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On Judging and Organizing: Working on National Internet Competitions

Posted by Matt on 12/08/2015 at 12:12:54 AM


This past year, I've had quite a few beer-related honors. I was made a moderator of the /r/homebrewing community, a community I love and where I learned most of what I know about homebrewing. I've been named the technical czar of my local club, which essentially means I handle presentations and fill in if needed. I've been able to continue to bond with an awesome group of guys and learn from them. I was invited to work on a local barrel project, entirely by chance, and learned a lot from this group as well (plus, got some awesome bourbon barrel aged sour stout). 

There are other things, accomplishments I'm proud of, but none so much as the work I've been able to do with the homebrewing community, both in-person and online. The community, you, is what keeps me coming back. Without the community, I'd probably quit brewing tomorrow, which means nothing to you but quite a bit to me. Which is why I'm thrilled to have been involved in two fantastic competitions this year, the Reddit Homebrewing Competition (as the organizer) and the BrewUnited Challenge (as a site organizer/judge/steward). 

Both were huge learning experiences for me. I'd never done judging (I've been a steward), I'd never organized a competition, I'd never organized other judges. But, looking back, there are a few points that stand out that I feel the need to share about the experience. 

1. Judging is tough

When Olan originally asked me to head up the malty division of the BrewUnited Challenge, I didn't hesitate to say yes. I love Olan, the work he does, and to be honest was pretty flattered. Which doesn't hurt. I have a local club I'm active in, and for our competition we had about 70 judges/stewards on site. I didn't think it would be a problem. 

Little did I know. 

I was able to get a total of five people to help me judge, only two of which judged in more than one session. About 76 total beers. But this section isn't about the woes of finding judges (organizing judges is like herding cats), it's about how much work judging really is. 

Judging takes time. If you haven't printed out a BJCP score sheet, do so. And if you haven't seen a score sheet filled out, do that too. It doesn't look like too much work, right? Taste a beer, write down what you see, taste, smell, etc. and move to the next one. 

Except it takes a lot of time, and it's difficult. Searching for certain characters, coordinating with the other judges, discussing the beer, it's a lot of work. I strongly recommend filling out a sheet for yourself on either a commercial beer or one of your own. I think you'll be surprised how much time it takes. 

Plus, your palate is shot by the end of it. Sure, there are crackers and water to help cleanse the palate, but it can be exhausting, especially when you are judging multiple flights or styles. It can be hard to reset, and there is no doubt in my mind that if there is a terrible beer, the next beer in the flight can suffer or improve because of it. Judges are human, and in addition to making me more skeptical of judging in general, working as a judge has made me appreciate all of the work they put in. 

2. Unboxing beer is the worst

Judging for the Malty division of the BrewUnited Challenge took place at White Oak Brewery, who generously let me take up a lot of their space for almost two weeks. 76 entries, 3 bottles each, 210 bottles of beer sitting in their cooler. They were awesome. 

Unfortunately, they're also pretty busy, and so I spent several hours in and out of their cooler unpackaging beer. I'm thoroughly convinced that the reason beer needs to be judged anonymously is because one of the judges may have also unpacked beer, and if he/she recognizes someone who used packaging peanuts, that beer may end up "infected". 

Really it wasn't so bad most of the time. Aside from being cold and a bit monotonous, the job got done, but man there were some bad examples. There were a few (broken) bottles that were just wrapped in paper towels. Some people used duct tape around the entire plastic bag, others didn't use a bag at all. 

To each their own, but the next post I write is going to be on how to package beer intended for a comp, because it is a TON of work to unpack and organize all of those bottles, and having consistently good packaging would help. It makes me feel guilty for all of the times I've shipped poorly packaged beer (almost everyone comp I've ever entered).  

3. Get organized

One of the most difficult parts of the Reddit Homebrewing Competition was registration and keeping track of registration, who has paid, what has been received, etc.. Our three site organizers (testingapril, ercousin, and centralcalbrewer) have been continuously awesome with our broken system. The website is difficult to maintain and organize, and half way through the competition I abandoned it all together and kept track of everything on a spreadsheet. 

The organizers adapted the spreadsheet to be more organized, but there were definitely delays in communication between us. It would have been way easier to navigate with the proper software, something we now know for next year. 

As a site organizer for the BU Challenge, I never once felt like we were stranded or struggling. Olan was in constant contact, a day didn't go by that he didn't ask our opinion on a ruling or something. It was fantastic, and his home-grown software to run the comp did the job really well. It was organized, and because of that everything ran much smoother. 

4. The community is awesome

I knew this already, but the best part about good people is that they are continuously good. I love seeing that, and reinforcing my faith in what I'm doing. It really does make it all worth it. 

In all of the emails I got for the Reddit Homebrewing Competition, almost all of them thanked me for organizing the work and putting it together. A few told me I was awesome, and tons of people mentioned how excited they were. That's an awesome feeling, being able to give back to the community and to know that they both appreciate the work and are excited about the work being done. 

Plus, look at the sponsors that both competitions have. We are talking thousands of dollars, all donated. Of course there is exposure, it isn't entirely altruistic (what is?) but the generosity of these companies amazes me. I know for a fact that some of the sponsors are single individuals who are doing this because they love the community, and man they do some quality work. Overall, we are able to put some incredible things together because of the sponsors involved. I couldn't thank them enough for helping make these competitions a success. 

5. Shit happens

I couldn't get nearly as many judges as I had hoped. My end of the judging ended up taking a lot of time, and I'm sure Olan could tell you the amount of time I spent apologizing and taking responsibility for the issue (lots). 

Olan was awesome, and understood. The job got done, the results were posted, all is well with the world (and a huge weight is off my shoulders). 

There have been shipping issues. One of the problems with multiple judging sites is that beers can end up at the wrong location, or they arrive broken, or (this has actually happened twice now) beers get held up in customs. That all sucks, and no one is really to blame for it. Of course in hindsight it is easy to say "you should have double checked" or "you should have packaged your bottles better", but the reality is that shit happens and sometimes there is nothing we can do about it. 

Don't sweat the small stuff, blame will never serve you. Most people will understand, and really everyone wants these sort of endeavors to succeed. That's awesome too, everyone wanting something to go well. 

And if something does go wrong, just be transparent. That's all anyone wants. Very rarely do I see people being so unreasonable that they don't expect any mistakes or issues at all, the problem is always that someone lied about it, didn't communicate about it, or tried to play it off. Own up to it, apologize, and move forward with a plan. Tell the people, they have your back. 

Overall, I loved working on both of these competitions. They were stressful, and RHC is even going on still. There is a lot to work out, but the community makes it worth it every single time. 

Tags for this post: beer, homebrew, homebrewing, competitions, online competitions, BrewUnited, BrewUnited Challenge, Reddit, Reddit Homebrewing Competition

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*International Brewing Competitions :P

Cheers Matt, thanks for all the work you do.

posted by ercousin on 12/08/2015 at 11:52:52 AM