few hours of sleep, I drove slowly through the sheets of rain the 25 miles into Austin, dodging standing water and a few wrecks. I swung into Krispy Kreme, grabbed a jug of coffee and couple of dozen donuts. Mike arrived at SoCo and the lights came on – and I started to setup. My buddy Neil brought chairs, but I worried I would be short of judges.

To my surprise, I had 6 judges from all over; Manor, Round Rock, North Austin, Dripping Springs. Three teams of two, with only one experienced, but non-BJCP judge. We all fit neatly into the little space reserved for two tables. Judging was tough, but I kept the flights under 8 beers. Gushers plagued one table, while another had a series of contaminated bottles. We may now have a taxonomy for bottle gusher ratings! All of the judges hung in there, but we were three flights short of completion and the day was getting late. I was thrilled that the judges were doing their best to provide great feedback, even for a few really low scores. 7 hours of judging, with a short pizza break for lunch, will wear one out. We talked through the strategy for the next day, and pulled the known beers for the Division Best of Show and got them in the fridge with the remaining flights. I stayed and cleaned up, dump buckets full of foam and boxes of empty bottles.

Sunday morning, I was expecting only 4 judges. But I twisted Chris Colby’s (Beer and Wine Journal) arm into coming to judge, and we landed three sets of judges again! I set up the last three flights, got the judges moving and started organizing my paper work. Folks were a bit more chatty on Sunday, and it was fun to listen in to some of the conversations. The judges were having a good time, but still taking the time to write carefully considered score sheets. I ran out, grabbed armfuls of brisket and sausage, and returned for lunch. SoCo Homebrew was much busier on Sunday, because the rains had let up and we escaped the weekend without our usual devastating flash floods… folks were venturing out. A few peeked in to see us judging, and I got to guide them toward the BJCP site.

Finally we were down to the final 5 for the Divisional Best of Show. Four judges remained to participate and I would be the tie-breaker if required. Noses were stuck deeply in cups, slurps and sips taken. Funny to watch, but amazingly there was little disagreement. The assignments and order was quickly established. The judges even helped me to clean up – dumping the rest of the bottles and dump buckets, gathering and organizing score sheets, washing off and folding up the tables and chairs. I loaded the remaining bottles into the truck, along with the spare supplies and headed home.

Some comments:

  • Don’t rush packaging. We went to the second bottle in several occasions and found that the first bottle was a gusher and/or contaminated when the second bottle was fine.
  • MOST of the issues were cleaning/sanitation issues, followed closely by fermentation issues (DMS, Acetic). Very few were related to ingredient restrictions!
  • There were some pretty miserable beers, but always offset by a couple of really good beers. The score spread was consistent with other competitions I have judged.
  • We (judges) were completely blind to the actual recipe. I really hope the winners don’t get DQ’d with unqualified recipes.
  • It was really nice to reward the judges with: 8 ounces of hops (thank you LabelPeelers!), a $10 gift certificate from SoCo HomeBrew, and a cool BrewUnited Challenge bottle opener!

As soon as I got home, it was paperwork and scoring time. Each score sheet was entered into a spreadsheet, along with consensus scores and ranks. This master spreadsheet was then used to enter the scores and pertinent information into the BrewUnited database. So 73 total entries generated 146 score sheets, lots of writing. As the sun went down, I finished up – ran a few statistics and had a home brew, and switched on a gut wrenching episode of The Walking Dead.

What I learned:

  • Competition bottling technique is extremely important. Hygiene should include solid cleaning and sanitation of the bottle, the cap, and the filling system. I suspect that many of these were bottled quickly to get them into the mail, maybe off a cobra tap or kegerator. The variation bottle to bottle really shocked me.
  • Don’t rush fermentation. A good many of the problems (besides the sanitation issues) were clearly incomplete fermentations. Also – make room in your schedule if bottle conditioning.
  • Don’t rush the judges. When you have a great group of judges that really enjoy this process, they really work hard to give good feedback. That can be incredibly difficult when a seriously contaminated beer is in front of you. Equally, a really good beer deserved solid feedback, not just congratulations. Read your sheets carefully. 74 beers took nearly 12 hours to judge with 3 teams of judges.
  • I spent nearly 35 hours total in organizing, sorting, etc. About 16 of that was judging days. So not so bad, but a lot of fun. It is helpful to have an experienced organizer at hand for consulting.
  • At least for the Balanced Division – surprisingly good beers were made from non-traditional ingredients!
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