Mark Hastings and the crew at Überbrew felt the effect of winning at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival before they even returned to their booth after the awards ceremony.
Immediately following the announcement that Überbrew had won the Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year awards, as well as two gold medals, a silver, and a bronze medal for its beers, long lines formed at its booth and didn’t let up until the festival was over.
“We kept apologizing to our neighbors because we had kind of taken over that section of the mountain region,” says Hastings, Überbrew’s co-owner and head brewer.
The Billings, Montana-based brewery has also done well at the World Beer Cup, Alpha King Challenge, North American Beer Awards, and in other competitions.
Hastings says that while competitions aren’t the be-all and end-all for the brewery, doing well provides positive affirmation that Überbrew is making great beer that stacks up well against other breweries around the country and the globe, as well as helps raise the stature of Billings and, by extension, Montana craft beer.
Like most craft brewers, Hastings uses his tasting room as a proving ground to try out new beers and to dial-in recipes.
He spends a lot of time researching styles, he says, which he uses as a starting point for developing new beers. “We think it’s important that, if you’re going to call it something, that it’s within those style parameters.”
That is not to say that he’s always looking to brew to those parameters strictly as written.
“We do like to push the envelope,” he says. “Especially with our hops-centric beers because that’s what most of us in the taproom and in the brewery like to drink—and what we have the most fun brewing.”
Hastings isn’t as interested in pushing the ABV or IBUs, he says, but rather in tweaking flavor and aroma through techniques such as mash-hopping, first wort−hopping, and dry-hopping.
If a beer performs well in the tasting room and receives great feedback, he’ll consider entering it into a competition. When he does, however, there are no special considerations given to how it’s brewed, packaged, or presented. By that time, the beer is already dialed-in, so why change a thing? Besides, it wouldn’t be a true representation of the brewery and the beers that he makes for Überbrew’s customers.
A Winning Strategy
That’s generally a winning strategy, says Scott Kerkmans, a BJCP-certified beer judge and Certified Cicerone® who is an annual judge and judge captain at the Great American Beer Festival. Kerkmans is also director of, and an instructor with, Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Brewing Industry Operations program.
“I think the majority of judges at a competition such as the GABF appreciate a beer when it’s the exact definition of a style more than when it’s on the fringes and kind of pushing the boundaries of a style,” he says. “There’s something pure about hitting a style perfectly. It’s a hard thing to do and should be rewarded.
“But when a really interesting beer comes along that still fits the style parameters but is complex and unique and kind of different, we often feel as judges inclined to reward that beer as well and move it along.
“Ultimately, I think if you truly hit the dead center of the target in terms of style, you’ll win,” he says. “But if no one happens to do it in a particular category, then the slightly complex or out-there-on-the-fringes-of-the-style beer might find a way to win a medal.”
Where Kerkmans sees many brewers trip up, however, is in deciding which categories to enter their beers into in the first place.
“A lot of brewers enter beers in the categories that they brewed the beer to, and that’s not necessarily the best fit,” Kerkmans says. “They should really focus on what the beer tastes like and conduct external sensory panels to understand how the beer is truly experienced by a group of tasters so that they can enter it in the correct category.”
Tasting rooms are a great place to give beers trial runs and receive feedback as to how the beer is perceived. A brewery might also consider assembling a panel of certified beer judges to actually judge the beer for them and suggest any tweaks before they enter it into a competition.
Aside from entering a beer into the correct category, the biggest single factor in helping judges distinguish your beer from the rest comes down to simply brewing a well-constructed, perfectly made beer, Kerkmans says.
“I think cleanliness wins medals more than anything else,” he says. “Beers that have virtually no flaws win more medals than [beers where the brewer] worried about exactly the right amount of hops or about the right malt profile or anything like that. I think beers that are brewed well and are very clean is a bigger factor than any other.”
Tips for Competition Brewing
Beer judges look for very specific things when evaluating the samples they judge. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Know the Style Guidelines
The scores judges assign reflect how well or poorly the example fits within the established style parameters. A good judge won’t just tell you that your saison needs more yeast character. (S)he will also evaluate your beer on its own merits, looking for fermentation flaws, attenuation issues, and other aspects. So even if your beer doesn’t exactly fit the style, the feedback you receive can help you figure out where to tweak your process.
Research the Styles
What’s the difference between an English pale and an American pale ale? How about a Northern English brown and a Southern English brown? Where does Bock end and Doppelbock begin? It’s not always clear, but style guidelines are very specific about what belongs where. The key is to enter your beer in the category the actual beer resembles, not necessarily in the category you brewed it to. For instance, you may have set out to brew an English pale ale, but it would be a mistake to enter it in that category if—for whatever reason—the feedback you’ve had from your taproom or sensory panel is that you have a balanced, fully flavored imperial IPA.
Don’t Be Afraid
New brewers may hesitate to enter competitions, especially if they haven’t come from a homebrewing background and entered homebrewing competitions. But there is never a wrong time to enter a competition. Consider Neil Fisher, cofounder and brewer for WeldWerks Brewing Co. in Greeley, Colorado. The brewery won a silver medal for its Hefeweizen at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival— just seven months after the brewery opened.
PHOTO: COURTESY ÜBERBREW