Winning Brewers Discuss Making a Medal-Worthy Beer

Winning Brewers Discuss Making a Medal-Worthy Beer

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Last week we discussed the processes that go into brewing, or re-brewing, a beer for competition (link here). In brief, there are decisions to be made as to ingredients, recipe, brewing, choosing a contest, shipping, receiving feedback, modifications, and re-brewing. At each step there are ways to screw up or build a great beer, and it’s imperative that a brewer monitor all the steps. Making a beer is not a “wing it” activity, just ask Chuck Nute at Creatures of Habit Brewing in Anderson how many notes he takes, even for a beer he’s brewed many times.

The brewer controls as much as he/she can, but there are still things out of their control, or times when the gods are just with them or laughing at them. This is just part of where brewing becomes an art – for instance – every once-in-a-while a first time brewed beer comes out as a gold medal contender. Does that mean that the brewer was lucky? Were all the beers that took two or more iterations to dial in an indication that those first beers were  initially bad?” No, it’s just that brewing is complicated.

To get a few insights into how brewers approach developing a beer and entering it into contests, I asked a few questions of some heavily-medaled brewers from Indiana. Josh Miller is now the Corporate Brewer in charge of the brewhouses for all Flix Brewhouses in the country, but he has made medal winning brews at Flix and Backstep Brewing for years. Rob Malad, the lead brewer at Metazoa Brewing has brewed at a few breweries in the last dozen years, and he has wone medals at every stop. Jason Cook of Black Dog Brewing in Mooresville has likewise brewed at several breweries in central Indiana and has been successful at each stop. Finally, Andrew Hood at Sun King Brewing has won medals at just about every contest there is from World Beer Cup to GABF and everything in between with his barrel aging program. Let’s hear what they think about some of the issues in trying to build a medal winning beer.

Indiana On Tap (IOT): There is no formula, but what kinds of things separate a 1st place beer from a 3rd place beer or non-medaling beer? 
Rob Malad (RM): When you get down to the final table, it’s often a coin flip. At that points it’s likely the minutia that separates. Packaging becomes important, freshness becomes important, and judges’ personal preferences becomes important.
Jason Cook (JC): There’s usually not a lot that separates a 1st place and 3rd place beer in competition.  Especially in the larger competitions that can have hundreds of entries in some categories.  You have to have a great beer, but sometimes need a little luck also.
Andrew Hood (AH): First and foremost, the quality of a beer will separate you from 1 or 3. The 1st place beers have zero defects while the 3rd place beer might have a very minor defect or not grab the attention of the judges.

IOT: Do you know a beer is competition-worthy the first time you taste it? 
Josh Miller (JM): I usually know if a beer is competition-worthy by the time we have crashed it, but I won’t decide to enter a beer until I have gone through at least one tasting based off of BJCP guidelines and scored the beer myself. I usually do this a few times, however.
RM: Sometimes I say, “that beer medaled?!” and sometimes we know that a beer is one that we like right off the bat. But as far as “competition-worthy,” we just taste beers as competitions approach and see what we have that’s fresh and available and seems to be hitting key style points.
JC: Depending on the style, but usually decide if a beer is competition ready a few weeks after we tap it or put it into package. Unfortunately, in most beer competitions the judges don’t taste the beer for a few months after we send it in.  We try to figure out what beers we think will taste the best when the judges finally get to taste it.
AH: Yes, right from the get-go we will try barrel-aged beers and non-barrel aged beers. We will try the non-barrel aged beers first because usually the barrel-aged beers are much stronger and will obliterate your pallet. We will evaluate each beer once the beer in primarily packaged and finished.

IOT:  You can control many things, but are there some beers where everything just comes together – like a Winchester 1 of 1000 repeater? It even surprises you?
RM: Any time that we make a beer that isn’t terrible, it’s a surprise. I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a batch that was so good that I’ve thought that this was a once in a lifetime batch or anything.
JC: Have been pretty happy and surprised by our barrel aged beers that we have put out.  We usually have around 20 barrels filled with imperial stout ranging from 12-24 months that we can blend and add adjuncts to if needed.  When you put beer into wood you never know what the end product is going to taste like.
AH: We get surprised by some ingredients that shouldn’t work well together. It’s always fun when things work well together to create a fun beer in the end.

image credit: Flix Brewhouse

IOT: Three of your medaling beers were first batch (or 1st/2nd). Is it more satisfying to medal with a first batch beer?
JM: The new medal beers are fun. The beers that have multiple medals are exhilarating. It only gets more fun as a beer continues winning medals. Brewing a good beer once isn’t too difficult, but making the same high quality beer time and time again is extremely difficult. Knowing your ingredients, checking COA’s, constantly checking your water, hitting the same targets every time, and training your palate to see what is resonating with judges – that is what makes it a truly exhilarating experience for me.
RM: It is both satisfying and frustrating. Some beers we work on so hard to fine tune, adjusting all the dials and levers at your disposal. Those beers are very rewarding as we approach our destination. I would say that those beers are more rewarding, as it is a large collective effort to get to that achievement. Winning a medal for a beer that we just brewed for the first time is really fun, and we usually get a collective giggle out of it.
JC: I’m actually more satisfied when it’s a beer that we have improved over time.  Taken judges or customers comments and improved that beer.
AH: It’s always nice to win a medal in general. It is more special to win one with a new beer right out of the gate. We jokingly always say the stars aligned!

