It’s been a while since my last post. I’ll just say that this has been an “exceptional” summer where all homebrewing related activities were de-prioritized for several months to deal with a serious, unexpected issue. Now that it’s September and things have more or less returned to normal, I have some homebrewing and blogging makeup to do! I’ll start with a post that describes how my American Lagers fared in the first half of the 2019 Brewer of the Year competition circuit.
Recall that both of these beers were created by diluting 24 liters of an 8% base lager beer with different volumes of de-oxygenated water to produce one keg of 1A and one keg of 1B. After cold conditioning and carbonating the beers, I entered both of them in the same 5 BOTY competitions.
As usual, I’ll present a summary of the results first. Next, I’ll share the scoresheets in the chronological order that the beers were entered into competition. Finally, I’ll discuss the main issues identified by the Judges, and offer my thoughts on any changes I would make to the beers improve them further.
American Lager Competition Results Summary:
1A, American Light Lager
Number of competitions entered: 5
Medals earned: 5 (1 Gold, 4 Bronze)
High Score: 45/50
Low Score: 33/50
Average Score: 37.6/50
1B, American Standard Lager
Number of competitions entered: 5
Medals earned: 3 (1 Gold, 1 Silver, 1 Bronze)
High Score: 43/50
Low Score: 34/50
Average Score: 36.8/50
American Lite Lager (BJCP 1A) Competition feedback
Lethbridge Werthogs Wertcontest (Judging March 4 – 9). I received a bonze medal for my 1A, out of 10 entries. Comments were generally positive, with the main suggestion for improvement being to reduce the sweetness. Both judges also noted a cidery, apple note to the beer.
Regina ALES Open competition (April 22 – 27). My 1A placed 3rd out of 23 entries in its category and received the highest scores out of all of the competitions I put it through. I believe that I nailed the bottling process for this competition as the comments regarding carbonation were very positive. It was in this competition I also began to notice how Judges tend to paraphrase the BJCP guidelines when judging. Remarks about sweetness, corn, and “carbonic bite” started showing up in these scoresheets, and those words would appear again and again in subsequent scoresheets.
Vanbrewer Awards (April 23 – 27). At last, gold! My American Lite took 1st place out of 11 entries in the flight. Feedback from this competition suggested that a touch more bitterness might be in order, which was in agreement with the comments from Lethbridge.
Hamilton Because Beer Competition (May 26 – 27). Once again my 1A was awarded a bronze medal, but out of only 8 entries in the category. The judges commented on the prominent apple esters and sweet balance of the beer.
Edmonton Aurora Challenge (June 15 – 28). Feedback was less positive, although my 1A still managed to earn a bronze medal out of 21 entries in its category. Judges complained about acetaldehyde and questioned the fermentation process in general. This specific feedback was not consistent with other competitions I entered this beer in.
American Lager (BJCP 1B) Competition Feedback
Lethbridge Werthogs’ Wertcontest (Judging March 4 – 9). Both Judges gave my American Standard Lager 34 points out of 50, and noted a slight lemony/sour tartness and slight astringency in the finish. It did not medal in this competition.
Regina ALES Open competition (April 22 – 27) Again, my 1B didn’t place but it fared quite a bit better score-wise, earning 39/50 and 43/50. Again, the words “carbonic bite” appeared in one score sheet, and this same astute Judge suggested that the beer needed more time to lager before presentation to reduce a slight bitter finish, likely alluding to yeast or polyphenols that hadn’t fully dropped out yet.
Vanbrewer Awards (April 23 – 27). My 1B turned the corner in its 3rd competition. It earned a 3rd place medal at the Vanbrewer Awards, where the words “carbonic bite” and “corn sweetness” appeared in the scoresheets again which I found interesting. One judge suggested the beer was undercarbonated, but may have been due to the beer sitting in the cup for a while, waiting to be judged. The other judge mentioned it wasn’t as crisp and clean as it could be, possibly due to old ingredients which certainly wasn’t the case.
Hamilton Because Beer Competition (May 26 – 27). This competition resulted in a gold medal and three sets of scoresheets. The feedback was a bit nebulous but again the familiar theme of the beer being too far balanced towards the sweet end of the style came up, and a bit more hop bitterness was recommended.
Edmonton Aurora Challenge (June 15 – 28). My American Standard Lager took a silver medal out of 21 entries, and received favourable comments from the Judges. The Judges suggested that the beer could be more crisp and less heavy in mouthfeel, and to work on the mash chemistry and / or use a different yeast. The “mash longer” comment was ironic as not only did I mash for > 90 minutes, but I also suffered through a 3 hour sparge process when I made this beer, which thoroughly ensured full conversion of the wort into the kettle.
