The Pathways to Building a Medal Winning Beer

The Pathways to Building a Medal Winning Beer

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Winning medals with beers is basically a social science married to a craft. No one has the formula for beers that will always win medals. Heck, the same beer will win a gold one competition and finish out of the running in another judging. There’s so much subjectivity in designing, brewing, and tasting beers that the limitations of the discussion are huge – like most social science research. All that being said, there are things you can glean from brewers who win medals consistently.

We’ve recently had two large competitions for commercial brewers post their results – Indiana Brewers’ Cup (results here) and US Open Beer Championship (results here), with Indiana breweries and brewers doing very well in each. Sun King Brewing placed second overall at IBC and ninth at the US Open, so you know that they know how to make a winning beer. Josh Miller at Flix Brewhouse – Carmel won 4 medals at both IBC and the US Open Beer Championship, making Flix the 2nd highest scoring brewery at the US Open.

Rob Malad and his Metazoa Brewing team of brewers took two medals at IBC and three more at US Open (including two golds), and Jason Cook at Black Dog Brewing took six medals at IBC. These brewers are not new to winning medals, so I figured they would be a great cohort to speak to about what makes a medal-winning beer. Notice that I didn’t say a great beer; there are great beers, there are great beers that don’t medal, and there are great beers that medal.

image credit: US Open Beer Championship

However, before getting their thoughts, we should discuss what it takes to medal with a beer. Today we’ll describe the steps that occur in brewing a beer and entering it in a competition, and then next time we’ll hear from the medaling brewers I mentioned above about how they go about making a beer that is competition-worthy, and how they navigate the competitive issues. Every medal winning beer (except if it medals on its first batch) goes through all the following steps.

Recipe Development. What style of beer is a brewer looking to make and are they looking to match a beer style classically or push the limits of a style? If making a beer with the idea of entering it in a competition, then the style will matter – some categories at competition have hundreds of entries, and some have a few. One must believe that it’s easier to medal when there’s less competition (however, some competitions require a minimum score to medal).

Ingredients. Once it’s known what a brewer wants to make, then he/she must source the ingredients needed for that beer. However, breweries are businesses after all, so the cost of those ingredients is going to matter. A brewer will have to find a way to select and then source the best ingredients to produce a beer that could win, but will still be profitable.

Additionally, ingredients from a specific supplier can change in quality and cost over time. It may be necessary to change suppliers from time to time – maybe they just find something better – but those changes will require modifications and rethinking a recipe – which could reduce a former medal winning beer to an also ran.

imaged credit: Brewers Association

The Process. Producing a beer that is capable of winning a medal also requires a deep knowledge of the processes of beer brewing, and how those processes work in a particular brewhouse.
a) Cleaning – imperative, but let’s admit it, some cleaning is better than other cleaning.
b) Mashing in and mashing out – portioning malts and deciding on how hard to work to extract sugars (go for too much and you end up including flavors you don’t want).
c) The boil – stopping enzymatic activity of mash, concentrating wort, bittering with hops – how much, how long, what order.
d) Managing the hot break – (the proteins and stuff that precipitate during the boil) by whirlpooling or other. The mechanism and thoroughness can affect the final beer.
e) Fermentation – which yeast(s), how much, what temperature, how long, etc.
f) Maturing the beer – letting the yeast clean up some off flavor compounds, dry hopping (which ones, what order, during fermentation for biotransformation or afterward).
g) Finishing the beer – aging, crashing to remove sediment or filtering/centrifuging or chemically clearing, adding carbonation, perhaps aging again with wood or additional ingredients, refermenting, re-carbing.

Every step here is crucial for making any beer, and how each step is managed can be the difference between a good beer and a great beer. And because winning a medal with a beer requires maximizing what can go right and minimizing what might go wrong, these steps are crucial for competitions.

Packaging/shipping. A beer has to get to the consumer somehow. That means kegging, or through draft lines, or in bottles/cans. And then sometimes a beer needs to be sent to competition. In this case, the timing matters; you don’t want the beer to have to wait too long to be judged, you want to be sure it is treated nicely in transport, etc. and the brewer has to take these factors into account when entering a beer. Don’t brew too soon or too late. Don’t let someone you don’t trust ship your beer. Make sure the beer chosen is stable for long enough to be optimal by the time it is judged. Things like this take time to perfect and make repeatable.

image credit: Beer Today

Picking the right competition/judging. Not every competition is the same, and not all judging is the same. There are splitters and there are lumpers – some contests have very specific categories while some have many styles grouped together. Ostensibly a beer (like a dog), is judged against the published style guidelines for a beer, but grouping can matter, as can time of day, number of groups and judges, and level of judging (not every judge is the same).

BJCP judge Nathan Thompson told me that he understands that it is a bit more complicated to judge beers in a lumped group as compared than in a single style category, although he acknowledges that there are more lumped competitions, just for practical reasons. BJCP Master Judge Ron Smith told me, “Judges always know the style, and beers are always judged for how well it represents that style.  In the end, you have to decide if Beer Y represents Style A, better or worse than Beer Z represents Style B.  The beer that best represents its style wins.”

Taken all together, brewers will pick competitions that have groups that will work best for them, with judging that they (and respected colleagues) trust, and in parts of the country that will lend themselves to adequate shipping and storage.

Listening to Feedback. After beers are judged, medals are awarded. Some people are happy, and some are disappointed. But that’s just the beginning for evolution of most beers. Brewers receive that judging (from more than one judge) as written feedback, and what happens next is up to them. When the feedback is accurate and constructive, then a brewer can learn about what factors are important in a judged beer, and can act on it if they wish.

Rebrewing. If the brewery wishes, and if the clientele will accept the changes, then he/she can work to implement the judges’ feedback (not always easy or practical), and then enter the beer in another competition. The feedback from that second contest can again be implemented, and so forth. In this way, a beer would, theoretically, move toward the ideal version of itself, and perhaps, more medals.

A judging sheet can be hard to read, but it could end up being the key to a medal. image credit BJCP

Conclusion. There are sub-issues in each of these steps, and even if a brewer pays dedicated attention to each step, there’s still no guarantee of a medal coming their way. Take outliers for instance – some beers medal on their first brewing, some medal in a group that they weren’t originally designed for (ie. never name a dish until you’re finished cooking it).

What about beers made by teams of brewers – someone does recipe development, someone else is in charge of sourcing ingredients, yet another person brews it and someone else packages it. Does more people (ie. more ideas) help, or do too many hands make it harder to get to where they want to go?  Likewise, what about a beer that has won medals over time. At this point, consistency becomes a major factor. Sun King’s Pachanga medals repeatedly, and that says something for the processes at Sun King.

As with everything else in brewing, making a medal winning beer is more complicated than it first appears. Perhaps having some advice/comments from some brewers that consistently win medals could help craft fans learn more about the process. We’ll try to help with that next time.


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