IOT:  What does it take to improve a non-medaling beer to a medaling beer? Is it in the feedback, or is it in moving pieces around like a chess game?
JM: Being open and receptive in this industry is incredibly important. Every criticism and critique is important and it is data. I have built the Dunkel and Foreign Extra Stout based off of years of feedback, going back to when I was AB at Flix and at Backstep and now both of those beers are consistently medaling in competitions we enter them in to.
RM: Our beers are ever evolving, and we don’t read too much into competition feedback. The end goal isn’t necessarily medals. Medals are a potential byproduct of our actual end goal of creating a beer that the team is proud of and that our customers enjoy. I believe that the most important part is to wade through your own personal biases and find the ability to be objectively self-critical, and to be willing to focus on the small things.
JC: I have a love/hate relationship with untapped, but it can be a great tool to get feedback on our beers.  Same with beer competitions.  We are always tweaking with our recipes a little bit each time to improve our beers.  I think that we are making good beer, but it can always be better.
AH: With Sun King it’s the quality of the beer. It has to have potential and pretty much zero defects for us to consider sending it to a competition. We will also look at beers we have sent a previous year and look at the feedback. We might make a category change if needed or it might have just been a bad round of judging. That does happen and we have been a victim of that and so many other breweries have as well.

image credit: Metazoa Brewing

IOT:  What’s the order of importance in making a great beer: A – ingredient quality, B – math, ie. the proportions and timing, C – the recipe development, D – kismet 
JM: I don’t think I can rank those in that way. I will look at a suppliers quality over time and base a recipe off of that, and then adjust the proportions and timing from the other adjustments I’ve had to make. For instance, one grain suppliers malt has significantly changed for us over the past couple of years, so I had to adjust our recipe accordingly, and because I changed the recipe, I had to change the proportions to match the beer qualities I was aiming for.
RM: Of those four options: 1. Ingredient quality. Crap in crap out. 2. Judging/kismet. Almost every style has some level of subjectivity to it. Beers go through multiple rounds of judging, having to line up with multiple judges personal preferences within those styles. 3. Math I guess. That’s the most important part of the least important part which is 4. Recipe development. It’s important, but recipes don’t make the beer, processes do. So I’d like to propose a 5th option, which would be the number one answer for me, and that is process. Process controls like grain handling, hop storage, and water treatment happen before a brewhouse vessel is even involved. Sanitation, yeast management, and dissolved oxygen mitigation are way more important than the recipe or the brew day. Dirty kegs or a terrible canning line and the 2-12+ weeks of hard work is for nought. And then we hand bottle beer for competition, and it’s easier than you think to fumble at the goal line. For us that involves the nine members of our production team to be dialed in and pulling in the same direction, and we’re very fortunate to have such an amazing team.
JC: I think everything is pretty equally important.  Have to have great ingredients (malt, hops, yeast, water), good recipe, great fermentation, and great SOPs.
AH: 1. Quality of Ingredients if first and foremost. If you don’t have quality ingredient you won’t even have a chance out of the gate while brewing and fermenting the beer. 2. Recipe Development- Very important to have good recipe from the get-go. 3. Process Procedure- Having times, temperature and good healthy yeast is a must in producing an award-winning beer. 4. Kismet- This is where you have tasted the beer and hopefully have made the right decision to place it and feel good that it will do well in whatever category you have chosen.

Core beers are core beers because they sell well. Making them well is imperative – so it’s not surprising that they win medals. image credit: Flix Brewhouse

IOT: How many beers did you enter this year at the Indiana Brewers’ Cup? If it’s a big number, people will know you’re human, and if not, you’ll make them wonder.
JM: We entered 12 beers at IBC and 7 at US Open. (four medals at IBC, four medals at US Open)
RM: We entered 12 beers in Indiana Brewers Cup and 8 beers in US Open, both of those are the maximum number of entries per those competitions. (2 medals at IBC, 3 medals at US Open)
JC: We entered 12 beers and won 5 medals with a best of show at IBC (didn’t submit beers to US Open). We were pretty happy with the results. Out of the 5 beers won 3 are house beers. They are always on tap and also out in the market.
AH: We usually enter the max number of beers in all of our competitions we take part in. We create so many fun and unique styles of beer every year and like to see what the judges think of these beers we have entered. That is why we generally send the max amount, and it also gives us a better chance of winning an award. 

Along the lines of the last sentence from Rob about entering core beers in competitions, I wanted to include quotes from Rob and Andrew about the choice to enter core beers in competitions. Rob said, “The big takeaway from the IBC and USO medals is that we were awarded for beers that are a part of our core philosophy. We designed a brewery to be able to use traditional European lager brewing techniques, and we have an intense focus on brewing high quality IPA’s. The lines on the arrows of the pleasure that we take in making them and the enjoyment and volume of which our customers consume them merge together particularly well with those two segments of beer. We couldn’t be happier to be recognized for the styles that we enjoy making and serving the most.”

Andrew added, “I think most people think we just send whatever is new and different, which is not the case. It can be the best beer we have ever brewed here at Sun King but if it doesn’t have a home and or base style (ie. core beers), we will not send it to any competition. The beers have to have a category and have to be brewed, fermented, and aged properly before even being considered. It’s the way we have done things over the year, and it has paid off tremendously.”

Core beers are core beers because they sell well. They are usually styles that are the most popular for casual craft beer fans, along with newer beer styles that have moved beyond the fad phase. However, to make these beers the best that they can be and to be consistent with them, brewers are always working at their craft – even with those core beers. Winning medals with core beers is a tribute to that dedication.

Thanks to Jason, Rob, and Josh for taking the time to give us their thought, and we wish them continued success in competitions.

banner image credit: BJCP

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