Discussion and Next Steps
From a purely competitive and medal count point of view, I could say that these home-brewed American Lagers were a success. 1A medaled in every competition, and 1B had a 60% hit rate which is well above my usual 40% competition average. Not only did I achieve my goal of minimizing flavor, no doubt due to the dilution process, these beers were physically very attractive and both 1A and 1B received full marks for appearance in every competition.
Putting on my own worst critic hat, although I enjoyed having these beers around to drink and thought they were quite good, they did fall short in a couple of areas.
- The apple aromas and flavours were a bit high for my tastes. Wyeast 2007 is known to produce apple esters, which are not out of style for 1A and 1B. But I found them quite prominent in these beers. There was a 2 day plus lag time before fermentation activity really got going, so it’s possible that a surplus of esters were produced in the early stages of fermentation. A solution to this is to limit yeast replication as much as possible by pitching as much healthy yeast as possible to prevent replication and ester formation.
- Beer Flavour. I had struggled so hard to reduce flavor in the previous attempts brews. Now that I had finally achieved this goal, I found the results to be a bit too far towards the flavourless end of the spectrum. It is interesting to note that Judges continued to mention corn aroma and flavor throughout the lifespan of these beers, when no corn was used in the recipe. Maybe it was a mistake to eliminate corn from the grist altogether, and perhaps the rice adjunct level was a bit too high relative to the malt.
- Inconsistent carbonation, low vs carbonic bite. I bottle beers for competition from the keg using a Blichmann beergun, and struggle with dialing in carbonation at the best of times. Because 1A and 1B are such subtle, clean styles, any errors in carbonation seem to really stand out. There’s not much else to do here but keep working on improving my bottling technique.
- Conditioning time. Initially, I far preferred the American Light Lager to the Standard American Lager. However, over time I found I preferred 1B over 1A, and so did the judges based on improved medal performance towards the end of its competition run. While 1A didn’t get worse over time, I noticed a marked improvement in its big brother as both beers aged.
As to the Judges’ comments about these beers being too far balanced towards the sweet end of the spectrum, I didn’t fully agree, even though this was a re-occurring theme in the score sheets. Around the time of the last competition I did a side-by-side evaluation of my home brewed American Lagers against several popular commercial examples, and I found the commercial examples to be as sweet or sweeter than my home brews.
It’s likely that as the beers warmed and lost carbonation during judging, the lack of hop bitterness in the beer allowed the sweetness of the base beer became more prominent. I certainly noticed this in the commercial examples, which also completely lost their foam shortly after pouring. All that said, I believe that my home brewed American Lagers could be improved with just a touch more hop bitterness and presence.
After this run of competitions it’s also clear to me that many BJCP judges have a very tough time evaluating American Lagers. Not only do they have to put their personal prejudices aside during judging, they have the very difficult task of hunting for the extremely subtle attributes of these beers. Then, they have to figure out how the beers fit or don’t fit within the BJCP guidelines and score them. Assuming no obvious flaws are present in the samples placed before them, this is no simple task. BJCP Judges, I salute you and appreciate the work you do!
Where do I go from here? I wasn’t satisfied with the competition performance of these beers, and again I found myself driven to make better examples of 1A and 1B. So, I re-brewed the American Lager base beer on Monday, September 2, 2019, following the same recipe and process as the last version, but with the following adjustments:
- 1 Kg of Minute Rice was replaced with 0.5 Kg flaked corn and 0.5 Kg pale 2-row malt, to add a bit more adjunct complexity and malt background flavor.
- I increased the hopping rate slightly (~5 IBU) to make the beers a bit less sweet. In this version I replaced the Nugget hops with Mount Hood hops. The Mount Hood hops had approximately half the %AA of Nugget hops, and contributed roughly twice the amount of hop material to the kettle than if I had used Nugget for bittering. The purpose of using a larger volume of lower AA hops was to add subtle, herbal hop characteristics to the finished beer that go missing when a small amount of high alpha hops to achieve the same bitterness level.
- Yeast: Again, I went with Wyeast 2007 because honestly it works like a hot damn in this style. To reign in the apple esters, I used the entire yeast cake from a Wyeast 2007 1.040 starter beer which I harvested just a few hours before pitching. A mere 12 hours after pitching at 10C/50F, I observed activity and by the next day, steady action which bodes well for a very clean lager.
The brew session went without issue, and I slightly exceeded my intended OG target of 1.072. The lautering issues that plagued the last version were mitigated by carefully layering alternating portions of grain and adjuncts as I mashed in. Lautering took a reasonable amount of time, approximately 60 minutes.
Once the base beer is fermented out, I’ll use the same dilution and packaging process to create full kegs of 1A and 1B. I’m looking forward to having 1A and 1B on tap again, and I’m also looking forward to seeing how these beers perform in the fall competition season!